Saturday, February 4, 2012

Farming in Australia: an uncomfortable truth

So what's happening in the state of agriculture in Australia?  It's always interesting to have a look at the stats which give a snapshot of what is happening in the industry. Rather than the rhetoric.

Basically what is happening is that farms and getting fewer and bigger. Supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths control around 80% of the market for fresh food and this in turn is having an effect on the size of the operations who can supply them with the volume and prices they demand.

In her  2009 Sydney Morning Herald article, "Suburbs will swallow Sydney's market gardens", Debra Jopson asserted that in 2004 there were more than 4,000 vegetable producers in Australia and predicted that the number would soon drop to less than a thousand.  This article was written in 2009 so it would be interesting to know just how many are left in 2012.

The following stats from the Productivity Commission Research Paper, "Trends in Australian Agriculture" 5 July 2005, are worrying, to say the least:
  • over the 20 year period to 2002-3, the number of farms declined from around 178,000 to 132,000;
  • the average size of Australian farms increased from 2720 hectares to 3340 hectares (or by around 23%);
  • the proportion of farms with a value of operations less than $100,000 declined by 13% while the proportion of farms with a value of operations over $500,000 increased by 8%;
  • farm production has become more concentrated on large farms - the top 20% of broadacre farms account for 64% of output. 

Across many industries, the volume of food being produced is increasing and the number of producers is decreasing. Production of grain fed beef has more than trebled in the period since 1991-2, with grain fed beef comprising over 30% of total beef production in 2003-4. The number of cattle being 'finished' in feed lots has been consistently increasing from around 200,000 in 1991 to 700,000 in 2003-4, an annual average increase of around 11%. The Meat and Livestock Association website states that "600 accredited feedlots in Australia representing a total capacity of almost 860,000 cattle".  [] 

But wait.  There's (unfortunately) more. In her article about intensive and free range pig farming, Amanda Woods cites figures from Australian Pork Limited which show that in relation to the Australian Pork Industry, from 1980-2007 the number of Australian pig farmers fell by more than 90 per cent. At the same time, pig meat production almost doubled as pigs were taken out of fields and raised intensively, leading to an increase in the average herd size of nearly 900 per cent. ["Happy as a pig in Mudgee" Amanda Woods, The Australian, 20 February 2010]

This is the same industry which has came under public scrutiny for its intensive operations and appalling treatment of animals.

Surely the farmers must be winning though?

In 2008 the National Farmers' Federation stated that the amount paid to farmers ranged between 5-40% of the retail price of the product and that there is an increasing gap between the amount paid to farmers and retail prices.   ["National Farmers Federation Submission on the ACCC Inquiry into the Competitiveness of Retail Prices for Standard Groceries" March 2008; p. 7]

There is a notion pushed by the large supermarket chains and politicians that our food is too expensive and the increase in volumes and corresponding drop in prices is a good thing.  OECD comparisons are often cited as a reason why we are paying too much for our food in Australia.

However what is not taken into account is that Europe has a much higher concentration of people and a much smaller geographic footprint, so we should expect their fresh food prices to be cheaper than ours in Australia, where food often has to be transported long distances, our weather is extreme and our population much smaller. We really should pay more for food.

However, we've been brainwashed into thinking that we're paying too much for food and that prices should come down. In her article "Australian farmers sold short by cheap food", Sarah Kanowski notes that Australian's spent 22% of their household income on food in the 1960's; whereas now we spend only 14% of our household income on fresh food.  [Sarah Kanowski, "Australian farmers sold short by cheap food"; 9 March 2010]

Whether these figures take into account working women and an increase in household incomes is unknown, however she also cites in her paper, "The Farm", that agricultural products represent only 4% of the economy, whereas in the 1960's they were 14%. [Sarah Kanowski, "The Farm" Griffith Review, edition 27]

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma in an interview with Elizabeth Meryment says that the unflinching push for cheaper, artificially tastier food has resulted in supermarkets filled with highly processed "edible food like substances" that don't resemble real food.  He goes on to say that "conventional food is unnaturally cheap and I know people like cheap food but the reason it is cheap is because there are all sorts of hidden subsidies." ["Michael's beef with modern day food", Elizabeth Meryment, Taste, Daily Telegraph, 16 March 2010.]

Subsidies are only part of the issue.  Large scale farming operations with enormous volumes and cheaper prices are another part.

Farming operations which are able to supply the demand of the supermarkets are gerenally big-businesses.  With the dominance of such large companies controlling agriculture, smaller farmers are gradually disappearing, which will mean less competition, less choice and a lack of diversity.

Not only that, but our environment suffers. Large scale farming (also known as monoculture) is more susceptible to devastation by pests and therefore uses chemicals to prevent this. The soil becomes less nutrient and in an effort to continue production, chemical fertilisers are pumped into the earth, degrading it further.  Intensive animal farms wreak havoc on the environment and often keep the animals in sub-optimal conditions.

Is this the world we want to live in?

If not, how do we take control of the situation and reverse some of these trends?  We, the Australian consumer, are the ones in the driving seat when it comes to what's in our wallets.  We can choose to buy all our produce from a supermarket. Or we can grow some or all of our own food (an option for those who have the land to do it).  We can spend our money at smaller shops, like greengrocers, bakeries and local butcher shops. Like we used to.

Or we can shop at farmers' markets, where the money we spend goes directly to the person who sells us the food and keeps that small farming operation afloat.  Yes, it might be more expensive than what you buy in the supermarket, but your money is buying fresh, nutritious food and it is going directly to someone who grew the food, not a multi-national corporation.

I know that I want choice.  I want to know that I can buy organic or free-range, or even just conventionally-grown produce from a large farming company or a small boutique operation. I want my buying dollar to matter and I want to direct it where I think it should go.  I want small family farms to stay in business and I want them to keep the big guys honest.  Is this too much to ask?  

What do you want?

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