Towards A National Food Plan
Draft notes for Queensland Conservation’s submission to aid in the development of a National Food Plan. The final draft was submitted by QC on 2.9.11…
A National Food Plan is vital for Australia’s ongoing food sovereignty.
Food Sovereignty may be defined as a nation’s self-sufficiency in food, where affordable staples are made available to its people irrespective of their age, personal wealth, or place of residence.
Without a well-researched National Food Plan the long-term outlook for Australian food sovereignty is not good. Our nation produces a relatively small food surplus in good years, mostly meat and grains, sufficient to feed between 30-40 million. This is a small amount of food compared to current and predicted global population statistics.
Australia covers 7.7 million km2, our fossil soils are infertile and 3 billion years old, and our current population is 22.4 million. In a good year we produce a surplus of grains and meat sufficient to provision another 30 – 40 million people. By contrast the neighbouring island of Java covers 1.9 million km2 (1.8 times the size of the state of Victoria), its volcanic soils are young, fertile and well watered, and its current population is 138 million. In a good year, Java is almost self-sufficient in most staple foods.
Bangladesh is 1/12th the size of Queensland, however irrigated farmland allows that nation to harvest three crops in a good year, sufficient to feed its 142.3 million people. That’s 31 times the population of Queensland, a state struggling to remain self-sufficient in dairy products.
Australian food exports aren’t sufficient to solve rising global demand. Its food production is vulnerable to global warming, peak oil, peak phosphorous, rising national population, displacement of agricultural land for mining, spreading dryland salinity, soil erosion, and ocean acidification.
We are convinced that Australia’s future food supply systems will be very different from what we see today. The centralised depots and long logistical lines of today will be unrecognisable once Peak Oil has had its effect on farm inputs and transport costs. Unfortunately the makeup of the National Food Policy Working Group reflects only the commercial interests of the major food retailers and logistics industries and does not reflect the growing community interest in all aspects of food production. We would strongly urge that more community representatives are appointed to the working Group in order to bring a more balanced view of Australia’s future food needs.
1. Local and regional food security
A sustainable National Food Plan must reduce Australia’s reliance on wastefully transporting food all over the country – and prepare the nation for a new way of farming, preferably a system based on local, organically grown food.
Growing food locally is not just about lowering greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and food grown organically isn’t merely about getting fresher, more nutrient dense, healthier produce, it’s vital to making our food production more resilient to the coming 21st century resource ‘shocks’.
The Federal Government’s Issues Paper to inform development of a National Food Plan reveals that it has almost closed the door on organic growing even before inviting public comment. The word ‘organic’ appears only four times in the 117 page Issues Paper, while ‘transport’ appears 79 times. An attempt to find notes about ‘local’ or ‘domestic’ food production turned up those words 56 times – but only as meaning the opposite of ‘international’ food production.
As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions. That’s the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030. Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 “a whole series of events come together”:
* The world’s population will rise to 8 billion
* Demand for food will increase by 50%
* Demand for water will increase by 30%
* Demand for energy will increase by 50%
Beddington foresees each problem combining to create a “perfect storm” in which the whole is bigger, and more serious, than the sum of its parts.
2. Effective National Quarantine
A National Food Plan must recognise the fundamental need to prevent crop diseases and pests entering the country. Maintaining border security is more than just rhetoric, it is about preventing the importation of economically and environmentally destructive pests and diseases.
Two current examples that have the potential to decimate our food security are the varroa mite, a honeybee pest, and fireblight, a disease of stone- and pome-fruit, import of either of these would be disastrous as local crops and orchards have no resistance.
Currently earthmoving equipment based in Papua New Guinea can be ‘washed down’ once in the port of Brisbane. This is not biosecurity when you liberate exotic soil-borne pathogens at a major port, where road transport can then efficiently distribute them nationally.
We have failed to control crazy ants (Far North Queensland, Christmas island), failed to eradicate fire ants (South East Queensland), electric ants (Far North Queensland), Asian honeybee (Far North Queensland). We almost failed with citrus canker, and we are now inviting fireblight.
