Chooks lull us into false sense of food security
As a farmer it is my duty to let backyard chook fanciers in on a secret. No chook ever died in credit. That’s why the only chooks that have ever been on our farm have been dead, plucked and ready to cook.
Chooks as pets are the flavour of the month. They are small, they eat leftovers and the eggs they lay are delicious, making them ideal pets for inner-city backyards.
But if you look at the economics, each egg will cost many times more than the amount you pay for a barn-laid dozen and food producers don’t provide homes for poultry or livestock that doesn’t earn its keep.
About 80 per cent of the eggs produced in Australia come from “caged birds” and the rest are labelled “free range”. You have to take food labelling with a grain of salt as food labels can tend towards fantasy in some cases. One of our largest supermarkets is selling meat not labelled organic or budget, fresh or lean but “Amazing”.
What on Earth could make the meat “Amazing”? When I eat meat I want it to come from a healthy beast that is not too old and has been cared for well. Is this meat “Amazing” because the beasts are so old? Is it “Amazing” the customers are falling for this latest label? Or is it “Amazing” that an ordinary cut of meat can have a word added to its packaging and 40 cents extra added to the price. That would be the 40 cents to make up for the fuel discount. But I digress.
The popularity of backyard poultry and the sprouting of farmers’ markets show that people do care about what they eat and where it is produced or grown. While Australia is one of the most active food producing and exporting nations it really needs to think more strategically about its food supply and encouraging people to keep a couple of chooks and grow a few vegies isn’t going to ensure supply.
Australia’s national and economic security is bound to a secure food supply but current government investment in agricultural technologies, infrastructure and distribution networks is well below what it should be. Investment in developing and protecting the Australian farm does not match the large contribution the sector makes to our economy. Agriculture is worth two per cent of GDP or $36.1 billion according to the figures from 2006-07. A sound agricultural investment program administered and overseen by government would yield greater and more sustainable results for the nation’s economy than the current individual handouts being made in the name of economic stimulus.
We had a sliver of a taste of interruption to food supply in 2006 when Cyclone Larry wiped out 200,000 tonnes of bananas in Queensland. The price of bananas shot up and it took about two years for production to return to normal but no one starved and no one died from lack of banana supply.
While our shops may overflow with produce the Australian public should realise that food security is an issue that requires more thought than whether two chooks can produce enough eggs for the family each week. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says that food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. In the past two decades two-thirds of world conflicts have erupted over food, land or water. There have been food riots in 37 countries over increased food prices.
Russia has announced it will ban the importation of Australian kangaroo meat from August 1 on the grounds of concerns about food safety. The industry employs more than 4000 people in Australia and contributes up to $270 million but now 70 per cent of our kangaroo meat has no buyer. This is just one industry that needs some help to address these concerns or a lot of people may be forced to join the dole queue.
Australia’s record of addressing agricultural infrastructure or technologies is not strong. Food producers now face the added pressure of being penalised under the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme. They will have to pay higher input costs from the start but will not receive any special consideration as an Emissions Intensive Trade Exposed Industry. Water trading schemes, buybacks and the almost phobic preoccupation with locking land away in conservation reserves has become the policy response to ensuring a good food supply. Essentially, these policies are inhibiting sustainable growth in the farming sector.
The direction Australia needs to take in the interests of our national and economic security is to have a well-developed plan to reconstruct our agricultural industry to better respond to the changing world. This will involve an active government creating a policy environment that will ensure Australia and other nations have access to fair markets, price stabilization and nutritional food. Such a policy environment will not solely rely upon free market thinking but carefully calculated systems of government support and private enterprise incentives.
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