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A Tale of Two Governments: Planning from Paddock to Plate but Sorting out their Spin from Their Spoon

Published: 13 Jul 2011

By Joe Lederman

FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants
© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, June – July 2011
 

 

The Queensland and Federal Governments are each working on separate strategies for food security planning from paddock to plate. While it appears that the Queensland initiative has little to do with the Federal government’s National Food Plan, there are many factors that may stand in the way of success. In this article, I discuss what is happening, who is doing what, and raise questions as to whether the proposed planning is addressing the real problems.

 

Food security on the political agenda in Australia

Over the summer of 2010-2011, Queensland floods wreaked havoc and caused  supermarket shelves in many areas of Brisbane to empty out and remain empty for many days and even for weeks. This occurred around the same time as protests from regional and peri-urban growers for the Queensland State Government to put a stop tocoal seam gas explorers and miners' encroachment of prime agricultural land. Apart from concern over the sacrifice of productive agricultural land, there were also concerns expressed over contamination threats to potable water supplies used for drinking water and agriculture. This same issue has arisen in other States such as New South Wales and Western Australia. A political groundswell has crossed political boundaries to unite farmers with environmentalists while also drawing support from outer urban dwellers in swinging voter electorates.

Meanwhile, the Federal government has also been alert to a growing concern internationally, and especially in the Asian region, about food security policies of other countries. These have included the moves by the Indonesian Government implementing policies that aim for self-sufficiency by 2014 in beef and other food supplies, and Malaysia and Japanese to restrict exports of key food staples. Australia has not to date restricted any food exports in any such policy framework.

Australian Federal government economic policies for at least the past 3 decades have strongly resisted any form of industry protection and have firmly advocated and adopted free trade policies – even when this has resulted in the decline of Australian-based manufacturing and increased trade deficits. To date, Australian government policy has firmly opposed those who advocate a “sell only what we don’t need” policy.

 

Queensland Food Policy

In June 2011, the Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Food and Regional Economies, Tim Mulherin, launched a food policy for Queensland as a part of the 2011-12 Queensland State Budget. Following this announcement, the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) released a Discussion Paper, “Food for a Growing Economy” (Queensland Food Policy), which outlined a food policy plan and the seeking of public submissions to be made before 15 August 2011.

In the Queensland Food Policy Discussion Paper, issues of food supply and continuity are considered in the context of the effect of recent natural disasters on Queensland’s food industry. The Discussion Paper emphasises the need for an efficient supply chain, as well as recovery plans and a steadfast communications strategy for disaster responses.

One of the key aspects of the Queensland food policy announcement is its stated aim of fostering growth in the Queensland food sector with the targeted objective of a $40 billion value in 2020.

 

The Federal Government’s “National Food Plan”

In June 2011, the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) also released an “Issues Paper to Inform Development of a National Food Plan”, in line with the Labor Government’s pre-election promise of developing a National Food Plan (NFP). Public submissions were to be open until 5 August 2011.

Like the Queensland Food Policy Discussion Paper, the NFP Issues Paper also emphasised the need for food supply chains in Australia to be maintained and made resilient to the threat of future disasters. However, my view is that resilience will improve with the addition of extra food supply chains rather than just maintaining existing food supply chains.

Furthermore, FoodLegal believes that Federal policy statements are vulnerable to being rendered ineffective unless a thorough review is made of regulatory impediments at State and local government levels and a consensus must be reached for the actual implementation of the final National Food Plan.

 

Government red tape preventing food supply resilience

Despite the concurrent release of Federal and State-level food policies, there are a number of practical difficulties that present obstacles to any meaningful implementation of such centralised government food policies.

In particular, despite the fact that both the Queensland and Federal Governments appear publicly to acknowledge the goals of increased food resilience, farming sustainability, enhancing regional development and shorter supply chains, these policy goals are being hindered by excessive regulation and government red tape, particularly at the municipal or local government level.

