Thursday, July 26, 2012

National Food Plans

Australians have come to a bit of a disconnect with their government. The Australian government announced that they would pursue the development of a first-ever National Food Plan for the country, prior to the 2010 general election. The call was put out by (apparently now ex-) Woolworths chief Michael Luscombe, who is quoted as saying;
 "If you think about our food value chain, from the producers down, it is covered by multiple departments at federal and state level, and then there are many regulatory bodies.
"Because it's such a complex challenge for all of us, there's no one minister that has an over-arching approach at one point in time -- that has a view on how things are happening."
Australians took their own meaning from the call for submissions on the topic. Many of them were like Cathy Xiao Chen, who called for more urban food production and a strong organics recycling program. Or Carolyn Ballard, who wanted to see an integrated land/water/health program directed towards long-term sustainability.
The problem was, the Australian government really wasn't interested in hearing about these ideas. Michael Luscombe was calling for a free-trade-based, minimum-regulation regime focused on increased "food manufacturing." As The Australian reported: "The retailer had recommended a super-ministry, or "one minister with overall responsibility"." And that's what Australians got--a report focused on the dominant paradigm of a growth- and export-oriented model. Not much mention of a sustainable and secure food supply in-country.
Traditionally, and I'm talking here of "traditionally" stretching from Ur and the birth of agriculture until quite recently, the role of government was to manage a safe and secure food supply for their own people. After they had planned for famine, then they looked at taxing and controlling the flow of exported foodstuffs and the creation of empires. And every empire has learned, once you stop paying attention to the coming famine (and there's always a coming famine), once you allow your food system to become reliant on imports to keep the population fed, you were balancing a pyramid on its apex rather than its base. And that is an unsustainable model.

Again, traditionally governments managed a five year supply of grain as a hedge against famine. Because that's the nice thing about grain; it keeps. Keep the rats out, keep the rain off, and you're golden. But the modern food system is entirely focused on moving food between countries to maximize profits, and governments, like Australia, the US and Canada, are working hard to keep those corporate profits up. What they aren't doing is planning for the bad years. And the bad years are here.
As Melbourne University’s Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab said in 2011:
Substantial, unavoidable and imminent changes in our food supply systems … require fundamental shifts in how we manage land and resources for food production … These potentially non-linear changes mean the past is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the future and care must be taken in avoiding ‘lazy’ assumptions about the possibility of continuing in a business-as-usual trajectory.
Business as usual isn't going to be business as usual any more. As North American corn growers are learning, assumptions about climate conditions are just that, they make an ass of U and umption. Eastern Canada is seeing drought conditions that are begining to rival those in the American MidWest. While our governments are still arguing over the design of the dining room in the plans, the Titanic has already struck the iceberg.
In Canada, the Harper government--as well as our provincial governments--have  abrogated their responsibility for our food supply for too long, preferring instead to prostrate themselves in front of their corporate masters. In Canada its taken an NGO to produce a national food policy, the Peoples Food Policy. Harper has already dismantled the Wheat Board, and has his sight set on milk and egg marketing boards. (The argument will be made that we are paying too much for both products, when in fact it is the US that's paying too little. Canadian prices more honestly reflect the actual costs of production, while the US is heavily subsidizing their producers in pursuit of votes and a cheap food policy).
Thankfully, some of the tools to address this massive failure are in our hands. Food production is, at least for the next while, still an amazingly democratic institution. Land, water, and seed, once acquired, will grow for pretty much everyone. But, as the contrast between Cuba and Venezuela has shown, when it hits the fan, it takes a motivated population and a government willing to support without controlling to get an alternate food supply system up and running quickly.  until then, start preparing to spend more of your income on food.

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