Australia’s food security — much more important than trade pacts

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With climate change biting, food security is becoming a vital issue for Australia's future, to which the Abbott Government must give far greater priority to than sealing piecemeal trade agreements, writes Kellie Tranter.

THE LATEST report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a grim picture for the future of Australia’s food security.

Its publication coincides with the recent release of the final report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, which details the failures of the ‘Green Revolution’ and calls for a new paradigm in the way we produce, consume and legislate in relation to food — and quickly!

Statistics indicate that Australia’s population will exceed 40 million by 2060. In the current relatively stable climatic circumstances, Australia now feeds 60 million people directly.

But that's no cause for complacency.

In 2010, the Gillard Government’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council released its report Australia and Food Security in a Changing World.

The authors presciently highlighted that:

‘...If our population grows to 35-40 million and climate change constrains food production, we can see years where we will import more food than we export...’

Scientists pointed out in March this year that the world is on track to become more than 2°C warmer and that farmers could face significant drops in agriculture, especially in the Murray-Darling Basin. They also predicted global warming will cut crop harvests by 2 per cent each decade based on a 2°C rise by 2050.

The mounting likelihood of a significantly larger population, combined with water scarcity, lower food yields and rising temperatures – all within decades – should be a wake-up call for Australian politicians who are genuinely concerned about Australia’s food and national security.

Food scarcity generates internal instability.

Just last year, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned that if food prices climb above 210 on the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Price Index – in any particular country – riots prompted by and fought on empty stomachs are the inevitable result.

Whether Labor or Liberal is in power, the Australian Government's reactions to these threats has been – and is – slow, misguided and disintegrated.

On 6 February 2014, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, announced the preparation of an issues paper on agricultural competitiveness, with a view to developing an 'Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper’.

It is to consider, among other things, food security in Australia and the world through the creation of a stronger and more competitive agriculture sector. It doesn’t cover human nutritional health issues and the issues paper – not the white paper – is due for release only towards the end of 2014.

Submissions close on 17 April 2014.

Notwithstanding the enormity of the future food security problem, the nation is likely to face the issues paper constrained by it being

‘... developed in the context of findings of the Commission of Audit, the constrained fiscal circumstances and the Government’s commitment to return the Budget to surplus.'

Even so, budgetary constraints aren't likely to be the most serious source of restrictions on the government's power to confront the issue.

While these preliminary steps at identifying the problem are being set in train, the Government is simultaneously in advanced negotiations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). 

If that agreement is made, it will significantly impact on agricultural policy – particularly on the scope for the government's use of policy instruments affecting agriculture – even before we have fully analysed and understood Australia’s current and future food security risks and what policy instruments might be most efficacious. 

That's like agreeing to have one hand tied behind your back to go into a fight before you've had a chance to assess your opponent.

Proceeding with the TPP agreement at this point is even more disturbing when the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has confirmed that now, more than ever, we need to re-democratise food to ensure that local communities can withstand shocks linked to peak oil, imbalances in the cycle of nitrogen, genetic erosion because of mono-cropping schemes, soil degradation and repeated shocks from climate change.

The publication by WikiLeaks of various chapters from the TPP should have raised serious concerns about how the TPP agreement may hinder  the Australian Government in its use of public policy to re-invent food systems to protect Australia’s food security.

Concerns include:

  • Will the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement clause create harmonised laws that give multinational protection to commercial interests, including land, to the detriment of our national sovereignty?
  • Will it limit the ability to explore new options to reduce vulnerability to volatile international markets and to build integrated local food systems?
  • What rules about discrimination against foreign suppliers are to be included, and how will they limit government policy options?
  • Will the commitments being negotiated in the TPP advance or stifle human rights to food and development?
  • Is the Government willing to carry out a human rights impact assessment – as the UN Special Rapporteur suggested – before signing the TPP?

Food security is an issue that must be carefully and comprehensively addressed by our government as a matter of critical forward planning. And it must be given priority over trade "arrangements" that may have attractions now, but which will limit the government's policy options when current circumstances change, which all indicators point to being soon. 

To effectively confront the problem, the Australian Government needs to: first, investigate and understand the issues; next, properly assess the probabilities and risks; and, finally, to formulate contingency plans that can be put into effect by the full range of policy options reserved to a sovereign state. 

This is not something that can be dealt with piecemeal as its effects surface, by a policy arsenal limited by international agreements. 

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter.

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