Nowhere in the world governments can expect taking “things” away from communities without giving something in return. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
What “things” are being (or proposed to be) taken away from the Australian agriculture & food industries so far?
-A reduction in water allocations for irrigators of between 22% and 29%.
-A reduction of $60 million in rural R&D funding by 2020.
-Cuts at state level in agriculture research, business support and biosecurity.
-A reduction in import restrictions of fresh vegetables and fruit, thus forcing the industry to be price competitive with countries that do not face environmental restrictions, or labour scarcity.
What is being given?
-A responsibility to farmers in maintaining food security, in a backdrop of water scarcity, declining arable land, declining nutrient inputs, declining agricultural R&D and deteriorating climatic conditions.
-A disappointing outcome from the Senate inquiry about food production in Australia, which reveals a lack of interest from the government to help food producers.
-A disconnected view of the food chain, where government attempts to tackle problems such as obesity and health through a Preventative Task Force. Yet issues such as the production of Australian food, prices, accessibility and availability of food are not seen as part of the health equation.
- A draft report published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) that promotes “environmentally-friendly” diets, based on assumptions as to what exactly these diets encompass and a lack of comprehension as to how farmers are to achieve this ethereal benchmark.
-Conditions that have led to a slowdown in agricultural growth rate in the past 10 years.
OK, both lists are incomplete. But I am sure you get the picture.
As things are,20% of all processed and fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in Australia are imported. About 30% of all seafood is also imported. In 2008-09 our international food trade surplus was $150 million, indicating a shift toward a greater dependency in imports (KPMG, 2009). Imports, particularly with current and proposed Labor policies, are just going to increase in the next years.
Which brings us to other issue that should have a place in this discussion:food safety.
While Australia ranked 2nd best in food safety systems in a recent international study, trade partners such as China and Thailand have been highlighted as countries that register high numbers of food safety transgressions (see Nepusz et al, 2009) . Is the Australian food safety system ready for increased imports from high risk countries? Or are we going to learn things in the hard way, as has occurred in the USA?
And then, we have the impact of carbon footprints on Australian food chains: as we increase our dependency in imports, supply chains will become longer and will require more complex transport networks to arrive to the consumer.
It is debatable whether carbon footprints will actually increase or decrease in all cases/products, because this issue is not as simple as it seems (i.e. higher food miles do not always mean higher overall environmental impact). But overall, larger amounts of imported foods are likely to increase our food carbon footprints.
It becomes then a circular argument: the government is trying to decrease water environmental impacts through means that will lead to land environmental impacts. Has any assessment been done on which of these is the greatest evil? I doubt so, as aspects that are also crucially important such as the impacts on the very people that feed Australia were also underestimated in the Plan.
My recommendation to policy makers? Take a holistic view about food chains, people. All aspects of food production, consumption and trade are connected. Expand your minds, and listen to others. Don’t just look at the results of a computer model and expect that all will be fine because a model says so. In the modellers jargon, if you put crap into a model, you will get crap out.