As interest rates and inflation continue to rise, so too have discussions pertaining to food security in Australia. But an increase in the costs of staples such as vegetables, bread, milk, and meat are not only due to internal economic shocks. Rather, the United National Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) advised in May 2022 that the outlook for global acute food security is expected to further deteriorate due to drivers such as uneven economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, widespread supply chain disruptions, and weather extremes – which are realities all too familiar across Australia.
Given the significant difficulties faced by primary producers and agribusinesses globally, which is seeing a continuance of the propensity for panic-buying, countries including the United Kingdom have developed national food strategies to help bolster food security.
What is food security?
Food security has been defined by the United Nations as being "the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs". In corporate Australia, food security is recognised by the ASX Corporate Governance Council as an important ESG consideration, in that it is a key social risk that has the potential to negatively affect human society.
Significantly, despite commitment to, and some progress towards, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN Member States, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has projected that the world is not on track to achieve SDG 2, Zero Hunger, by 2030 – and the coronavirus pandemic has made the pathway even steeper. Indeed, the FAO have advised that beyond hunger, nearly one in three people did not have access to adequate food in 2020, while the costs of food and income inequality are putting healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people – even in developed nations. In June 2022, the FAO also advised that the war in Ukraine has exacerbated an already deteriorating global food security, due to an aggravation of energy, fertilizer, and food costs.
Fortunately, the FAO noted in its 2021 Report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, that food system transformation can still occur through pathways including scaling of climate resistant food systems, strengthening economic resistance, food chain intervention, and changing consumer behaviour.
United Kingdom's National Food Strategy – a feast for the eyes
In 2019, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) commissioned an independent review by Henry Dimbleby (co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and DEFRA non-executive director) into the UK food system for the purposes of designing recommendations so that the UK food system, "delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where [people] live or how much they earn", and "restored and enhances natural environment for the next generation".
Published in June 2021, the 290-page National Food Strategy: The Plan provided 14 recommendations sitting within four strategic imperatives:
- Escaping the junk food cycle to protect the National Health Service, as diet-related illness such as diabetes and heart-disease place significant strain on the health system.
- Reducing diet-related inequality, without implementing blanket taxes on consumers or producers, while ensuring international trade deals did not undermine the domestic agriculture sector.
- Making the best use of land, including financially supporting farmers to introduce regenerative farming and sustainability practices.
- Creating a long-term shift in food culture.
In response, DEFRA presented a Government Food Strategy to the UK Parliament in June 2022, which sets out the following objectives:
1. to deliver a prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world, and contributes to the levelling up agenda through good quality jobs around the country, by:
(a) developing new farming schemes through the commitment of £390 million to ag-tech and innovation.
(b) releasing an additional 10,000 Seasonal Worker Visas (including 2,000 for the poultry sector).
(c) working with the Migration Advisory Commission to review occupation shortages in the agricultural sector.
2. to deliver a sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all, by:
(a) using the Agriculture Act (2020), Fisheries Act (2020) and the Environment Act (2021) to incentivise farmers and food producers to adopt more sustainable practices.
(b) publishing a land use framework in 2023 to ensure the UK meets net zero and biodiversity targets.
(c) boosting school funding to develop a strong food curriculum.
(d) launching a Food Data Transparency Partnership.
3. to deliver trade that provides export opportunities and consumer choice through imports, without compromising regulatory standards for food, whether produced domestically or imported, by:
(a) developing new, bespoke, free trade agreements.
(b) setting standards on animal health and production regimes that will inform FTA negotiations.
(c) placing agri-food attaches at its embassies in major trading partner countries.
The UK Government Food Strategy has been condemned by Henry Dimbleby, and Opposition parties as not providing “a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues” facing the UK in circumstances where it has not delivered on all recommendations set out by Dimbleby in the National Food Strategy. However, whilst the UK Government Food Strategy may be lacking, it – along with the National Food Plan - demonstrates the UK’s intention to ensure food security and sustainable production, and strengthen its role in the global food system.
Australia's food security: past its use-by date
Australia does have a National Food Plan – but it is nearly 10 years old. Published in May 2013 in the form of a white paper by the Gillard Government, its role was to ensure "that Australia has a sustainable, globally competitive and resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food". To achieve the then Australian Government’s vision for Australia’s food system, 16 goals were set for accomplishment by 2025, only two of which related to food security:
- Australia will have built on its high level of food security by continuing to improve access to safe and nutritious food for those living in remote communities or struggling with disadvantage.
- Australia will have contributed to global food security by helping farmers in developing countries gain access to new agricultural technologies.
Significantly, the deliverables set to reach these goals did not include consideration, or planning, for domestic food insecurity outside that which was already experienced by those in remote communities or set aside for "a national emergency (such as a severe influenza pandemic), a multi-regional event, or significant events occurring concurrently in several jurisdictions".
While it is important to note that some legislative amendments and Government initiatives were established following the publication of the National Food Plan, the issue of domestic food insecurity has not been considered by Government to date.
Indeed, a report published by ABARES in 2020 reiterated that Australia "was one of the most food secure nations in the world", noting that it produces more food than it consumes – exporting "about 70% of agricultural output in years with average or favourable seasonal conditions" – and we have seen very strong messages from the Australian Government in the past two years that Australia’s food security remains robust.
However, such confidence does not appear to be reciprocated by organisations outside the Federal Government.
Research from the University of Melbourne in May 2022 suggests that we should be "boosting our capacity to weather shocks", going so far as to recommend the establishment of a Minister for Food – a sentiment reiterated by Dr Rachel Carey and Dr Maureen Murphy of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, who identified that food insecurity is growing in Australia at an alarming rate, and that:
- emergency food relief through charitable organisations is not a long-term solution; and
- shocks and stresses such as natural disasters and the pandemic will continue to impact the food system.
Significantly, food industry associations appear to agree.
In an unprecedented move, on 17 June 2022, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) issued a media statement advising that the NFF, Independent Food Distributors Australia, Australian Meat Industry Council, Master Grocers Australia, and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores have formed a Food Industry Alliance with the purposes of working constructively with Government to address Australia’s food domestic food security issues arising from the labour shortage crisis, rising costs in the supply chain, and domestic supply chain inefficiencies.
So, what's next for food policy in Australia?
While we wait for the newly elected Federal Government to find its feet on the issue of food security, continued calls for a Minister for Food, industry-led initiatives such as the Food Industry Alliance, and the example set by the UK (and other countries such as Canada), may just prompt a full review of our now outdated National Food Plan.
In preparation for such review, or to ready themselves for the implications of food security policies implemented by key trading partners, like the UK, primary producers and agribusiness should:
- ensure businesses are adapting to meet sustainability and environmental targets, through investment in appropriate technologies and alternate energies.
- ensure land use or business input frameworks include strategy considerations to meet net zero, biodiversity targets, and climate risk mitigation.
- consider how manufactured goods contribute to current food culture, and how a tax on salt or sugar may impact the bottom line.
- consider whether current standards on animal health and production regimes meet domestic and international standards.
For further information or advice on agribusiness and food, please contact Andrew Hay or Caitlin McConnel.