19 Mar 2015

Global food trail leads to massive waste and downgrading of farming and horticulture in Australia

Supermarkets promote year-round supplies of fruit and vegetables that are seasonal in Australia. Photo: Bloomberg

Last week's spate of hepatitis A cases linked to imported frozen berries threw a harsh and sudden light on the global nature of the modern supermarket trade.
Economists argue that food imports and exports serve important roles in the international trade. Many scientists, chefs and growers, however, feel that the global food business, allied to aggressive discounting by supermarket chains, results in the denaturing of produce, massive waste and downward pressure on wages and conditions around the world.

Large food corporations tend to regard their supply chains and production processes as matters of commercial confidence. Some general examples, however, are well known.
In order to optimise trade, Australian supermarket chains work hard to suppress the age-old customer expectation that particular fruits and vegetables are available only at certain times of year. The strategy requires "counter-seasonal" stock – imported fresh fruit and vegetables from countries with complementary weather patterns.
The import and sale of fresh vegetables is on a relatively modest scale. According to industry body AusVeg, total imports in 2013-14 were valued at $AU70 million. This comprised mainly garlic from China, tomatoes from New Zealand, onions from the US, and asparagus from Mexico and Peru.
The import of frozen vegetables, however, is a much bigger game, with the total for 2013-14 increasing 12 per cent to $256 million, with New Zealand accounting for just over half of the trade. Processed frozen vegetables were an even bigger category, growing 19 per cent to $309 million, with Italy and China our two biggest sources.
Australian science writer Julian Cribb – author of two key books on global food systems and an expert on Australian food security – argues that constant downward economic pressure on farmers around the world is leading to a lack of renewal, investment and research in agriculture. This, in turn, introduces long-term vulnerabilities into the global food supply.
Cribb sees the aggressive acquisition of food businesses by corporate giants such as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Unilever as a key driver of the problem.
"The issue is less about global versus local, than about the concentration of ownership," he said. "It is that which is destroying farming communities and landscapes - by driving the prices down."
To award-winning Australian chef Alla Wolf-Tasker, relentless discounting by supermarket chains causes multiple problems.
"The drive to produce the cheapest food in the world is a problem," she said. "Food has become so cheap that it has no value – that's why most people throw away around a third of what they buy.
"Food needs to be repositioned in our priorities. Acquiring food needs to be seen as more important than acquiring a new plasma television. Food is what you should be prepared to pay for."
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