18 July 2012 – According to The Greens the federal government’s green paper on food security released yesterday (Tuesday) is welcome but well overdue.

They’ve got a point.

By the time the words “coal seam gas” entered the national lexicon three or four years ago, it was already clear that securing Australia’s food would be  a challenge and an opportunity.

On one front was looming fast moving climate change with the fear that wild weather and weird temperatures would devastate crops and natural eco-systems.

On the other was the sudden explosion – almost literally underfoot – of an army of CSG miners putting down endless shafts to tap this newfound energy source in the very best farming land.

Urban sprawl keept up its own relentless pressure to swallow up prime farmland on the city fringe.  In Sydney, when farmers refused to sell, the pressure from the development lobby is to change the rules to make this more compelling.

Yes, there are also opportunities for Australia from a more precarious food supply system globally as climate change takes a toll. In our region, the green paper points to the fast evolving Asian countries and what the government says will be a surge in demand for beef, wheat, dairy products, sheep meat and sugar.

Charles Sturt University professor Allan Curtis says that’s not a given. In an article published a few days ago in The Conversation he says that Australia is unlikely to make a substantial contribution to solving world hunger.

“We simply don’t produce that much food, and poor people cannot afford our farm products….Australian farmers are efficient in terms of the food and fibre produced per unit of labour input, but most of our farming systems are based on high inputs of expensive fuel, fertiliser, chemicals, and machinery. With very high wage costs and a high Aussie dollar, it is increasingly difficult for Australia to hold existing markets.”

Curtis also points to other countries recognising this same opportunity.

“To the extent that markets emerge or are developed, Australian exporters can expect intense competition from lower cost, larger scale producers in South America, Africa and even, North America. Chile and South Africa, for example, are also southern hemisphere producers able to meet out-of-season food demand in Asia.” Read the whole story

So what’s the government’s take on our food security?

The National Food Plan green paper says that among key aims of the government will be to:

  • Manage the potential impact of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments on water resources, including supporting an independent expert scientific committee
  • Develop a national framework with state and territory governments on coal seam gas that will address key community concerns on water management, multiple land use, best practice and co-existence
  • Help food producers adapt to the impacts of climate change and drought
  • Support disaster response preparedness and industry resilience
  • Maintain social security safety nets and provide support for individuals and families in difficulty
  • Work with state and territory governments and non-government organisations to improve access to safe and nutritious food for vulnerable communities and individuals

With the pressures and threats, however, will come opportunities, especially from our neighbourhood in Asia.

“World food demand is expected to rise by 77 per cent by 2050,” the green paper says, and most of this will be in Asia where demand for beef, wheat, dairy products, sheep meat and sugar will be strong.

Other proposals include to:

  • Work to reduce trade barriers faced by Australian food exporters
  • Promote the liberalisation of trade in food, through the multilateral trading system and through regional and bilateral trade negotiations
  • Pursue free trade agreements which benefit Australian food exporters and consumers
  • Provide market development assistance, information and support to Australian companies expanding into emerging markets
  • Work cooperatively with the food industry to capitalise on new opportunities
  • Improve export and import services to make them more efficient and flexible for businesses

What government does not plan to do is to introduce new trade barriers nor restrict food imports – “other than for food safety, plant or animal health reasons” , the paper says.

The Greens Leader Christine Milne said her party supported the move called for it two years ago. She said the plan must maximise food production for global markets and prioritise providing food security for all Australians.

“Farmers need to be supported, not under assault from coal seam gas, urbanisation and low farm gate prises.

“As the green paper identifies, Australians on low incomes too often face the challenge of food insecurity and the Greens have shown that welfare payments such as Newstart have fallen so far behind the cost of living that people relying on these payments regularly have to miss out on meals.

“Indigenous Australians in particular suffer unacceptably high levels of food insecurity. A wealthy country like Australia that is a major food producer and exporter has fundamentally failed if it cannot deliver food security for all, and is instead relying on charities as we are now to fill the gap.”