The National Food Plan – Take 1

The National Food Plan – What prospects for change?

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 3.9.11

Yesterday (2nd September, 2011) the deadline passed for submissions to the Federal Government’s Issues Paper on its proposed National Food Plan. In recent days, the Government has also been holding a series of ‘invitation-only’ Roundtables during which stakeholders in our country’s food and farming systems can directly present their views on the purpose and content of the Plan.

Federal Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Hon Senator Joe Ludwig
Federal Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Hon Senator Joe Ludwig

Colleagues of mine, affiliated with the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, have attended some of these Roundtables. What’s emerging so far is that the Government will have its hands full in meeting the expectations that the idea of a National Food Plan has generated.

The general consensus is that Australian farmers are not being paid enough for their produce. This means, going forward, that we as a country won’t have the necessary skills, nor the strategies in place for skills retention, in order to grow the food we need to feed Australia in an increasingly uncertain future.

Representatives of peak producer bodies are looking for substantive change in this Plan. They support boosting production for domestic consumption, as well as measures to address the inequities Australian producers face vis-à-vis cheaper and lower quality imports.

The Government’s answer, however, is in essence to insist that farmers must ‘increase their productivity’, be fully exposed to the rigours of ‘free trade’, and ‘become more competitive’. As if they haven’t been doing this for decades! Volumes and yields have risen four-fold since 1950, but ‘normal’ market operations means that most Australian farms are not financially viable in their own right, and are dependent on off-farm income.

 60% of all Australian farmers are expected to retire in the next decade. Who will replace them, and just as importantly, what will become of their farms? How many will be subdivided for development, or handed over for minerals extraction?

Health and nutrition analyses reveal that most Australians are not eating enough fruit and veg, and the country is facing a full-blown obesity epidemic that is collectively costing us $56 billion a year and leaving our children with a reduced quality of life and life expectancy. As many as 2 million Australians can’t regularly afford to eat healthily, and at the same time up to 40-50% of all our food ends up in landfill.

The current food system, in summary, is producing a multitude of perverse outcomes, and I haven’t yet mentioned soil degradation, groundwater depletion, fossil fuel dependency and climate change. Some would even say that It’s broken. The case for fairly profound change is overwhelming.

 Yet Minister Ludwig and his department insist that ‘our nation’s food supply is secure’. The Issues Paper is very much a product of ‘business as usual’ thinking. Which is why many of those attending the Roundtables are sceptical as to what, if anything, the National Food Plan will achieve.

There are of course different approaches. One example is the Canadian People’s Food Policy, which was produced after a two-year process with the participation of 3500 Canadians in 350 kitchen table talks, as well as ‘dozens of tele-conferences, ongoing online discussions, and three cross-Canada conferences’. The outcome was a series of ten policy discussion papers, covering topics such as Indigenous Food Sovereignty, Environment and Agriculture, Access to Food in Urban Communities, Healthy and Safe Food for All, and Food Democracy and Governance.

Contrast this with the Australian Government’s Issues Paper, the bulk of which was devoted to steps to ensure a ‘Competitive, productive and efficient food industry’. 23 of the Issue Paper’s 35 specific questions were directed to this theme, compared with just 4 diet and health, and not on environmental issues.

The Canadian document contains important lessons for Australia, and next time I will look at some of its key recommendations.

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