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The National Food Plan: food policy or something else?


The Australian Government released the National Food Plan White Paper (the Paper) on 25 May 2013. At the time the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said ‘For the first time, Australia’s food businesses and consumers have a road map for the future…’ The Paper, however, is not about food for Australians; it has minimal focus on what Australians eat, or food processing in Australia. It is more an export plan, particularly for Australian producers.

What’s in the National Food Plan White Paper?

In 2010 the Government said the National Food Plan would better integrate food policy by looking at the food supply chain from paddock to plate.The Paper makes 16 recommendations for food policy in Australia. A number of these recommendations are grounded and achievable such as: Australian children will have a better understanding of how food is produced and Australia will have reduced per capita food waste. Others however, are rather aspirational, for example by 2025:
  • Australia’s agricultural productivity will have increased by 30%
  • Australia will be among the top five most efficiently regulated countries in the world
  • the value of Australia’s food-related exports will have increased by 45% (in real terms) and
  • Australia will have a globally recognised food brand that is synonymous with high-quality, innovative, safe and sustainable food, services and technology.
Along with the release of the Paper almost $40.0 million in initiatives were announced, the largest of which ($28.5 million) was the establishment of the Asian Food Markets Research Fund (p. 8).
Other initiatives include:
  • an additional $5.6 million to build relationships with trading partners in key and emerging markets (p. 8)
  • a review by the Productivity Commission of the impact of regulatory burdens across the food chain (p. 9)
  • support the skills and workforce needs of the food industry (p. 9) and  
  • $2.0 million to develop a brand identity for Australian food and related technolog (p. 8)
In addition to these initiatives, a number of current programs and projects were referred to. These include:
  • continued investing in the rural research and development system – currently around $700 million annually
  • the investment of $9 billion over five years from 2012-13 through the states and territories for the National Vocational Education and Training System (including agricultural studies) 
  • the investment of $60 billion in transport infrastructure through the National Building Program since 2008 (including in regional and agricultural areas) (p. 9).

The real deal

The original stated goal of the National Food Plan was to assess food sustainability, affordability and security. The Paper, however, only briefly addresses any of these issues. The Paper reads as if the goal of food policy in Australia is to enhance the brand of Australian food and help to feed the world, particularly Asia and China. Many of the existing policies articulated in the Paper seem to have only a tenuous link with agriculture and food. Of the new programs and projects almost all are export oriented. Where the Paper makes links to actual producers and processes, it is limited to calls for them to become more export oriented and water efficient and to reduce emissions.
The possibility of adding value to Australia’s agricultural resources receives scant attention. Indeed, the food processing industry is utterly ignored. This is odd if only because the food and beverage manufacturing industry employs around 226,000, not far short of the total employed in agriculture at around 289,000.

Critical reception 

The Paper received a mixed response. Some key producer stakeholders were supportive. Duncan Fraser the President of the National Farmers Federation (NFF) was quoted as saying ‘This is a great outcome for Australian farmers, the NFF and agriculture in general’. The Australian Greens, on the other hand, were less so, claiming that the Paper fails to tackle the key issues: the supermarket duopoly, the impacts of climate change on future food production, and lax food labelling laws.

Food plan or export plan?

The emphasis the Paper places on Asian demand is understandable, as Asian countries already buy almost 50 per cent of Australia’s agricultural exports, in addition to the rapid growth of a number of Asian countries. However, due to this emphasis, the Paper is not a food plan. It is rather an export plan and would better have been incorporated into the Australia in the Asian CenturyWhite Paper.