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Speech to the Australian Food and Grocery Council's Leaders' Forum

Christine Milne delivered a speech to the Food and Grocery Council's Leaders' Forum in which she outlined the Greens' response to the National Food Plan Green Paper


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Global Perspective

It's a pivotal time for the parliament to be engaging with Australian food sector. As you know, as we speak, the world is teetering on yet another food crisis due in large part to the extensive drought and fires that have been ravaging the United States in recent times and we've seen their soy and corn crops all but fail. It has led to another round of financial speculation and people are expecting that the shock-waves are going to be as bad as they were in the food crisis in 2008.

We also have in Australia at the moment a visit from Sir John Beddington who is the United Kingdom chief scientist and he has been saying what the Greens have also been saying since 2009 following that food crisis the previous year that the world is now facing a series of simultaneous and interrelated crisis, and they are climate change, energy, water and food. And when you bring all those crises together on a finite planet with a global population going from 5 to 9 billion then you have got to a situation where business as usual just won't cut it.

The 2008 food price shock actually caused a fundamental shift for many countries, particularly those reliant on importing food, because it was no longer was it a matter of trade for them; it became one of national security, to be dealt with outside of the normal global market practices. 

It is in this context that Oxfam just released its latest report on global land grabbing, "Our Land, Our Lives". During the 2008 crisis land deals tripled as both states and the private sector recognised that arable land and water are critical commodities - and in my view land and water, that is food, is going to replace oil in this century as they key commodity over which resource wars will be fought, as indeed they have been over oil last century.

Land grabbing by foreign investors, in particular foreign governments, has been concentrated in developing countries with severe and serious outcomes, in exacerbating localised hunger. More than 60 % of that investment is related to plans to export everything that has been grown and in many cases what is going to be grown are biofuel crops, and that land changing hands has been to date in some of the world's poorest and hungriest countries and it's going to affect more than a billion people. So it's no wonder that Oxfam is drawing attention to that and calling on the World Bank to intervene and use its position as both an investor and advisor and to temporarily freeze its investments in agricultural land around the world. Such is the problem, such has been the change.

The shift from food as merely a global commodity to an issue of national security; and desirable capital asset is of course being spurred on by the known extent and severity of climate change. Even if we do manage to curb our emissions in the just 50 months or so that we have left, the scientists tell us that we have as a maximum to keep global warming to less than two degrees, what we're going to see is that with a greater extent of extreme weather events we're going to see global food supply become disrupted on a more regular basis. If we don't manage to keep our emissions down to curb temperature rise to under two degrees, the situation will become even more dire. Land and water to grow food will become an even more critical part of our national security asset.

It couldn't be a more pivotal time for Australia to be considering its position on food policy, both domestically and in terms of our global engagement.  Next year Australia becomes a member of the G20 Troika, the three countries that set the agenda for the G20, in preparation for us taking the Chair of the G20 in 2014. We therefore have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility over the next two years to influence global food policy, and it will be happening in the context of another global food price crisis. France, the current G20 Chair, has been calling for the creation of a global strategic food reserve to counter food price volatility in situations like the current one, where major crops fail.

What we haven't heard from the government is how they intend to use the Chair of the G20 when it comes to engaging on food and agricultural policy around the world. And that's all the more reason for us to be spending time looking at the Green Paper and the Food Plan. It also in my view is an opportunity for the Australian government in the G20 to look at two things in particular, and that is what mechanisms could you employ to stop the speculation in global food markets, particularly in times of stress, it's one of the major drivers of inflation, and also how can we in Australia use our position in the G20 to influence the way aid budgets around the world are used to develop capacity in agriculture and agricultural production, and transport systems around the world.

We have an opportunity. I'm inviting you as key participants in this whole food system both here in Australia and many of you with multinational companies to recognise there is an opportunity to do something a bit visionary and a bit thoughtful, taking note of the trends.

