I came in here to talk about the fact that 2012 is the Year of the Farmer in Australia. It is an incredibly important year in a global context because it gives us an opportunity as a nation to reflect on the role of the farmer, the role of agriculture, the role of food policy and to get it right for this nation. I am concerned that what we will hear in discussions surrounding the Year of the Farmer will be meaningless motherhood statements about how we all appreciate farmers, how they are the backbone of the bush, but nothing will change that will actually enable people in rural communities to get a decent and fair return for the work they do and therefore build resilience in rural communities.
I want to move on to what we should be talking about in this Year of the Farmer and in the discussion of a national food plan, which the government has underway and which will undergo, after the discussion stage, a green paper and a white paper process. I will be urging people in rural and regional communities and in urban communities throughout Australia to engage in the discussion of what a national food plan should look like. At this point I am concerned that the national food plan is just going to be a rehash of existing policy and that it is not going to address some of the major changed imperatives in the production of food.
There are essentially two issues globally. We are living in a time when the global population is at seven billion people and going to nine billion people by mid-century. There is a global challenge of how we are going to sustainably feed, clothe and house nine billion people and how we do that has to be ecologically sustainable and fair and equitable. A recent United Nations report, Resilient people, resilient planet says the challenges of this century are ecological sustainability and equality. Food security is about making sure that people have access to enough food. That is essentially what food security means at a global level-enough food.
But we are reaching planetary limits in the land that is available for food production, in the water that is available and in our marine environment. We are facing incredible problems as a result of overexploitation, loss and abuse in those contexts. We are also facing climate change, which means we are getting extreme weather events occurring all around the world. This is leading to uncertainty in crop production and food production, which is leading to food inflation and incredible price volatility. Price volatility is absolutely bad for rural and regional communities and farmers. If you have a time of high prices for food, then you get high consumer prices for food, you get returns investment in the land, then you get overproduction. Or you can have a situation where people have to sell their assets below the price they paid for them and you then have a lot of significant problems.
As a result of extreme weather events and the price shocks that came out of the 2007-08 food crisis, we have seen a massive change whereby countries such as China, Qatar, South Korea and the Arab states are now recognising that they cannot produce enough food for their own people. They are recognising that world trade is not going to be able to provide food security-accessible, affordable food for their people-because there will be times when other countries ban the export of food, as occurred with Russia, as a result of extreme weather events.
The upshot is that those countries are now buying land and water resources from around the world with a view to shipping the food back for their own people, which is absolutely against the food security interests of many poor farmers in the countries where those resources are being bought up. In Australia just this week, an academic from Denmark, Professor Pinstrup-Andersen, who is here for an agricultural conference, said that governments in poor, developing countries in Africa and Asia are leasing land to foreign governments and companies, often in secretive deals, and kicking small farmers off the land in the process because there is no formal land title. Foreign investors are then developing the land and exporting food back home, which is doing nothing to improve food security in these nations.
It is not just poor nations that are vulnerable to that; Australia is also vulnerable. In an assessment last year, a report that was done for the government, it was revealed that in Western Australia, for example, one-third of water licenses are already partially or wholly foreign owned. A large percentage of the Northern Territory is in the same category. Before the Senate committee we had representatives of the food company of the Qatari government saying that is their strategy. They intend, as a small, oil-producing nation, to buy up land around the world because they recognise that food will be the oil of this century-that is the reality. The geopolitics of the world in the 20th century was based on oil. The geopolitics of the 21st century is going to be based on land and water for food production, so we are looking at an entirely different cultural context.
But it is not just about supplying adequate levels of food globally; it is also about distributing that food in an equitable way, ensuring that everybody has access to affordable food. That brings up the issue of food sovereignty. Whilst food security goes to the question of where the food comes from, food sovereignty goes to the issue of how it is produced-the agricultural production systems, the values that underpin those systems and the social conditions of the people who produce the food. So we have the issue of farmers making sure that the people who produce food get a fair return. Food sovereignty is about farmers, rural communities, consumers and international trade policies and about countries asserting control over their food production systems. We are talking about where food is produced, how it is produced and the social conditions of the people who are growing it.
Here in Australia, our policies are undermining sovereignty because they are undermining the capacity of farmers to stay on the land. Not only do we have the problems associated with extreme weather events but we are seeing real challenges in Australia in relation to everything from urban expansion taking up agricultural land and the massive assault we have seen from coal seam gas on both agricultural land and water systems. More particularly, the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths is effectively denying farmers a reasonable farm gate price.
We have to start dealing with these issues in Australia. I have on the books of the Senate a motion which goes to this, recognising that what is going on in Australia is doing farmers in in the Year of the Farmer. Let me go to two examples. One is trade policy. If we have an ideological commitment to free trade but not to fair trade, foreign imports can come into Australia at such a low price that a farmer in Australia cannot compete. Why? Because those foreign imports are produced with less environmental compliance and less by far in terms of labour standards and/or wages. No matter how good an Australian farmer is, he or she cannot compete against that, and yet that is what our trade laws permit. The laws permit the ridiculous situation where, on Australia Day, we have cans of Home Brand products in supermarkets with Australian flags on the outside, but we cannot guarantee that the product inside the can has not been imported in bulk from another country before being canned and put on the shelf.
There are a range of things that we need to do, and I have a motion on the books which I am encouraging the coalition and the government to support. The motion is to: direct the Productivity Commission to look at competition policy in the grocery retailing sector; direct the ACCC to update its report on competition in the grocery industry; direct the ACCC to look at the extent to which the cuts in fruit and vegetable prices initiated by Coles are affecting the price of other goods sold in the supermarket chains, their profits, the prices they pay their suppliers and the farm gate prices received by Australian farmers; and ensure that the ACCC is encouraged and funded to bring matters before the courts.
During the milk war that has been going on, there has been a statement by the duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, that it has not affected producers, that it has been marvellous for consumers. That is not the case. Australian Dairy Farmers came out in the last week showing very clearly that what has happened is a significant change. Milk has been devalued across the nation. Retailers competing with the Coles branded milk have had to drop their prices to try and protect their market share, processors have had to discount their own brands of milk to try and retain sales and dairy farmers who have their prices linked to processor brand sales have seen their milk cheques dropped.
In Queensland in particular there is very specific information to show that there has been the loss of some 30 dairy farmers from the industry there since January 2011 and that the latest wave of impact is now occurring, with around half of Queensland dairy farmers that supply Parmalat suffering a cut in income in their new supply contracts for 2012 of $30,000 to $40,000 per annum on average. (Time expired)