Food fraudsters should buzz off …

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Testing at a leading international scientific lab that specialises in honey fraud detection last month found that almost half the honey samples selected from supermarket shelves were “adulterated”. This means they have been mixed with something other than nectar from bees.

Experts report that adulterated honey generally included rice syrup and beet syrup, as well as other unidentified substances, which aren’t detected by official honey tests.

International fraudsters, often criminal gangs in China, produce the fake honey and sell it to unsuspecting suppliers at a higher price, making a fortune along the way.

The adulterated samples were all products that blend local and imported honey.

 Phil McCabe, the president of the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association, said adulterated honey isn’t honey at all. “Everything about it seems to be honey when in fact it’s just sugar syrup or something else … Consumers don’t realise what they are buying and eating isn’t honey,” he said.

And he’s right.

When we buy food, we take it on faith that the product matches the label. These revelations about adulterated honey products have left many questioning this trust.

Counterfeiting by low-cost producers in third world markets has been a challenge to many major corporations and fashion houses for decades. However, fashion goods are not the only targets for brand cheats.

Over recent years, food fraud has become increasingly commonplace. Because it is designed to be undetected, it is difficult to know the true reach of food fraud, but there is no doubt it is a lucrative practice.

Food fraud is essentially the sale of an inferior product represented as a more valuable one. This could be through substitution, dilution, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging.

Australia enjoys positive perceptions in rapidly growing Asian markets as a clean and green producer of wholesome, natural and trustworthy food products.

The upside of this means there are opportunities in export markets for Australian farmers and food producers to take advantage of strong demand for our products and, in many cases, to achieve a significant price premium. The downside is that unscrupulous traders want to cash in on these opportunities by muscling in with copies of many of our well-known brands.

High-value and high-demand foods are particularly at risk of counterfeiting. Brands known for quality may be targeted with fake labelling and branding. Certain labels like ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ that attract a premium price are also popular targets. However, origins can be difficult to trace, resulting in fraudulent use of these labels.

We’re all familiar with food fraud that takes the form of passing off one product as something more up-market. For years, Nile perch has been passed off as Australian barramundi; generic green leaves have been marketed as oregano; and prawns from Thailand and Vietnam have been sold as local product. This can also include deliberate fake country of origin information – for example, labelling snow peas from Nigeria as locally grown.

This is wrong on so many counts.

Calling out cheats is not just about protecting reputations and profits. As importantly, it is about maintaining brand integrity, and ensuring food health and safety.

The ramifications if someone got sick or died from a counterfeit product would be huge. No doubt those affected would sue; and regulators would come down on the legitimate producer like a ton of bricks. Even if they could prove the offending products were fakes, bad publicity could destroy them.

Australian consumers have a right to be able to tell at a glance the origin of their food and where it has been processed. And we need to be able to rely on transparent and simple labelling to help us make informed choices.

Imitation may well be said to be the sincerest form of flattery.

However, when it comes to our fabulous Aussie food products, it is simply theft. We need to take every possible measure to ensure that our brands, and our producers, are strongly protected from opportunists trying to cash in on their hard work and investment.

You can’t buy a car in Australia that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards; you can’t buy a microwave oven in Australia that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards; you can’t buy children’s clothing that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards. Why then can we buy food that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards?

We should be making it clear to our governments that we expect them to insist on the highest possible health and safety standards for all food, regardless of where it comes from.











Time to choose which species to save

Some of the world’s leading population biologists are arguing that it is not possible to save all threatened species from extinction without significant increases in funding. They argue that we need to be looking at habitat and ecosystem protection as a focus over just saving individual species.

The fossil record shows that species do go extinct from time to time for reasons that have nothing at all to do with human impacts.  Of course, we still should do everything we can to minimise our impacts and allow room for nature to prosper. However, we also need to recognise that is impossible to control the natural world and hold it in stasis.

Tradeoffs are required if we’re to maintain any balance.

For example, we could concentrate efforts on the most threatened species. But the price we would pay is that more species will slip onto the threatened species list; and few (if any) species will ever be removed from that list. Alternatively, we could let the most threatened species go extinct, and concentrate on recovering less-threatened species or stopping other species becoming threatened. But with the money available now, it is not possible to do both.