National Perspective

I'm really disappointed I have to say with the Green Paper because it fails. It fails at every level to take account of the major trends globally that I referred to in terms of global crises. It's actually a document for the best of times, it forecasts a boom in food exports for Australia, it says that there's continuing domestic food security and largely technological solutions to critical challenges. Now that is a recipe for incremental change, not transformative policy. It suggests that there's no serious engagement with the extent of the crises that are coming and therefore the opportunities that Australia might be able to take up.

But surely a government plan for something as fundamental as our food ought to be looking at realistic scenarios when it comes to climate change, when there's a real danger for example that it will not only lead to loss of production in Australia, but real disruption elsewhere.

Therefore the first question for the food industry really has to be - is it in your interest to have a government only planning and directing our food systems policy based on very narrow and optimistic projections?

To answer that the assumptions in the National Food Plan's Green Paper need to be examined, and I would argue that the Green Paper is built on a dangerous set of false assumptions. In fact the government should take note of the number of submissions that have come in, I'm really pleased that there's been such a large amount of public engagement with the Green Paper, a consultative process, and look at it and go "wrong way: go back". We need to think again.

The first thing you should ask of the Food Plan is what's it for? What is this Food Plan supposed to be delivering for the country?

1.            This is not a holistic plan, yet claims to be. Fundamentally misunderstands the food system.

The objectives of the National Food Plan green paper frame our national food system's future in terms of competitiveness, productivity growth and access to markets.

This is not a holistic food plan for Australia. If it was, surely the number one over-riding objective of a National Food Plan should be to ensure the health and wellbeing of all Australians through securing their right to nutritious and adequate food; it should go to the wellbeing of our farmers and regional communities that provide our food; and the health of natural systems that underpin our food production.

They ought to be the objectives of a National Food Plan, and in the global context, what role Australia has in feeding the world, a world of an increasing population to 9 billion.

Without this focus, we will not have any of the outcomes that the government wants because if you want to have food, you have to have farmers on the land and you have to have land healthy enough to produce food in the first place.

2.            There is a dangerous eliding of the ecological constraints and challenges facing Australia's food system, including climate change.

In fact it's hard to believe that the Green Paper has seriously consulted the Department of Climate Change, the CSIRO or other key organisations advising government on the challenges we face from climate change. As just one simple example, the paper proposes that Australia double its food exports by 2030, while barely acknowledging that some of the more kind predictions for Australia's food production in the face of climate change is that we our agricultural productivity could be reduced by almost 20%. Little wonder that the WA Department of agriculture immediately declared such a goal unrealistic.

Similarly, the paper while noting to some degree the scale and threat posed by land degradation in Australia from acid (sodic) and saline soils and erosion does not acknowledge that like the rest of the world, Australia is losing top soil much faster than we can replenish it. 

There is a misplaced confidence in our ability to simply innovate out of an overall situation of critical soil loss and declining soil health in many areas, not to mention the significant constraints on the quantity and quality of our water supplies.

We're about to go with the Murray Darling plan, and this is meant to be a whole of government approach to food in this country, and if you've got a Murray Darling plan which is on track to come out recommending less water than the minimum amount of water that is necessary to maintain a healthy system, how can you suggest that you're taking these challenges seriously. At the same time this massive expansion of coal seam gas which is undermining food production and jeopardising the health of aquifers into the future, plus we've got urban encroachment being allowed in many areas of productive agricultural land and that too is another threat to food production and the decision in Victoria to abandon some of the green corridors and go to urban encroachment, it takes away the capacity for urban communities to think about ways of having more localised food production on the outskirts of cities.

Obviously research and development, and the roll out of research and development, science and technology and deployment of that new science and technology and behavioural change in agricultural systems, transport systems, production systems and the rest are essential. That is where we have got to learn to do with what we've got, anticipate the trends, anticipate the constraints and putting money into R&D, science and technology and capacity building.

3.            The Green Paper's treats fundamental issues of nutrition and access to food as separate from the way in which we produce, process and distribute food.

