25 May 2013 – a significant Saturday
Two important events are taking place this Saturday, both emblematic of different visions for food and agriculture for food and agriculture in this country and globally.
First, at 8.30 a.m., the Federal Government is launching the final version of the country’s first-ever National Food Plan. This Plan was first mooted in 2010, in the run-up to the previous federal election.
As I have written previously in this column, the Plan has been widely criticised, both for its content and for the process of its development. While a full analysis will have to wait until we’ve had a chance to read through some of the detail, early indications are that not much has changed from the Green paper, released in July 2012.
In other words, the overwhelming priority and focus of the Plan is on pumping the land and farmers of Australia harder so that we can reach the supposed nirvana of becoming ‘the food bowl of Asia’. Never mind that even if we double production and export every last calorie we will only ever feed at best 4% of Asia’s population. Never mind that the land clearing and additional irrigation required will place severe additional stress on our already fragile and depleted soils, water tables and ecosystems.
And never mind that we have a major health crisis in this country that needs strong and effective action, not wishy-washy calls for ‘industry self-regulation’. Let’s say it plainly: our children need to be protected from the sophisticated and multi-billion dollar advertising of the junk food industry which pushes its products on them at every opportunity. But our Federal government is well and truly asleep at the wheel on this issue. As is the Opposition, for that matter.
We have heard one positive announcement coming out of the National Food Plan: the establishment of a $1.5mn small grants program for Community Food Initiatives. Grants of up to $25,000 will be available for farmers’ markets and food rescue operations; and grants of up to $10,000 for community gardens and city farms. We welcome this, as a small step in the right direction.
But on the whole, the National Food Plan is really a Plan for big business. For supporting and expanding the corporate control of the food system.
This is evident through its warm endorsement of genetically modified crops. The prime beneficiary of the further commercialisation of GM in Australia will be the company that owns an estimated 90% of all GM seed globally: Monsanto.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that at 9 a.m. on this Saturday, an estimated 250 people will congregate in Bellingen’s Maam Gaduying Park (outside Council chambers) to take their part in a global day of protest against Monsanto. The Bellingen event is one of 10 across Australia, and 470 worldwide in 38 countries.
Whatever view one takes about GM organisms – and there are many legitimate and documented concerns about the impacts on human and environmental health – for me the principal issue is one of the excessive concentration of power and control. It is dangerous to allow one company to have large and growing control over the basis of our very existence.
Power corrupts, so it is said. Monsanto wields its power with arrogance, pursuing 80-year old farmers to the point of bankruptcy through the US courts in order to enforce its patent rights, and prevent them saving seeds. WA canola farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic certification in 2010 when his neighbour’s GM canola contaminated two-thirds of his 478 ha farm, yet his claim to compensation for his losses through the WA courts is being vigorously contested. While supporting the GM grower, Monsanto has washed its hands of any legal responsibility via a ‘no liability’ clause attached to the sale of the seed.
And earlier this year, Monsanto made the most of its considerable political connections in the US, to secure the passage of what has become known as the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’, a provision anonymously inserted into an appropriations bill which grants biotech firms immunity from successful legal challenges to the safety of their seeds. In other words, it places them above the courts: a dangerous precedent indeed.
Anyone wanting to know more should make their way to Bellingen on Saturday morning.