Secure the borders as honeybees are responsible for pollinating 40% of our crops and there is currently no technological fix capable of replacing them! (see below)
3. Conservation of prime agricultural land
As far as the national estate is concerned, a National Food Plan must recognise that prime agricultural land is of high conservation value equal to the conservation value of land secured for national parks and must be protected from encroaching destructive industries.
Fertile, agricultural land is a national strategic asset, enabling a nation to feed itself. In times of peace, if a nation is unable to feed its population it becomes vulnerable to natural disaster, and is by definition living beyond its carrying capacity. In times of conflict, a nation unable to feed itself is both unable to fight effectively, or maintain social cohesion that supports a successful war effort. The ‘value’ of this strategic asset will only increase as human populations rise, peak oil bites, peak phosphorous is reached, and global warming intensifies.
4. A National Food Security Research Programme
Food security can only be guaranteed if our producers are aware of upcoming threats to their viability and systems are put in place to adapt. A National Food Plan must involve ongoing well-funded research into a number of areas including:
* The effect of peak oil on industrial farming. As oil and gas prices rise, agricultural inputs – pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers – will become less affordable. Which crops will able to adapt and how? Which crops will need to be abandoned and what are the alternatives?
* The reduced cropping and lowered nutritional value of crops in a carbon-enriched atmosphere. Research has shown that high atmospheric CO2 produces fast, weak plant growth and lowered nutritional value of crops. In some cases, ie cassava and apples, more toxins are produced by food crops grown in a CO2 enriched environment. Which crops and varieties will continue to be productive as CO2 levels rise? Which will become toxic?
* The vulnerability of croplands to bushfire, flooding and other climate change weather events. Increased frequency and intensity of bushfires will intensify the effects of heat on productive soil, affecting their biological, chemical and physical health. Issues include nutrient loss, declining soil structure, increased soil erosion, sedimentation of drainage ways, creeks and rivers, increased toxic algal blooms, crop losses and increased CO2 production. Similar problems will arise as rainfall patterns change causing longer droughts and larger floods. How can soil productivity be maintained? What crops and cropping systems will be resilient? What emergency crops can be distributed to restart agriculture after a disaster? What benefit might accrue from reinstating traditional Aboriginal savannah burning techniques?
* The security of seafood in an acidifying, warming ocean. The basis of oceanic food webs are under threat from climate change. Already corals and shellfish are being weakened by rising acidity. What will acidifying waters mean to ocean harvests? Which species will decline due to coral loss? Which will decline due to the loss of krill? What be the effect of more frequent algal blooms? How will the explosive expansion of jellyfish populations impact on ocean food webs?
* The effect of Peak Phosphorus on farming techniques. Phosphorus, mined as phosphate rock, is vital to modern industrial farming (see below). How can yields be maintained in the face of a declining resource? How can phosphorus be recovered from the waste stream?
5. Organic farming and community engagement
Smaller scale organic farms and food production in our cities will act as a buffer against many of the food security problems we face.
Organic farms, organic soils, and organic landscapes are more resilient to drought and floods than conventional farms while being equally productive. Organically farmed soils sequester CO2 far more effectively and far more quickly than tree plantations and offer vast investment opportunities for greenhouse gas offsetting.
Organic farmers use fewer fossil fuels, produce fewer greenhouse gases, use fewer finite resources, support local communities, conserve crop biodiversity, employ as many – or more – people and treat their livestock with compassion.
Our coastal cities are located on our most fertile and most reliably rain-fed land. Every citizen should have access to local food growing land in community gardens, local parks, or even on their nature strips.
Education and training about home food production, food storage, preservation and food security is vital to reduce our reliance on oil-dependant industrial farming and continent-spanning food transport.
With the recent revival of food gardens in schools across Australia and the fast-growing popularity of community gardening and home food production we have a once of a lifetime opportunity to support these endeavours. We strongly urge that significant funding be made available to encourage the growth in community gardening in all our cities. Having citizens learn to ‘Grow Local’ is not merely about food, but will encourage community spirit, retain cultural knowledge of food production and help to conserve heritage crop varieties and their genetic diversity.
