Food and agriculture debated by Labor and Greens in Wills: @takvera reports

By John Englart

25 August 2013

Discussing Food and agriculture policy may seem a little bit incongruent in an inner urban electorate, but the forum held in Wills at the Coburg Farmers market on Saturday highlights that city people are concerned with farming and agricultural practices that affect everyone from farmers to city consumers.

The public forum was organised by Transition Coburg, initially with sitting Labor member Kelvin Thomson, Liberal candidate Shilpa Hegde and Greens candidate Tim Read. Shilpa Hegde withdrew with no reason given and Margarita Windisch from the Socialist Alliance was added.

Kelvin Thomson, Tim Read and Margarita Windisch talking agriculture and food policy at Wills Forum

Kelvin Thomson, Tim Read and Margarita Windisch talking agriculture and food policy at Wills Forum

Questions followed short presentations. About 70 people attended the forum, quite a large number given the Farmers Market that was occurring around the forum.

Kelvin Thomson provided a succinct analysis of the multi-layered issues involved with food security on a global level, the environmental challenges, the impacts on public health, problems with food and retail concentration and the impacts of urban sprawl on prime horticultural and farming land. He explained some of the government’s supportive programs with Ausbuy, funding support to farmers markets and food industry innovation. Watch Kelvin Thomson’s presentation:

The Greens’ Tim Read, who aims to poll above the Liberals in Wills, is particularly passionate on driving changes posed by the challenge of climate change. The Greens want to take Labor policies further. They would temporarily block further expansion of the Woolworths and Coles retail duopoly pending a review by the ACCC; grant $85 million over 3 years for farmers markets and community food bulk schemes and re-submit container deposit legislation to reduce the environmental impact of container waste.

“As you’ve heard farmland is under threat from urban sprawl, but also from expansion of coal seam gas drilling, from coal mining, the long term decline in rainfall and climate change. The Greens are very concerned about this and we want to block all new coal mining and coal seam gas expansion. We want to introduce accurate country of origin food labelling. We want to block Coles and Woolworths and foreign governments, not foreign companies, from buying farmland. Foreign companies is one thing, but foreign governments is another issue and over the last few years it’s been a growing trend.” Tim Read said.

He noted that neither the Liberal party or Labor party have attempted to rein in the expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas extraction which are despoiling agricultural land, contaminating water resources and increasing carbon emission. Watch his presentation:

Margarita Windisch from the Socialist Alliance emphasised the level of global poverty and a system which allows much food to go to waste. Part of her answer was nationalisation of public utilities and some of the larger monopolies and duopolies:

“As Kelvin has already pointed out there are already 1 billion people going hungry. It is criminal that food crops are being destroyed, deliberately destroyed. Food should be distributed and produced to satisfy need not to make profit.

“We need a publicly funded radical transformation of our agriculture that supports farmers in that transition… We also believe that farmers should receive a living wage and that could be through regulating prices or direct subsidies, so they can truly produce nutritious food rather than being consistently pushed to unsustainable short cuts the cause of the duopoly in terms of food ownership and distribution.”

She called for the two supermarket giants to be nationalised, “so we can really guarantee a fair price for the products – we know a fair price for products for farmers is not going to happen if it remains in private corporations.”

The Socialist Alliance also opposes expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas due to climate change and impact on agricultural production:

“It is the massive opening up of prime farmland for the exploration of coal seam gas which is currently threatening the future of our entire agricultural industry. The Socialist Alliance supports a ban on any kind of coal seam gas extraction.” Watch her presentation:

Questions from the audience addressed to the three candidates included:

  • why the continued restrictions on growing and retailing of non THC hemp products for human use and consumption, when it is an easy crop to grow with the fibre so useful in many different applications.
  • How to cope with the increase in the Cost of living, in food prices and in electricity prices.
  • Foreign ownership of agricultural land and the impact of expansion of coal mining and CSG on land use.
  • What Support is there for Farmers markets and associated initiatives.

On cost of living and electricity prices Tim Read said power companies have been doing major upgrades to cope with peak power, adding up to 25 per cent to electricity bills. He proposed that better energy management, possibly closing some high energy use factories during heatwaves at peak periods, would be much more energy and cost efficient rather than making the average citizen and residential consumer pay through the nose in upgrading the grid to cope with peak use.

While Thomson is very concerned on the impacts of climate change on food security and agriculture he has no answer to both the Greens and Socialist Alliance policies in opposing the continued expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas as serious impacts on agriculture and climate change in Australia. Neither the Liberal Party or the Labor Party are taking the steps necessary to reign in this expansion, which is necessary if we are to limit greenhouse gas emissions on a global level. Scientists estimate 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left unextracted according to a recent Climate Commission report (See AFP report), including much of Australia’s coal and CSG, if we are to limit climate change impacts this century to 2 degrees Celsius.

More concerning was the absence of the Liberal party candidate in Wills to contribute to this important discussion and be questioned on Liberal party policy on food and agriculture. She also failed to attend the forum on Climate change and sustainability.

The event was one of 90 around Australia celebrating the inaugural Fair Food week by the by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance which promotes the importance of supporting our farmers and food producers to transition to sustainable and viable farming systems that tackle food insecurity and food injustice.

According to a media release by Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, both the Labor Government and Coalition parties fail badly AFSA’s Fair Food Electoral Scorecard.

“We want to let our members and the broader voting public know where the parties stand on the key issues of fairness and sustainability in our food system”, said AFSA spokesperson Dr Nick Rose. “In a nutshell, only the Greens have developed the sort of integrated policy approach we believe is needed to meet the serious food supply challenges we face in the coming years and decades.

“The Coalition more so than the government has a relentless and myopic focus on increasing productivity and boosting exports regardless of the social or
environmental cost. This is very disappointing, particularly when there are such good precedents of how to support a fairer, more dynamic and more sustainable food economy in the United States, Canada and Britain, among other places.”

See previous Wills election reports

A farm producer talking to city consumers at Coburg Farmers Market

A farm producer talking to city consumers at Coburg Farmers Market

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