The federal government released its National Food Plan green paper after weeks of public consultation, but concerns persist that it does little to address food security issues,especially in fast-growing urban areas.
The paper is the first step in the government’s plan to increase food production. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard told a conference held by the Global Foundation that Australia should aim to be a food superpower.
The value of world food demand is forecast to increase by 77%, according to the Plan, with Asia seeing the most substantial growth.
However, several agricultural specialists were unconvinced that the Plan’s focus on greater food production would result in a decrease in food insecurity. Whilst Australia produces enough food for 60 million people, a report published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found 5% of Australians suffered from food insecurity,including access to food required for a nutritious diet. The report found that Indigenous groups, the unemployed and single-parent households were most at risk from inadequate access to food.
Nicholas Rose, a researcher at Griffith University, criticised the government’s plan as reliant on market-led solutions to solve problems of inequity and social justice. Rose says statistics show anticipated market-efficiencies do not necessarily exist. “In 1940, the more localised short chain food system produced 2.3 calories of food for one calorie of oil but after several decades of’ market efficiency dividends’ it now takes 8 to 10 calories of oil to deliver that same calorie of food.”
Other commentators point out that not only is Australia unable to produce that much food, currently contributing only 1% to the global food supply, but Australian farm products are far too expensive to be accessible to much of the developing world. Allan Curtis at Charles Sturt University called on the government and industry to act together if they wanted to secure export markets in Asia.
“Australian exports can expect intense competition from lower cost, larger scale producers in South America, Africa and even, North America,” he said.
Even whilst the government plans for increased food exports, growing urban populations and the push to create affordable outer-suburban housing estates, may add to food security issues, especially the availability of fresh food.
Whilst NSW has had an urban planning strategy focused on developing established areas of Sydney, the O’Farrell Government has indicated its willingness to alter the development mix and increase supply of greenfield sites on Sydney’s fringes. In Victoria, an additional 5,958 hectares of land on the fringes of Melbourne have been set aside for housing growth.
Jonathan Sobels, a human geography specialist, said that a majority of fresh food came from city fringe areas, and suburban expansion without adequate planning would affect access to food and agricultural employment. “Casey, for instance, will be affected by the expansion of Melbourne, will see higher levels of food insecurity and the loss of $400 million of food production,” he said.
Nevertheless, Sobels said whilst the Victorian government had, through VicHealth, included fresh food access as a high-priority issue in planning, and created a policy portfolio under the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, the NSW government had done relatively little.
Sobels said there were emerging physical limits to urban growth areas. “The nature of Sydney is that it’s in a basin surrounded by mountains and the vast majority of it is being paved over by suburbs. The most recent development in terms of the north west and south west corridors is actually going to pave over a significant proportion, something of the order of 50% of existing market gardens, which produce about 90% of sydney’s fresh vegetable food,” he said.
The last comprehensive report into food security in NSW was conducted by the University of Sydney and NSW Health in 2003, and recommended the promotion of home gardens, community allotments, community gardens and school gardens as part of a strategy to increase access to fresh food. There was no mention of urban planning considerations in that report.
Instead, food security issues in NSW have focused around the balance between agricultural and mining land. The O’Farrell government indicated a willingness to preserve good agricultural land from exploration and aquifer damage by releasing a ten-point plan for the 2011 election.
The release of the government’s aquifer interference policy has caused tension between the NSW Farmers’ Association and the minister in charge, Brad Hazzard. The policy forces mining projects in areas deemed agriculturally or environmentally strategic to meet strict criteria and seek advice from the Water Minister.
However, the policy does not apply to mining projects deemed state significant, disappointing many in the agricultural sector. “In the end we’ve got a good set of rules which don’t apply to anyone,” Andrew Gregson from the NSW Irrigators’ Council told the Sydney Morning Herald. The NSW Farmers’ Association accused the government of not prohibiting mining on high-value agricultural land, and called on the Premier to intervene.
Paul Burton, Professor of Urban Management at Griffith University, said that whilst food security is primarily seen as a rural problem, given 90% of Australians now lived in cities, it should be considered an urban problem also. A recent survey found 30% of Australians grew a portion of their food at home, most in order to save money.
Like Sobels, Burton believes food production within cities and in the immediate hinterland is the best way to ensure consistent availability of fresh food to urban areas. Whilst the admits there will not be a major shift away from the current way food is produced and sold, local production alternatives have become increasingly popular in the last decade.
Competition for urban land, however,has become the major impediment in local food production. “The suburban backyard that once allowed Australian families to provide significant proportion of their own fresh fruit and vegetables is shrinking rapidly and as we live at higher densities within cities the space to grow food is diminishing,” he wrote in an editorial for The Conversation.