Citizens have a right to know about and to use the least toxic solution to horticultural pests and diseases. A National Food Plan must reform the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA) to make it responsive to food security issues instead of a rubber stamp for agribusiness. The APVMA must legalise the use of human foodstuffs that can also be used as pesticides. Currently it is illegal to recommend a non-registered pesticide for domestic or farm use even if it is a human food! This burdensome and undemocratic law must end so that benign and environmentally-responsible pesticides can be used by home producers, including cow’s milk, bicarbonate of soda (organic fungicides), caffeine (molluscicide), vinegar (herbicide), vegetable oils (as ‘white oil’, a pesticide).
A National Food Plan must include capacity building for the production of the cheapest, freshest, and most nutritious food of all – organic food produced at home. In a food crisis, home food production becomes essential to national survival and recovery starts with the householder.
6. A National Food store
A food secure nation maintains a strategic network of food stores, primarily maintaining supplies of dried and preserved food sufficient to supply its population from times of crop failure through to the next satisfactory harvest, a minimum period of twelve months, and ideally a period of two years.
A store of easily grown, fast-yielding crops for distribution to city farms, gardening communities and other city producers will also aid in disaster recovery.
The aim is to support food sovereignty not merely prevent malnutrition or starvation.
Threats to Australian Food Sovereignty
* Centralised production
Centralised mass food production makes a nation vulnerable to acts of terrorism and is very risky under a changing climate.
A National Food Plan will encourage smaller scale cropping across the country – instead of centralising production in a few large blocks as is now the case for many horticultural crops. This will limit the risk to our food security from wild weather and other disasters, including sabotage.
We’ve recently seen three good examples of how fragile centralised production is. Most recently Cyclone Yasi wiped out almost the entire Australian banana crop in one night. Banana prices rocketed and are still extremely high.
The Queensland floods of 2010-11 caused the economic collapse of the state’s beetroot production. Eighty percent of the state’s beetroot production has been lost.
A year ago last July a saboteur in Bowen poisoned one grower’s nursery stock of tomato and eggplant seedlings causing a national price spike in September. Almost the entire Australian tomato crop is produced by four seedling nurseries.
* Peak Oil
Peak Oil will make our current food transport systems obsolete as oil prices rise. It will also see the costs of using artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which depend on cheap, plentiful oil, become much more expensive.
The ‘Peak’ for oil – or any mineral – is the point at which half of the reserve in the ground is gone. After that it will be impossible to increase production no matter how much effort is thrown at it. The International Energy Agency, after decades of denial, has finally admitted that Peak Oil probably passed in 2006. Oil is not about to ‘run out’, but falling production and increasing demand will cause prices to skyrocket
During the 2007-2008 oil price shock, many Australian farmers could not keep up with the rising cost of petrochemical pesticides and fertiliser. Food inflation rose rapidly. We must prepare for future price shocks as Peak Oil bites by growing food closer to the point of consumption: adjacent to our cities, or in them.
The Issues Paper ignores Peak Oil which is very strange when almost our entire food transport system depends on oil. An average supermarket meal travels 21,000kms by road so our current food transport, based on abundant cheap oil, will rapidly become unviable as oil production continues to decline over the next decade.
Fortunately the answer is clear, we must prepare to reduce transport by growing food closer to the point of consumption and to end our over-reliance on petrochemical pesticides and fertilisers.
* Colony collapse disorder and other threats to the honeybee
A National Food Policy must protect the honeybee and beekeepers. A National Food Policy must do this in recognition that forty percent of Australia’s crop plants – four plates of food out of ten – depend on the pollination services of the honeybee.
Australia is the last continent that remains free of varroa mite, a pest of honeybees. It was also the last continent to be invaded by small hive beetle, a destructive pest of honeybees introduced into Australia during the 2000 Olympics.
The varroa mite threatens food production by threatening the viability of the beekeeping industry. The varroa mite is recognised as a significant contributing factor to ‘colony collapse disorder’ of honeybees. In every country where this pest has spread crop yields dependant on pollination by honeybees have been affected, honey harvests have declined and jobs have been lost.
