Tuesday, 14 August 2012

National Food Plan: Darwin meeting

A National Food Plan is being developed to meet future challenges such as climate change and growing population’s demand for food. The objectives of the Plan will be to support global competitiveness and productivity, improve market access, identify risks to food security, maintain the natural resource base, maximise nutrition, and contribute to regional Australia. A Green Paper has been developed to inform and direct public submissions which must be lodged by 30 September. Public meetings have been held around Australia to encourage input, and I attended the Darwin meeting to get an idea of the issues in the NT.

Nationally, we are in good shape. Australia has a secure food supply with about 90% of our retailed fresh food produced in Australia. We export more than 50% of the food we produce, worth about $28 billion, and we have a trade surplus of $17 billion. We produce enough food to feed 60 million people. We spend 17% of our after-tax income on groceries, and in relative terms food has become cheaper (prices have been steady over the past two decades but our income has increased). But as one attendee pointed out, these figures don’t reflect the situation in the north.

Input at the meeting provided a good overview of the problems faced by farmers in the north. These included the distance to markets increasing costs of production and freight, which reduces our ability to compete in these markets. We only appear to be able to compete where we can produce and deliver goods outside of the southern growing season. And despite being on the doorstep of Asia, we heard that poor economies of scale at Port Darwin mean that it can be cheaper to ship from Townsville. Also, other Asian producers such as China will be much more competitive. That leaves local markets, but these are also difficult to compete in because most of our inputs need to be freighted 3000km, so in many cases it becomes cheaper to freight food itself.

Other comments included:

·         The need for increased research and development into both new crop varieties suited to the tropics with market demand, and insect and disease management;

·         a lack of skilled labour to help run agricultural projects,

·         the ability of agriculture to compete with the mining industry for labour;

·         the regulatory environment increasing costs and inhibiting innovation, which is considered the key to competitiveness;  

·         the inability to compete with forestry companies for land; and

·         costs associated with industrial relations.

There are farmers in the Top End with good soil and water resources looking for something viable to grow, so while we are unlikely to become the food bowl of Asia, the north definitely has the scope to grow more food. But the barriers mentioned above are making farming less and less attractive, and now succession planning is becoming a major concern. Who will want to grow food into the future? As mentioned earlier, food prices are being maintained at a low level, yet costs are increasing.

If the north is to reach its potential for food production, it was suggested that the food plan should treat the north as a special case and provide incentives for production. Another idea was that we need to encourage the public to grow their own food so that they realise the rewards and may pay more at the counter. Current programs that promote vegetable gardens appear too reliant on single champions that eventually burn out and move on.

And one final comment. Our farmers deserve a lot more appreciation than what they get.
National Food Plan - read more and contribute

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