The idea of determining which species to save is referred to as conservation triage, borrowing from term that was first used during World War I to determine the level of medical effort for different casualties.

The challenge with moving to this approach is that our past management and current governance systems are very species-based.

For over twenty years, the approach of governments at all levels to native resource management has been about tightening regulations. All stick and no carrot. No recognition of the positive land management and ecosystem services that many farmers provide to the community. Not to mention the socialised carbon sequestration they provide.

Most government bureaucrats and environmental activists see nature conservation as a ‘them and us’ situation.  In this view, public environmental assets held in private hands are the responsibility of the land-owner, generally farmers. They are prevented by legislation from doing anything that would detract from the value of the public asset; and must also bear the costs of preserving and in many cases enhancing these public assets.

As a result, farmers bear a disproportionate share of the cost of protecting and maintaining environmental assets. In fact, often they are expected to undertake conservation measures that carry with them considerable costs, but where the benefit is to the wider community. This is patently unfair.

For governments, this approach is simple and cheap. But we know it doesn’t work, because the official assessments show that biodiversity has continued to decline.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So, if we’re going to make any progress in protecting biodiversity, we must shift to incentive-based systems that work.

This means that, if we as a public want these things saved, we have to be prepared to pay at least part of the costs.

Market-based conservation or stewardship programs are well established in North America and Europe. There are also programs in parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Such programs are a way of creating positive economic incentives for natural resource managers to manage their land and activities in ways that improve or maintain environmental health. These might include restoring habitat for endangered species, improving water quality and availability through catchment protection, or sequestering carbon in biomass or soils.

Mark Rey, former Under-Secretary in the US Department of Agriculture, summarised the benefits of using market-based approaches as follows:

“Market-based conservation is an innovative way to … preserve productivity and enhance landowner livelihoods, while producing numerous environmental benefits. Market-based solutions can provide flexibility to undertake actions that have the lowest cost and result in more cost-effective achievement of natural resource conservation and environmental goals compared to traditional command and control approaches. … I look forward to the day when credits for clean water, lower levels of greenhouse gases, and protected wetlands can be traded as freely as corn or soybeans are today.”

In such a scenario, successful stewards of threatened species should be rewarded by those who value them. In fact, threatened species can be a vehicle for supporting rural, regional and remote communities, communities which are currently draining away towards the cities for want of employment opportunities.

Using this approach, it is easy to imagine a future where management of threatened species can sit alongside other rural industries in a green economy.




As consumers, we all have skin in the game

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One of the golden rules in journalism is to never make assumptions. In particular, when writing about a topical subject, one should never assume that people know the background to the subject. In other words, SPELL IT OUT.

It is an adage that we might well apply to farming.

I was reminded of this when sorting through a pile of reports in my office. One was a survey undertaken for the Primary Industries Education Foundation a few years ago.

This study confirmed that Australian students don’t know where their food comes from – which was no surprise to those of us who work in the agriculture sector.

In this world, milk doesn’t come from cows; it comes from the supermarket. Less than half the students knew that everyday lunchbox items such as bread, cheese and bananas originate from farmed products; three quarters of Year 6 students thought cotton socks were an animal product; and more than one quarter thought yoghurt came from plants.

These figures were reinforced by a survey released this week by the major media group, News Corp Australia.

This showed that a quarter of youngsters think fruit and vegetables come from the supermarket, and 6 per cent think they come from “the fridge”. Only 1 in 10 children knew that they are grown from seeds.

Only 22 per cent of children aged 6-8 years could identify 5-6 vegetables in their raw state; and 12 per cent could only identify 1-2 raw vegetables.

All this when the OECD says Australia is the fifth fattest country in the world, and one in every four kids is classed as overweight or obese.

Nation-wide polling commissioned by the National Farmers’ Federation last year could well explain why this is so.

This study found that Australians have grown disconnected from where their food and fibre comes from.  More than 80 per cent of those surveyed described their connection with farming as ‘distant’ or ‘non-existent’.

