Growcom warns of net food importation

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 17th March 2011

Peak horticulture organisation Growcom has released a new report warning of the increasing magnitude of Australia’s net fresh fruit and vegetable importation, and called for an end to complacency regarding domestic food security.

The organisation’s Chief Executive Officer, Alex Livingstone, said that the general public was largely unaware that up to 34% of fruit and 19% of vegetables consumed in Australia are imported.

“In dollar terms, Australia imports a greater value of processed fruit and vegetables than we export, and the gap has been steadily widening in the past decade. While we still export more fresh or chilled vegetables, fruit and nuts than we import, the gap has been significantly narrowing in the past decade,” Livingstone said.

“Successive governments have loudly proclaimed the success of Australian agricultural exports as a sign there are no threats to Australian food security,” he said.

“However, the figures used to support these arguments are biased by a small number of heavily export-focussed industries (e.g. meat and grains). The picture when it comes to consumption and trade data for horticulture is vastly different and reflects the severe economic and regulatory pressures on the industry.

“Food security should not be measured based solely on how much production is exported. There is also a need to look at how much of the food we eat is imported and consider whether in future imported products will continue to be cheap or even available in the face of forecast burgeoning world populations.”

Mr Livingstone was speaking today in Brisbane at the launch of Growcom’s report into food security issues for the Australian horticulture industry, as part of the national conversation taking place around the development of the federal government’s National Food Plan.

The report, Food security issues for the Australian horticulture industry, surveyed the data regarding food production, supply, sources and demand in Australia and gathered perspectives on food security issues from a range of stakeholders. From this information, Growcom’s researchers explored possible future scenarios of food security in Australia and assessed the threats and opportunities they posed. The report recommends strategies and actions that could be implemented to address food security from a horticultural perspective, in particular to identify research and development priorities, and is available on the organisation’s website.

Mr Livingstone said that Growcom agreed with federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig that a priority under the plan should be the identification of the plethora of regulations affecting the food industry at every level and take action to remove superfluous regulation that is unnecessary, duplicative or operating at cross purposes in order to improve productivity and cost efficiency of food production.

“In preparing our report on food security from the horticulture industry’s perspective, we surveyed stakeholders in the horticulture supply chain and supporting industries, including growers, research and development agencies, retailers, processors, policy makers, planners, inputs companies, industry bodies and distribution companies,” Mr Livingstone said.

“Most groups thought that current government policy settings were inadequate and called for an integrated approach to food security within a Food Security Agency as part of the federal agriculture portfolio to identify and reduce regulatory costs and foster a more conducive economic environment that promoted research and development and innovation.

“The challenge to feed more people with the same or less land and water will also require an increase in research and development funding from both private and public sources to at least 1970s levels of five per cent of the gross value of agricultural production.

“A nationally co-ordinated food industry strategy is needed which includes sustainability regarding water, waste, energy and carbon; a focus on the protection of prime horticultural lands (particularly arable lands close to urban centres of population); key investment in research and development, innovation and labour force development and training; and on the supply chain side, a need for action on retailer domination, predatory behaviour and cost competitiveness.”

Mr Livingstone said that Growcom had developed a policy paper on food security which it would discuss with the federal government during the development of the National Food Plan and, in the lead-up to the Queensland elections, with state politicians.