Australia: A Vanishing Country?

What does Heinz Australia’s consignment of beef from Brazil to its Wagga Wagga factory have in common with the little bags of Chinese garlic now on supermarket shelves? Or with the AUSVEG farmers’ procession to Canberra? And why the weirdly lopsided, intrusive and deadly terms of Australia’s trade deal with the United States?

The short answer to all of these questions is ‘free trade’. In food markets here its effects are just being felt, but the signs are ominous. Outpricing (whether through cheaper labour costs or subsidies) means fewer farmers and, in turn, a downturn in more and more regional centres and communities. The prospect looms of the ghost town count rising dramatically.

A consignment of Brazilian beef to Wagga Wagga speaks of this kind of danger; it illustrates how the pressure to free trade can break down controls that support the viability of an entire industry. Watching its story unfold on SBS’s Dateline on 3 August was eye-opening. Then I read How to Kill a Country by Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thebon and John Matthews (Allen and Unwin, 2004) on the dangers for Australia embedded in the seemingly misnamed Australia–US Free Trade Agreement. I had found Ian Lowe’s discussion of global warming in Living in the Hothouse chilling (Arena Magazine 77). To my surprise, this latest read — which provides a context for the strange case of the Brazilian beef consignment — sent icy shivers down the spine. Lots of them. The authors point rather eerily to the way free trade pressures are lowering quarantine standards.

In a nutshell, the problem is that imported livestock and plant diseases could wipe out whole rural sectors. What we might lose that is dearest to me centres around a living sense of community, the way in which home-grown goods are inseparable from a sense of place. Are we moving towards the end point of a withering process that clearly defined itself three-quarters of a century ago with the industrialisation of agriculture?

What counts in global food production is profitability: the source of food — meat or veg — is irrelevant. And so the threat to food growers in Australia is the same threat being experienced by Indian farmers or US farmers.

From the AUSVEG farmers I learnt that more than 60 per cent of Coles’ homebrands are made from imported ingredients. World foods locked up in cans! This is the outcome of a globalised agriculture. Homeless food from homeless sources in contrast to the home-grown. This is the nub of the question, I believe — for ‘growing our own’ is central to who we are.

Hundreds of thousands of people shop in fresh food and vegetable markets across Australia; farmers’ markets are on the rise. I agree with Jane Adams, Chairperson of the Farmers’ Markets Association, that we are ‘emotionally committed to buying Australian’ (Rita Erlich, Age, 13 September 2005). Backyard and community gardens carry a deep-seated response to freshness, variety, sense of place and a usually unspoken liking for seeing things sprout, leaf, unfurl or heart like a lettuce. A sense, too, of the beauties of local flavour and variety in food and wines, something that the French capture in their place-based labelling.

The Beef-from-Brazil story is thick with menace. Towards the end of last year, Heinz Australia imports for its Wagga Wagga cannery some beef from Brazil, a country by no means clear of the deadly foot-and-mouth disease that kills cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Rejected parts of the consignment are thrown on the Wagga tip. As a farmer, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan (who sees other important matters quite differently to me) speaks out on behalf of Australia’s livestock farmers — not globalised corporate food producers and processors. Senator Heffernan jumps in his car, takes off for Wagga and, with other farmers, helps to ensure the rejected meat is well covered with thick layers of earth. Any dog, cat or rat could pass on the disease to agricultural livestock, he explains and exclaims in turn to the media and to a Senate Committee.

One may readily join with livestock farmers in their fears, for foot-and-mouth is a real killer disease, perhaps the most contagious of any affecting animals. Australia has been free of it for 130 years. Yet in the UK, for example, ten million affected animals had to be destroyed in 2001 alone.

So why would anyone — Heinz foods in this case — import beef from a country with as many as one million unvaccinated cattle and with porous borders to its high-risk neighbours, Paraguay and Bolivia? Why endanger our healthy livestock industries — because that’s what we’re looking at — for the sake of cheap beef? Well, maybe the answers to such key questions are often locked up in the cans! And how could such a thing happen in strictly quarantined Australia? As we all know, many a length of salami has hit the bin at frontline entry points.

The answer is a dark one — and simple too. For its place within a larger story, read How to Kill a Country. They scrutinise Australia’s Devastating Trade Deal with the United States — known as the FTA — and come up with alarming news. The FTA is not about free and fair trade. It’s about Australia as a Vanishing Country. And worse still, it’s about Australia acting as accomplice in our own undoing. About Australia succumbing to massive pressure on a whole range of agricultural products — sugar has been highlighted along with pharmaceuticals. But it includes everything in a see-saw of interests in which we will become stuck on the downside.