It also found that most people are totally unaware of the economic contribution farming makes. Presented with a list of six industries, only 4 per cent of respondents correctly identified agriculture as the fastest growing sector.

This result highlights a real urban myth – that agriculture is a thing of the past, a sunset industry. In reality, it is a cornerstone of Australia’s economic future. In fact, nationally the industry is on track to be Australia’s next $100 billion industry, having reached a record $60 billion farm gate return last year. The industry also supports 1.6 million jobs across the supply chain.

According to Fiona Simson, President of the NFF, the problem is that people simply don’t know they have skin in the game.

Most people assume that the industry only benefits people in the bush. In reality, the bulk of jobs supported by the farm sector are in the city, in fields like retail, food service, logistics, finance and more.

“Farmers don’t just grow your calories, they grow your salaries,” Ms Simson said.

While food and fibre production is largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, farming produces all the essential ingredients in every meal on our plates, every natural fibre on our backs, and many other important facets of our lives.

This growing disconnect between town and country is serious – and it really can’t be ignored any longer.

We live in one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Food is relatively cheap. Everyone takes it for granted and we’re quite complacent about our well-being.

The end result of being so separated from our food is that we really don’t place enough value our farmers. People should understand how far their food travelled, how it was produced, and the value of farmers and farmland in our communities.

Australian farmers are efficient producers of food and fibre, and in many areas, we export more than we use domestically. However, there’s no guarantee that will always be the case.

There used to be a bumper sticker around some time back that said that ‘if you’ve had a meal today, thank a farmer’. And we should.

Rainy days and droughts …

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It’s time to change the community conversation around droughts, floods, cyclones, hail storms … the range of weather events that create havoc in our farming communities.

After every natural disaster in Australia, those in authority consistently avoid questions about why these things happen and what could have been done to minimise the impact.  “Now is not the time for that conversation,” they say. “It’s just too early.”

The best example of this is drought. Over recent years, we’ve seen more and more communities affected by prolonged drought, often barely recovering from one ‘worst case’ drought before falling into another.

Government support for Australian agricultural businesses is as regular as drought – a sure thing every few years.

Yet everyone agrees that current government responses to such circumstances are out-dated; everyone agrees that we need new approaches; but the time never seems to be right to have what is inevitably going to be a difficult discussion.  So we really never come to grips with issues that need to be seriously considered in ensuring appropriate responses and preparation for drought and other natural disasters.

And as certain as creeks running dry, natural disasters bring plentiful media coverage of the heartbreaking reality of farming families losing stock and crops.  The stories are the same, drought after drought, just the names of stricken farmers change. If the television cameras are really lucky, they’ll focus in close and find tears on a brave farm woman’s face.

As the crisis passes, and the media moves on, those affected are left dealing with the aftermath – and they find that no-one wants to talk about these issues when there is no active disaster scenario.

These pictures of devastation inspire a desire to help, some of it personal, some from corporates, most of it via government. This has been evident in recent weeks as kneejerk reactions from governments directed have more and more funding towards drought-affected communities. Many corporates have also become involved in fund raising, and garnered much positive press as a result.

However, farmers are not all welfare cases who need handouts. Many of them are modern, resilient and sophisticated businesses.

This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the nation’s farmers had a record $6.6 billion in farm management deposits (FMDs) at the end of June 2018.

Uneven income is common in agriculture because of things such as natural disasters, climate and market variability. The FMD scheme is a risk-management tool designed to help farmers deal with uneven cash flows by setting aside pre-tax income in years of good cash flow to draw on in years when the going is tough.

There’s one more tool that would provide farmers with even more options for managing drought and other natural disasters.

There has been much talk about the need to sharpen the focus on disaster recovery from government assistance to risk management and mitigation. Yet it is virtually impossible for Australian farmers to insure for losses when disasters strike. If this insurance was available, the public cost of disaster recovery would be much lower than it is now.

Multi-peril insurance schemes underwritten by, or subsidised by, governments are common in many other countries, including the United States and many of the Euro-zone nations.

