Did anyone else hear about this in 2011, or do the Abbott/Gillard theatrics obscure every interesting and debatable topic in Australian political  life now? 

Nope, apparently I'm not the only one who didn't hear about this National Food Plan we're working on, despite actually having blogged about the advisory committee at the end of 2010! Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy it's being developed. If anything it's a realisation that the Free Market (shudder) does not provide for all eventualities, and particularly not for environment (that thing we grow crops in and run cattle on etc). But seriously, Google the words 'National Food plan' - you won't get many relevant search results. Permaculture.org seemed a bit peeved to only find out by accident too.  

Being someone who wishes to be able to continue to eat in my future years, this plan interests me. In fact, surely this is a topic every  one of the 22,328,800 Australians who eat (and that is all of them) would like to know about and have a say in.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries website speaks thus on the topic: 'The Australian Government is developing Australia’s first ever national food plan which will ensure that the government’s policy settings are right for Australia over the short, medium and long-term. The aim of the plan is to foster a sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food. The government envisages that the national food plan will better integrate what it already does, and help identify if and where a better approach might be needed.'

Scuttling around on the web I find that the AG Institute has prepared a paper in response to the National Food Plan Issues paper which was tabled in mid 2011. In its introduction AG Institute says, 'To now meet the challenge of increasing world demand we will need to produce 100–130% more food, but with less and more degraded land, only two thirds of the water, scarce nutrients, higher costs, potentially less intellectual capital because of less R&D, and with climate change biting at our heels.'
It's interesting to me that the sort of language first criticised when used by Rachel Carson in 'Silent Spring' (one of the first creative non-fiction 'novels' to tackle environmental issues) for being emotive (and hence unobjective) is evident here in the response of  a corporate entity to a government document. AG Institute also says that the Green Revolution 'saved the day' in the 1960s...a point not particularly relevant to Australian food nor entirely truthful.

It also addresses the issue of land use; 'Despite only about 8% of Australia’s land being suitable for crops and pasture improvement, we see a continuation of alienation of that land for urban development. Much of this is better class land suited to vegetable and other high value horticultural fresh produce and represents a huge loss of productive capacity close to markets.' 
And the threat of mining to agriculture; '... the “attraction” of mining opportunities and the revenues they generate for governments, at least in the short term, override the cost of losing productive land for food production in the longer term.'

There's a recent article in The Australian that reiterates this concern; 'Australia had lost 89 million hectares of farmland to urban sprawl, forestry plantations, national parks and mining leases in the past 26 years'. To me, there's a problem with this statement, in that it includes national parks and forestry in what is essentially a list of negatives. This seems to be a problem with the whole way of speaking about food. We seem to think food is this resource unconnected to the environment around it.

Here's the thing that more and more food activists are trying to tell you... food and the environment: it's very, very connected. Nowhere is this more evident than on Polyface Farms, run by Joel Salatin. People seem awfully surprised at the huge amount of food his farm is able to produce on a small amount of land, and woah, he actually HAS a forestry plantation (which surely does great things for keeping topsoil intact, particularly during heavy rains and strong winds. Topsoil erosion is a huge problem in Australia). Salatin also uses biomimicry to provide for 2,000 families, 25 restaurants, and 10 retail outlets out of his 500 acre farm.

 The same article in The Australian points out the loss of food ownership to overseas investors, 'Foreigners almost doubled their stake in Australian farms in the same period (the past 26 years). They currrently own or part-own 11.3 per cent of the nation's farmland.' and says imports have risen and exports fallen. I really think the National Food Plan should take a good look at this in terms of the business model of FoodConnect, the little Sydney/Brisbane based organisation that provides local fruit, veg, meat and other food products on a subscription basis. This provides the farmers with a sustainable price at the farm gate - something the big buying chains are not providing.

Would it be too far out to suggest government support schemes for buying local, organic food through co-ops or businesses like FoodConnect? This would surely address some social issues around food too; higher discounts for low income families etc, and support for agricultural businesses who are using sustainable practice.
These are ideas, and ideas are good right?

The Ag Institute also point out a few hard truths about wastage 'Of the total edible food crop harvest, 13% is lost in post-harvest losses, 26% is used in animal feed (net of milk and meat produced) and 17% is wasted in distribution or in households, leaving only 44% for consumption.' Whether this household waste is just in Australia or in the houses of the global mouths our food is shipped to, 17% is a huge amount when you think about it in tonnes of food or billions of dollars. Perhaps in response to these figures the NSW government has recently released a campaign to try and cut down food waste in the household, which you can find here
I wonder how much of the 13% lost in post-harvest losses and 17% lost in distribution (or households) is because food is ambitiously trucked around the country and the globe. Alain de Botton, in his book 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work', delves into the mysterious world of food logistics. 'Time is of the essence,"  he writes, "At any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are seventy-two hours away from being inedible, a prospect which prompts continuous struggles against the challenges of mould and geography..." (1).
And I wonder how much of the 26% used in animal feed is used this way because it is rejected by supermarkets for being too knobbly or the wrong shade of green. 

There are suggestions in the Ag Institute's response for the need for government incentives for  agricultural development and research. I absolutely couldn't agree more. And please let there be research into these problems of waste. 

I hope that before the plan is finalised that there is a lot more space for public input and inclusion like that in the public webcast (transcript here). 
I particularly like this comment from Deanne Wooden who took part in the webcast, and I'll leave you with it:

'The primary focus of Queensland food policy "Food for a Growing Economy" is economic development, however the Minister stated that it will be the vehicle for Qld to respond to the National Food Plan, which I would hope will have more of a focus on health and equity of food access. Can you say how consistency with the two plans/policies will be achieved? And how will the national food plan be relevant to local governments?'

1. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton, 2009, Penguin Group, p41
5. Foreign Calls to Save our Farmland, Natasha Bita, The Australian, Jan 23 2012, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/foreign-calls-to-save-our-farmland/story-e6frg6nf-1226250777008>

*For a look at the independent PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Food Security submission on food security to the PM in 2010, which prompted the creation of the National Food Plan see here.