After very careful scrutiny, the authors found the FTA ‘carried a death sentence for Australia as an independent country’: a ‘dramatic undoing of Australian institutions’, a consequent ‘loss of prosperity and sense of “who we are”’. At the centre of their analysis is a reduction and elimination of Australian quarantine standards: in particular — under US pressure — a reorientation of Biosecurity’s guarding of our high standards. (In a long-established procedure, Biosecurity consults a panel of scientific experts; through this process AQIS — Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service — does the law enforcing.) Most importantly in this regard, US trade officials will sit on the committee (‘a bilateral forum operating in secret’) that determines our quarantine standards and decision-making processes, thus giving them the power to influence and ‘intervene in policies crucial to our national economic security’. This is breathtakingly detrimental, a trading off of our economic security, not in the interests of Australia, but of US farmers ‘whose aim is the “reduction” and “elimination” of Australian quarantine standards’.

According to these authors, even before we actually ratified the FTA, Biosecurity’s risk analysis of apple, banana and pork imports from the US was defective. The upshot of all this (and more, for example, the pre-emptive displacement of the WTO’s decision to exclude pest-infected US apples) would give the US trade negotiators the power to shape Australia’s quarantine decisions. Like enthroning Dracula on the board of the blood bank, the authors say grimly. Our clean green image, the jewel in our export process, would be no more: the choice would be between the devil of disease or the deep sea of vegetables and fruit sprayed with toxic pesticides. Can we begin to imagine our Aussie grandchildren re-schooled to ‘buy American’? In Elizabeth Therbon’s words, under this new regime, those appointed by the government to act as our watchdogs are being allowed to back off on preventing catastrophe; they are simply set to manage it.

Why all this? Why the shift? And who are they? As we’ve seen, quick action by farmers prevented catastrophe in the Beef-from-Brazil fiasco. Senator Heffernan put his finger on this grossly dangerous change. He concludes that Biosecurity Australia is now more concerned with free trade than with preventing disease from infecting our high-standard livestock industry. In the rush for greater market access, Biosecurity was moved into the trade section of the Department of Agriculture. (It’s since been moved out of this department following evidence of its irresponsible quiescence in the Beef-from-Brazil scandal.)

Biosecurity did not listen to scientists and other knowledgeable people in this case. Nobody from Biosecurity visited Brazil, a country only partly cleared of foot-and-mouth infection. No-one went there until a reporter from Dateline made the journey, finding cattle gambolling around unaware they were illegal border-crossers from neighbouring countries with no clean bill of health on foot-and-mouth disease. Or the stakes involved.

Is something becoming rotten at the heart of Australia? Are we being sacrificed on the altar of unrestricted free trade? And whose interests are being served by putting Australian agriculture at such gross and frightening risk? Certainly not our farmers’, certainly not rural communities’ — ultimately not any of ours here.

The answer is unpleasant; it’s also scarcely credible. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth would shift us irrevocably (or for generations) out of the world’s best livestock markets. Heed Bill Heffernan’s straight talk to the Senate: ‘There are lots of people around the world who would like to lower our status’ in the top food markets. ‘Our most precious resource is our green, clean and free status for food … other people would love to have that status and … we should protect that’ (Dateline, 3 August 2005).

That status was built laboriously and over a long time. In the decade I spent as a pig producer and farm writer from the 1960s, experienced livestock producers and the Department of Agriculture’s pig expert spared no effort in passing on their knowledge to me on how to produce good, clean, healthy stock. At that time I was able to watch high standards being created in the industry — often painfully.

We consumers who are acquainted with the facts agree. So, too, would the AUSVEG people over whose future there hangs a similar threat. The fresh, green and local campaign by AUSVEG farmers is being conducted separately from the campaign to protect the livestock industry from disease (and unfair competition). And the trade deal with the United States is but one — a very significant one — among a whole raft of other threats to white-ant Australian agriculture and horticulture.