While the pollination services of honeybees are almost irreplaceable, certain species of native bees can, to some extent, act as a buffer. It has been demonstrated that the blue-banded bee can replace the pollination services of the European bumble bee with glasshouse grown tomatoes, and Trigona bees can pollinate crops in the cabbage family. But which other native bee species are useful? Australia has over 1,600 species, and most are inadequately understood. Which bee species can pollinate certain crops, how breeding populations of these bees can be ‘farmed’ and how best to deploy these ‘deputy honeybees‘ during a food emergency requires urgent, federally funded research.
Australia was also the last continent to be invaded by small hive beetle, our most recently imported threat to food security. This destructive pest of honeybees arrived during the 2000 Olympics – a consequence of inadequate quarantine checks. This was due, in part, to insufficient staffing and resources, plus inadequately secured international and interstate control points. Quarantine must be more diligent, it must be resourced to match the rising volume of goods entering this country and it must also be resourced to inspect the diversity of points of entry, including better port inspections.
* Peak Phosphate
All industrial farming, especially on Australia’s fossil, nutrient-leached soils, depends on inputs of mined phosphate. an effective National Food Plan must begin to recycle this diminishing resource. It is expected that Peak Phosphate will occur around 2030 or 2040.
This has worse implications for our current food production system than Peak Oil. The production of superphosphate fertiliser ushered in the modern era of farming in 1840 and Peak Phosphate will mark the end of that era unless we are prepared for it.
Part of the answer lies within our cities. Our waste water systems currently dump vast amounts of phosphate into waterways and the ocean – that waste must stop. Recovering phosphate from the liquid waste stream – sewage – to be recycled as fertiliser must be started now if we wish to maintain yields and avoid the return of rickets in our children.
Phosphate is currently exported in the form of live animal exports. Recovering phosphate from livestock carcasses (bone meal) at the point of slaughter is the traditional form of phosphate recycling. Ending live animal exports is kinder to livestock too.
* Loss of crop diversity
A National Food Plan must end threats to crop diversity by banning Genetically Modified crops and setting up a national program to preserve heritage crop genetic diversity and traditional, cultural knowledge about food production.
In the 20th century 75-85% of the world’s crop varieties became extinct – an enormous erosion of genetic resources essential for breeding programmes that underpin food security.
This loss of genetic diversity is making our food supply very insecure as modern industrial monocultures of pest and disease-prone hybrids are genetically very similar. In the early 1970’s the multibillion dollar US corn industry faced annihilation due to a virulent strain of corn blight disease. One resistant gene contained within the traditional Chinese Wax Corn plant, bred back into contemporary corn varieties saved the industry.
Thanks to our immigrant society bringing people, their familiar crops, and their traditional food culture from all over the world, Australia has an enormous and unparalleled range of heritage crop varieties.
There is a flourishing grassroots network of farmers and gardeners preserving this heritage. This should be encouraged and supported by the federal government and the genetic traits and resources of these heritage crops researched, mapped, documented and conserved.
Genetically modified corn grown for animal fodder in central America has contaminated the largest range of ancient varieties of corn on Earth. The loss of these varieties has made the future rescue of hybrid varieties of corn faced with a novel disease less likely.
If the spread of GM crops is permitted to continue the current simplification of crops and extinction of heritage varieties will continue to accelerate and we face a future where there is very little diversity and one novel disease could wipe out an entire staple crop.
Herbicide resistant GM canola (oilseed rape) in Europe has cross-bred with other members of the brassica family to produce herbicide resistant weeds.
Gene transfer of this nature could easily destroy the commercial viability of Australia’s most robust farming system – organic production as well as creating herbicide resistant invasive weeds to threaten bushland, and increasing the cost burden of pest control on conventional farms.
Jerry Coleby-Williams Dip. Hort. (Kew), RHS, NEBSM, MAIH
‘Bellis’, Brisbane’s sustainable house & garden