Apples, pears and free trade
This article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 20.8.11
This decision had been resisted by Australian apple and pear growers since 1919, both for biosecurity reasons, i.e. the risk of diseases such as fire-blight and European canker devastating apple and pear orchards in this country, and for economic reasons. The Australian Apple and Pear Growers’ Association estimates that on average its members will see a 30% drop in their incomes as a result of being exposed to large volumes entering the country from New Zealand and, subsequently, from China.
The decision to end the import ban was made at the behest of the World Trade Organisation, which ruled that it could no longer be justified for scientific reasons, and was therefore contrary to Australia’s trade liberalisation obligations.
In theory, free trade sounds wonderful, an idea that no-one in their right minds would disagree with. Each country specialises in doing what it does best; domestic producers are exposed to international competition, and so must innovate to stay competitive; new businesses, jobs and products are created as a result; and consumers get progressively better prices. In turn, new markets overseas become available for Australian products, and so a virtuous cycle of wealth creation comes into being.
The trouble with theory is that all too often it fails to take into account the messy complexities of real world practice. Speaking about this issue a few weeks ago, independent Senator Nick Xenophon recalled how he had been told earlier this year by a union official that Australian trade negotiators are commonly referred to in international trade talks as ‘the free trade Taliban’. Trade liberalisation, in all sectors and all circumstances, has virtually become a religious catechism for them.
Leaving aside its merits or otherwise in sectors such as manufacturing, the question here is whether untrammelled free trade is an axiomatic good in the case of agriculture. The evidence to date, frankly, is not persuasive. Some farmers and growers have undoubtedly benefited from lucrative and growing niche markets: blueberries and pecans are two that come to mind. Whether WTO rules and free trade dogma were required for such markets to become available is debatable.
By far the biggest beneficiaries of greater trade liberalisation of agricultural commodities have however been the handful of multinational corporations that dominate grain trading, meat packing, proprietary seeds and agro-chemicals. Farmers in general have been the biggest losers. Their terms of trade, their standard of living and their numbers have declined worldwide. It’s been estimated that over the past 40 years, Australia has lost an average of five farmers every single day.
As the spectre and reality of famine returns in an increasingly uncertain world, more and more people are waking up to the reality that, at the end of the day, none of us can eat, drink or breathe money. The food system in all its aspects isn’t just a sector of the economy like any other: it’s the very stuff of life. It deserves special consideration and, yes, protection. Using that word as a term of abuse, as the free trade Taliban are wont to do, simply reveals the shallowness, not the sophistication, of their thinking; and the depth of their adherence to dogma.
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The Federal Department of Agriculture recently announced that, following requests from many groups and individuals, it has extended the deadline for submissions on its Issues Paper for a National Food Plan to COB Friday, 2nd September. If you feel strongly about the future of food and farming in this country, and what role government has in supporting it, then make your views known by visiting the DAFF website: http://www.daff.gov.au/agriculture-food/food/national-food-plan.
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Update – 6th June 2013
The Federal Government has now published the final version of the National Food Plan – you can download it in all its glory at the DAFF website. Over the two years of ‘consultation’, the writers of the NFP were little moved to make concessions in the direction of a more fair and sustainable food system. Their mantra of export more commodities, increase agricultural productivity, sign more free trade agreements and force open new markets, remains unshakeable. Personally I foresee their neoliberal dogma crashing hard against the shores of biophysical reality; indeed it already is. In the meantime, Australia continues to lose farmers and farmland at an alarming pace; and the obesity pandemic continues to gather momentum. Why is why I and my colleagues at the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance will continue to campaign for the People’s Food Plan for Australia.