Writing of Australian vegetables, Peter Hunt, a senior (and prize-winning) journalist with the Weekly Times, praises the initiative of the AUSVEG farmers in raising public awareness of the effects of global food buying ‘at the lowest price’ by McDonalds and the supermarket chains. He warns of the upcoming decimation of the Goulburn Valley apple and pear industry when Chinese and New Zealand fruit flood the market (‘Get fair dinkum’, Weekly Times, 17 August 2005).
If a free trade agreement with China is anything like the US–Australian FTA then our vegetable industries are in for a very hard time. Might there be a groundswell linking growers more highly profiled by a promotional levy in league with IGA supermarkets to draw buyers away from the corporate chains, Coles and Woolworths? Why not an AUSVEG cloth shopping bag of a more vegetable shade of green? Priding themselves, Woolworths/Safeway claim 97 per cent of their fresh foods are Australian grown (their asparagus from Peru; mine from Redcliffe via the Victoria Market). But the frozen, canned and processed products are decisive. A Weekly Times survey of two country and city Coles and Woolworth stores found 31–36 per cent of frozen fruit and vegetables were imported. As I mentioned earlier, more than 60 per cent of Coles’ own house brands are imported, with varying mixes of local and imported ingredients (Weekly Times, 17 August 2005).

An optimist is one who looks into a horrible state of affairs and says ‘what can we do?’ Tim Costello is one. I once heard him say that whatever happens, he always returns to being hopeful. We at Arena, after 42 years, remain this way. A first step is to grasp what’s happening in the sphere of food production. A second, to tell others. A third is to relate this particular issue to a far more general transformation. Because it is incremental, it can be hard to recognise until it is too late — when all the fences are down.

Silence and acceptance are the biggest allies of the wastelanders. An enlarged ‘Buy Australian’ campaign has excellent potential; many people think and act this way already. It means appealing to them not as individual shoppers intent on saving a dollar, but as people with a thought for their ongoing wellbeing and that of their offspring.

There’s little doubt that an FTA with China would dwarf the US one: the transformation of Australia into an empty shell? Most people are as yet unaware of the size and strength of the threat to our right and duty to feed ourselves. Yet many people sense the crisis we are heading for is of quite a different order to the familiar booms and busts of capitalist systems. Even the ‘get big or get out’ injunction of a few decades ago fails to answer the new questions. To steal the words of Marcellus to Horatio, there’s a feeling abroad that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. Fortunately, there are the watchful ones, often in unexpected places. They know, as we all must, that the voice of opposition is a threat to stealth — and that’s not gone beyond a whisper yet.

As we’ve seen, the threat is global: a process set inexorably on a path to wipe out agricultural communities everywhere. Colin Tudge, a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, has shocking things to say in his ‘Food Globalisation and Poverty’ (Australian Options, August 2005). For instance, that if India industrialises its agriculture, 600 million people will be thrown off the land, and ‘Indian farmers have been protesting like mad’ at moves to encourage this process. (In Britain and the US only 1 per cent of the population are farmers; in India, 60 per cent.) The effect of such a happening would be on a scale of permanence far beyond the tsunamis or even the truly terrible destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina. A sense of justice demands that no nation should have its standard of living lowered by pressure from its neighbours or the ‘free trade’ manipulations of ‘great and powerful’ friends.

Fortunately, globalisation is beset by paradoxes, often now thinly veiled. Through How to Kill a Country, I came to see a parallel between the Australian government’s servile obedience in joining the US in its Iraq war (and at the present time forsaking its own people around New Orleans) to our detriment and danger, and its compliance in sacrificing our future as an economically independent country. Each signifies betrayal, the darkened heart — heralding two different forms of annihilation.

Here I’m not talking about bombs and explosives. Not the slow death of climate change, nor even the oncoming water crisis. A death sentence on home-grown food is far more localised: a matter that we Australians can influence if we have the will, the understanding, and if we draw upon our old common sense. If we don’t, we too are accomplices in crime. Responding just begins with caring for country, a wonderful place.

We have grown up with the notion of feeding ourselves. Growing our own is part of our identity, drawing upon and rekindling a sense of place both in our immediate locale and Australia-wide. Yet this truth in no way rejects foods grown elsewhere. The importation of some foods grown in other places may enrich our ties to where we live and to our immediate circle as well as to those in other places. It’s a double process of identity formation and re-formation, drawing upon and calling out the power of longing among people.

A certain element of hands-on production of food (and other things) is a highly desirable aspect of maintaining and reconstructing community. In other words, farming is a very important aspect of culture — whether its results are for local consumption or for trade with others. I believe that if we reduce food growing to economics then we clip the wings of our humanity inherited from long long ago. Grounded prey of our own species?

Nonie Sharp is an Arena Publications Editor.

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