FoodLegal notes that many Queensland farmers are currently prevented from diversifying their farming activities and that there are laws that prevent many value adding food production processes on the farm of their farm-grown produce.  For example, a dairy farmer in Queensland is typically prevented from producing cheese or ice creams at the farm due to various planning and zoning restrictions. A far more savvy approach is adopted in other state jurisdictions such as Tasmania where farm-based cheese makers have created successful farm tourism experiences. Furthermore, the current logistical arrangements for the transport and centralised market distribution of foods through one hub in Brisbane is preventing farmers from selling their produce locally in places such as North Queensland. Produce is often required to be transported over 1700 kilometres to the nearest capital city before being taken a similar distance to the supermarket from which it is available to locals in the area there the food was grown.

Even the recycling of farm waste or nutrients-rich manure is subjected to excessive regulatory constraints that prevent many farmers from promoting greater economic and environmentally-sustainable practices by farming units. The result in Queensland is the encouragement of excessive use by many farmers of expensive external inputs such as industrial fertilisers that in turn become the pollutants that harm and/or threaten tourism destinations through the chemical run off into the rivers and the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

For farmers wishing to increase their farming sustainability and to semi-process their produce or develop their farm’s tourism opportunities, the government red tape also imposes hefty costs. For example, in order to gain requisite regulatory approvals, small individual food producers in the region are discouraged by excessive regulatory requirements applying a multitude  of consultancy reports, safety assessments and environmental impact assessments, all of which preclude any real opportunity for the small or medium sized farm business from even trying to get through this bureaucratic mire. The only farmers who have a chance to succeed in business in Queensland are those who are willing to get into bed with the major supermarkets. This situation also makes farm produce suppliers very vulnerable to the whims of supermarket buyers and does not engender farming resilience and long term viability. This in turn weakens local food security. Regional areas become merely remote markets of shrinking populations paying higher prices because of higher transport costs and recoupment by retailers of other higher expenses in supplying those outer regions.

Governments have become entrenched in centralised models of food distribution through supermarkets. Governments appear to have ignored the huge benefits and the possibility of a win/win situation for growers, regional consumers, tourism operators and community development in regional areas. These would all be fostered by streamlining and removal of excessive government red tape and other barriers created at the State and local government levels.

 

Do governments have a genuine commitment to implementing policies for local food security?

It is interesting to note that both the State-level Queensland Food Policy and the Federal National Food Plan came shortly after, the publication in May 2011 by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) of a report on food security. The report, titled “Global food security: facts, issues and implications”, dismisses many of the arguments by proponents of Australian domestic food security and local value-adding. ABARES Report is focused on the increased opportunities for Australian commodity exports. However, ignoring the opportunities for value-adding in Australia is dictating government policies that discourage local food manufacturing. Food supply resilience would be enhanced if there were at least some capability to supply food for domestic consumers if supplemented by additional shorter food supply chains. The ABARES Report concludes that:  

[t]here is no foreseeable risk to Australia’s food security. Australia produces twice as much food as it consumes, produces almost all its fresh food, and can easily afford the food it imports. Australia is also a competitive supplier of bulk commodities, fresh foods and processed foods (such as meat and dairy products) to world markets.  

Ironically, the Queensland Food Policy also came just weeks after a series of strategic cropping maps released by the Queensland Government that had revived criticism of the Queensland Government in relation to its so-called agricultural land protection laws. While these maps, released on 31 May 2011, supposedly identified agricultural areas to be ‘protected’ in order to clarify the Strategic Cropping Land policy, the critics suggest that most of the large areas of prime farming land will remain unprotected and the current cropping land proposal does not curtail the mining industry adequately in prime farm areas.

Perhaps in publishing its own food policy, the Queensland Government is trying to alleviate perceptions that others are winning out over agriculture.

Reliance on imported processed food in Australia continues to grow. This trend is occurring despite the fact that Australians have the land and capability to grow immense quantities of food for the world. To many, Australia’s biggest commodity is its land. Any subdivider of land knows this quite well. Too many farmers rely on the exit strategy of a sale of the farm as the means of obtaining a return from their farming activity. This does not augur well for the longer term. A National Food Plan must not further encourage the development of a “cargo cult mentality”. For those who do not know, a ‘cargo cult’ existed for some coastal-dwellers of the Pacific who believed that their food supply would be arriving on a big ship from across the sea.