Submission: Senate Inquiry into Food Production in Australia

Kirsten Larsen appeared at a public hearing in March 2009. The text of the covering submission is included below, which basically refers the Inquiry to our existing work.

Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL) Submission to the Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Related Industries Inquiry into Food Production in Australia

The Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab welcomes the Select Committee’s investigation into food production in Australia and the question of how to produce food that is:

  1. Affordable to consumers;
  2. Viable for production by farmers; and
  3. Of sustainable impact on the environment.

This topic has been a focus area of our project since its inception in early 2007 and is the subject of our first policy challenges report – Sustainable and Secure Food Systems for Victoria: What do we know? What do we need to know? – released in April 2008. This report comprehensively documents the relationships between the environmental impacts of the food system, the existing and potential impacts on production viability and food affordability, and the emerging responses that may offer pathways towards food systems that support the goals of the inquiry. While the report is written for a Victorian context the situation and opportunities are directly applicable to the National context.

The key message of this submission is that the three factors identified in the Terms of Reference cannot be pursued in isolation from each other – they are critically interdependent and must be mutually supportive. Pursuing one or two at the cost of the others will undermine the long-term resilience of the system in the face or increasing and converging challenges.

For example:

  • Pursuit of productivity at the expense of the environment has led to major soil degradation in agricultural landscapes across Australia. The loss of biologically healthy soils means that the services these soils could have provided (nutrients to plants, moisture storage and carbon sequestration) have been increasingly provided through other inputs. As the costs of synthetic chemical fertilisers and other agricultural chemicals rise exponentially, the value of rebuilding healthy soils to support healthy plants also increases – production viability of farmers can be underpinned by environmental improvement.
  • Reducing the environmental impact of food systems can increase food affordability. Environmental impacts are increasingly being internalised in the cost of food (as has been seen in the drought) and the introduction of emissions trading in Australia will have a significant impact on the costs of some foods, even with the non-inclusion of agricultural emissions. It has been found that 58% of the emissions from a packet of corn chips (from Australian maize) occur after the farm gate, in packaging, processing etc. Reducing the environmental impact of foods (in this case emissions) will make them more affordable to consumers. 
  • Loss of viable Australian production increases consumer reliance on imported food. Fluctuating oil costs are already having a significant impact on international and domestic transport costs and increased reliance on food travelling long distances is more vulnerable to inevitable oil price increases. The instability in the value of the Australian dollar also impacts on affordability of imported food. In coming years it is likely that the viability of local production (particularly in and around urban areas) will be a key factor in food affordability.

There is one key issue around food that is not within the terms of reference of this committee but is relevant nonetheless. The food system has very significant impacts on the health and wellbeing of consumers and producers. The question of how to produce Australia’s food must take into account whether this food is making people healthy or making them sick. Nutrition related illness is critically interconnected with how food is produced and distributed, and how much it costs. A critical issue in food provision is ensuring that healthy and safe foods (not just any ‘foods’) are available and affordable to all consumers.

We refer the Inquiry to the full report (submitted as Pt 2) and would welcome an opportunity to present our findings and discuss them in more detail. An overview presentation of the report’s findings is also attached as part of the submission (Pt 3).