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A plan for food

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Thursday, 3 November 2011


As the National Food Plan wends its way through the bureaucracy, with the first round of public consultation completed, whether it will do more than keep a lot of public servants occupied is still the main question.

The government says the plan will outline its "vision for the food industry and consumers" given there are "many government policies, programs and regulations but no overarching food policy framework."

Well maybe, but it is difficult not to be cynical. As I have previously discussed, industry plans evoke comparisons with the five year plans of centrally planned economies in which remote bureaucrats prescribe targets which have no relationship to reality. Governments are more often part of the problem than the solution.

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But perhaps that is unkind. Food is high on the agenda of many countries these days, and several have attempted to peer into the crystal ball. In January this year the UK government released its report, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, which concluded that nothing less than a "redesign of the whole food system" was required. Our plan sounds modest by comparison.

Submissions to the planning process are numerous and diverse, as might be expected when the guide began by asking why a plan was needed and what it is expected to achieve. Quite a few pronounced the idea, in the Sir Humphrey sense, as heroic. With 13 separate government portfolios involved just to prepare the Issues Paper, that may be an understatement.

The most revealing responses were to the question: What two or three actions by the government sector would most benefit businesses that make, distribute and sell food?

You might expect those directly involved in food production, such as the farmer organisations, to respond by promoting a grand vision of noble service, protecting the world from hunger, with the merest hint of special treatment and taxpayer handouts. But their submissions were largely vision-free, although there was certainly interest in special treatment and taxpayer funds.

The Victorian Farmers Federation nominated as its key concerns protocols for importing apples, the impact of the carbon tax on costs, and aspects of labelling. It also mentioned a lack of understanding of farming in the wider community.

South Australian farmers mentioned declining agricultural R&D, concerns about food imports, biosecurity and labelling, and called for reduced fees plus subsidies "where required". They also expressed concerns about the lack of understanding of farming.

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The Queensland Farmers Federation called for increased ACCC powers to monitor situations such as Coles' milk price discounting, incentives to increase investment in agriculture, and increased R&D. Growcom, representing Queensland's horticultural producers, simply focused on import competition.

NSW Farmers was a little more visionary and submitted a long list of recommendations covering investment in alternative fuels, diesel taxes, food labelling, transport infrastructure, mining, native vegetation and water. They also thought the government should increase understanding of food production.

There is a problem here. Even if the government were to restrict imports, abolish the carbon tax, modify food labelling, increase R&D funding, boost the ACCC's powers and so on, it is impossible to believe these are the best it could do to benefit food production. And a national plan is hardly required either.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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