You simply can't do that. You can't say we're looking at a healthy population, we're looking at a health system, a food system, and not linking up to it. It ignores existing vulnerabilities in Australia's food security, particularly in relation to the domestic production of and access to fresh fruit and vegetables. This is the current situation, without any serious contemplation of possible climate change scenarios. For example only once does the Green Paper acknowledge that the price of fruit and vegetables is rising faster than unhealthy food, but it posits no real response to the situation.

Paper offers no effective response to Australia's obesity crisis; in fact by promoting a business as usual approach of focussing on educating consumers and leaving industry to continue to self-regulate, it directly contradicts the government's National Preventative Health Taskforce that called for urgent intervention to reshape Australia's food supply, including regulatory measures.

The Paper doesn't acknowledge that our social security payments are well known to be a major barrier to food security for our most vulnerable. And just yesterday, if you had a government that was serious about a healthy population you would not have a government and coalition backing a reduction in the single parent payment and the refusal to increase the Newstart allowance which has so many people living in poverty in Australia, and that is going to lead them to purchase food that is the cheapest that they can possibly get, regardless of its nutritional value and that in the long term adds a major burden to our health system.

4.            Trade and export as a focus will do nothing to provide our farmers and food producers with long-term sustainability and prosperity; and misreads global food needs.

The paper fails to engage with the fact that farmers' terms of trade have been steadily declining over the last 40 years and farmers have largely held on thanks to productivity gains that they've been able to achieve.

The latest figures out today show that our exports are 23.2 billion but we're importing 26 billion.

There is no discussion on declining number of Australian farms (halved in last 40 years) and farmers (20% decline in number farmers since 1996). Without investing in our farmers, the paper looks increasingly like a strategy for cheap imports, with few exceptions. There is nothing in the Green Paper on keeping farmers on the land, producing food in the face of cheap imports.

We have again and again discussions about free trade is going to do it all, well free trade is not fair trade when it comes to our farmers. We have seen for years that Australian farmers can't compete with the cheapest imports when there is no calculation of the cost of environmental compliance and/or labour standards, or both. We ought to be of course maintaining decent labour standards and decent environmental compliance but that has to be reflected in any trade because they're not as they're currently negotiated.

The other issue of course is biosecurity. We need to get to this conundrum where on the basis of being able to sell into markets on the basis of negligible risk we risk biosecurity. This is always a constant conundrum and we need to look at proper risk assessment processes.

Critics of the paper have pointed out that focussing on increasing our exports of grains, dairy, meat and sugar to the growing Asian middle classes is essentially a plan to export the Western diet and associated chronic diseases to our neighbours. 

Nor does it do anything to alleviated global food insecurity. This is not export aimed at addressing the needs of the vulnerable in our region or anywhere else.

It puts all our eggs all in one basket too. Our producers have successfully targeted Asian markets, only now to find they are threatened by much cheaper, higher volume and only marginally lower quality competition from South American nations in particular. We will see this pattern repeated.

It also ignores the concerted efforts of our neighbours to reduce their reliance on us. China for example is importing dairy cows and building up its breeding lines and massively expanding production. Indonesia's commitment to phase out its reliance on live export meat is another.

One of the major ways Australia can assist in food is in capacity building. We need to be thinking about not just selling a commodity into Asian markets but what they desperately need is ways to produce their food more sustainably and if they're going to adopt changes, to make sure that the function of that is in health and well-being, not just exporting unhealthy Western diets into Asian countries because it's going to be a recipe for us losing volume trade over time.

I think the issue of education and capacity building, using foreign aid to build capacity and build relationships is a key way for the food sector to engage.

5.            Little engagement on implications for Australia's food system in an energy-constrained world.

The Paper does acknowledge that the price of fertiliser and other key fossil-fuel derived inputs will rise for farmers it does not see this as a major constraint.  But agriculture is already sensitive to oil price rises because of its reliance on it for mechanisation as well as inputs and transport.

