IT MAY surprise some to learn that Australia, a country that has long been regarded as the land of plenty, is in fact now regarded globally as a food insecure nation that has serious food nutrition, food supply and food cost issues.

It will probably not surprise anyone however to learn that these issues are starting to bite deep in many of our rural, remote and regional communities across the country.

A federal government inquiry into just how bad this issue has become is underway in Canberra and was the primary topic of discussion at a Women in Agriculture lunch hosted by Clayton Utz law firm in Brisbane late last year.

A high-profile panel of female food, agribusiness and agri-politics related experts and advocates articulated their views to a packed room of influential female (and some male) agriculture and agribusiness sector leaders.

The sub-standard level of nutritional value in many of our processed foods, the rising cost of healthy food alternatives, the challenges of consistent fresh food supply and transportation access to many of our more regional and remote communities were all topics on the table.

Others included the declining investment by successive governments in our soil and water health and sustainable food production systems, the impacts on food quality, quantity and availability when natural disasters strike and our increasing reliance on fast and processed food.

Another key focus was the unsustainable level of food waste and the increasing demand for food to support the many charities that feed our increasing population of those experiencing regular food insecurity, a national crisis that is no longer hidden in the shadows.

Caitlin McConnel, Senior Associate (agribusiness and food industry) Clayton Utz, Queensland Senator and Shadow Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Susan McDonald and Fiona Maxwell, Executive Director FareShare Food Charity Queensland, along with event MC and Channel Nine Today Show Queensland reporter Andrea Crothers gave some disturbing insights into just how pervasive our food security failures have become in certain remote and rural parts of our state.

(L-R) Fiona Maxwell, Susan McDonald and Caitlin McConnel with MC and panel moderator Andrea Crothers. IMAGE: Supplied

This new federal government inquiry is attempting to address many of these issues as a matter of priority.

Our food insecurity issue is now spilling over into a health, economic, social, environmental and political crises that will take significant investment, policy innovation, political courage, education and change of attitude and habits to turn around.

A number of state and national inquiries into food, food systems and food security have been undertaken by various governments over the past decade.

Following a referral from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator the Hon Murray Watt on 26 October 2022, the House Standing Committee on Agriculture has now commenced an inquiry into food security in Australia.

Terms of reference include our national production, consumption and export of food, access to key inputs such as fuel, fertiliser and labour and their impact on production costs, the impact of supply chain distribution on the cost and availability of food and the potential opportunities and threats of climate change on food production in Australia.

A number of suggested recommendations that have been canvassed and may be addressed via this inquiry centre around the development of a comprehensive food systems and food security plan with clear objectives and measurable targets, and which makes clear the responsibilities of the different levels of government.

Others include the creation of an ongoing dedicated food fund to support activities across all levels of government, non-government organisations and society and a national survey to better understand the true prevalence and severity of food insecurity in Australia.

Caitlin McConnel, speaking at the lunch said that this is an issue that as leaders in agriculture and agribusiness, the Brisbane based Women in Agriculture network is willing to take up on behalf of the wider agriculture sector and community.

“The fight to bring about real change will only be won by strong and influential voices banding together and coming up with workable and sustainable solutions across all industry sectors, and by changing laws and legislation that are outdated and damaging to our national health and economic wellbeing,” McConnel said.

She has prepared a detailed submission to the inquiry and is advocating for an economy-wide food security strategy that would be embedded into all government policy that impacts on food retail, soil, land and water use, healthcare, competition and trade, indigenous affairs, energy and transport, education, climate and national security.

Fiona Maxwell’s key message to the audience was that we can all do our bit to reduce food waste.

“If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, a sobering statistic that needs drastic action if we are serious about fighting food insecurity,” she said.

Senator Susan McDonald, who is an advocate for food equity and food fairness, is of the view that the food sector has become highly politicised over the past 100 years, and that lobby groups and interest groups have gained undue influence over the development of food policy.

She is advocating a carrot rather than a stick approach to reform and addressing our food security issues, however has left the door open to supporting levers that will ensure that corporate food supply chains come forward and engage with the reform movement, as they need to be part of the solution going forward.

“I can point to a number of examples, including the recent truth in food labelling inquiry which I led, where new legislation was introduced to bring about needed change,” McDonald said.

“I see this issue as one that has many challenges ahead and which will require a genuine bi-partisan political approach if we are to deliver a more secure food future for all in our society.”

Australia is a signatory to the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action which laid the foundations for the path to a common objective – food security at the individual, household, national, regional and global level.

It appears we may have some way to go before we can say we have achieved these lofty objectives.

However, we can begin to restore our reputation as the land of plenty if we take the lead from and support these Women in Agriculture who are fighting the good food fight.

It is up to all of us to start to demand that our elected policy and key decision makers take the politics out of food and come up with a new recipe to ensure that everyone gets their FareShare in future.

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