Particularly concerning for the food industry, there is little discussion of the challenges facing transport through oil constraints, yet it is an essential component of Australia's food system. How will we as a nation move food around the country, particularly when we have to date radically under-invested in freight rail systems, alternative fuel sources and other responses?


The Greens' response

1.            Rethink how we approach our food systems, placing the health and wellbeing of the people who produce it, who consumer it, and the environment that provides it at the heart of our policy objectives.

2.            Significantly increase our investment in agricultural and food system research and development, focussed on delivering sustainability, resilience delivering long-term access to nutritional, healthy food. We don't just need the R&D, we need the extension of it as well to directly assist producers, processors and communities. One of our biggest contributions to global food security should be sharing our agricultural expertise.

3.            Rebuild our domestic food systems to create regional and local systems, ensure diversity and longevity based on healthy and prosperous rural and regional communities.

4.            Level the playing field - reforming competition policy is critical such as reintroduction of anti-price discrimination and enforcing it. Australia is one of only 2 countries in the whole OECD that does not have anti-price discrimination measures.

5.            Support consumers and producers in making informed choices. That means clear labelling for nutritional purposes, as well as value signals such as country of origin labelling.

a.            Greens Country of Origin Labelling - aimed at implementing the Blewett Review and providing consumers with clear and accurate information about where the food is from, not conflating food processing with where it was grown.

b.            The AFGC responded to the Greens' bill by raising concerns that it would remove the 'Made in Australia' labelling which support a recognition of local food processing. Work with us to find an alternative, rather than persisting with that label which confuses Australians as to where the food was grown. We welcome their engagement with us.

Corporate responsibility & the future of Australia's food

To be credible and trusted by the Australian community in tackling these major challenges, the food industry must prove its bonafides. Undoubtedly in some areas, it is. For example work with Food Bank & other charitable redistribution companies to help both reduce waste and provide food for Australians going hungry is highly commendable.

But there are other areas where the industry has been less willing to acknowledge the need for change:

Overwhelmingly Australians want clearer food labelling, for health, to support local growers and to be able to make ethical choices.  Examples include traffic light labelling to help inform health choices, palm oil, country of origin labelling, GM labelling. But industry has just successfully moved us backwards by defeating moves to ensure that health claims on food are independently tested before they are made on packaging.

Similarly, seemingly at the behest of a few, not the majority of the Food & Grocery Council's members, have been lobbying against container deposit legislation.  Container deposit legislation is a 30 year success in South Australia, has not crippled industry, and the scheme is overwhelmingly supported by the Australian community who want to do more to reduce our waste. Why resist it?

Acknowledging the self-regulation cannot deliver key aspects of our food system, and that some regulation is not the enemy of a prosperous and successful industry.

Supporting these measures is in the industry's interest. It will take significant public investment to ensure that Australia has a sustainable and resilient food system. The more the food industry insists it all be left to the market, the more likely it is to find itself building future prosperity on a rotten foundation due to the severe environmental constraints we have yet to fully come to grips with.

The Australian community is deeply interested in the origins and implications of where our food comes from, how it is made and distributed. We have seen an explosion in farmers' markets, local food growing, concern over key ethical issues such as animal welfare, the long-term prospects for our farmers, our vulnerability to climate change. Because of industry resistance particularly on issues such as clearer food labelling, there is a trust deficit.

We have seen with the Alan Jones episode recently what has happened with the coming together of a gradual shift in public mood and social media. In my view the food industry needs to look at the trends that are coming very fast, recognise how fast change can occur if you don't tap into the national mood which at some point tips over, and then there is a massive assault which leads to disruption and change at a faster level than you might have imagined.

So I will urge you to think about the Food Plan and see it as a last century food plan, a business as usual food plan, and think about the challenges facing it and how a national food plan genuinely includes the whole government if you take into account the infrastructure we need to build, the trade policies we need to build, the competition policies we need to have, the sustainability and environmental regulation we need to have, but pick up on the trends and recognise that the coming of the NBN and social media revolution changes everything in terms of consumer power and engagement with food production and the values that consumers have in relation to the food that they eat.



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