The nay-sayers point out that such programs would be expensive – and that’s true. However, the cost would be far less than the current case-by-case response to repeated natural disasters.

Nationally, it is estimated that we are spending less than $50 million pa on natural disaster resilience – at a time when the public costs of disaster recovery programs are mounting rapidly into the tens of billions of dollars. Yet experts have estimated that every dollar spent on prevention of, or preparation for, natural disasters saves four dollars on reparations and recovery assistance.

If multi-peril insurance was available, farmers would be expected to do all they reasonably could to prevent losses due to disasters. If insurance were available on reasonable terms, and a landowner was not prepared to put their hand in their pocket to take out that insurance, there should be limited recourse to public assistance when they suffer losses.

Most farmers would readily make that commitment as a sensible business decision.

Many farmers I know find the ‘poor victim farmer with starving stock’ image distressing. They argue that, if that remains the predominant narrative, the urban population can’t be expected to respect what they do and support their ability to make good land management decisions.

Governments have repeatedly told the industry that it needs to be better prepared for natural disasters. Perhaps it is time they heeded their own advice.

Free trade numpties need a reality check

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I try to be a glass-half-full type of person – I really do. However, all too often I end up being ‘not happy, Jan’.

“Paying an extra $150 million a year to protect growers? That’s bananas!” boomed the headline on an article last week by an associate professor in economics at a respected Australian university.

The opening paragraphs saw my blood pressure rise …

“No international traveller can miss the impact of Australia’s quarantine restrictions. Loud posters at every international airport instruct you to dump your fresh produce or face large fines … These restrictions impose a cost not just on international travellers but on Australian consumers. Anyone who’d like to consume overseas fruit is not quite as well off as they would be if they didn’t have to comply with Australia’s quarantine restrictions … We estimate the banana import ban has a total annual welfare cost of about $150 million. That’s more than $250,000 per grower per year.”

And rise – to the point of apoplexy …

“Does the risk of not being able to grow our own bananas pose enough real danger to Australia that we should spend $150 million every year to fend it off? Or is there a subtler but larger danger lurking in our quarantine laws – the invisible siphoning of Australia’s wealth to a tiny group of protected mates, through policies sold to us wrapped in our national flag?”

Where to start?

First of all, there are no subsidy payments to farmers as this article would suggest. This is a notional allocation, developed from a theoretical model.

Abolishing quarantine laws – oh, yes, that’s a truly brilliant idea.  Let’s open the floodgates to imported bananas, apples – you name it – from anybody, anywhere. So all the years Australia has spent protecting our farmland from imported diseases will have been wasted, sacrificed at the altar of free enterprise.

If we were talking about the meat industry, would economists be advocating opening the door to imports that could carry foot and mouth disease, or BSE or any one of half a dozen other nasties we can all think of? Will they be lining up to support farmers when they have to shoot cattle or plough in orchards affected by imported diseases? I don’t think so.

Then there’s the proposition that growers might be profiteering and exploiting Australian consumers.

Textbooks tell us that any market is the result of supply and demand. In an ideal market, the balance between supply and demand is what sets the price. But most farmers are price takers. They don’t set the price that they are paid for their products – they have to take what they are given.

Economists should take a look at the usual suspects – middlemen and retailers – to see who is making profits. As the supermarket price wars demonstrate – think $1/litre milk – the major retailers operate under a different set of rules to the market. Their rules.

Just for a moment assume that I can play the game –  and accept the logic in this instance and remove biosecurity controls on bananas.

The inevitable outcome of this hypothesis is that the whole of our biosecurity framework would soon be dismantled. Sure as night follows day, we would end up outsourcing all food production to the cheapest source, regardless of safety and other societal expectations. Those who grow and produce food in Australia – and those who rely on them – should go on the dole.

Furthermore, this seems to be just another example of selective analysis. If we’re seriously going to have this discussion, then ALL costs need to be taken into account before making any assessment. So not only biosecurity, but also opportunity costs and economic impacts. That would include quantification of employment impacts, re-establishment costs if it is determined that it is feasible for banana farms to move to other activities, and flow-on economic effects from downtime in periods of re-establishment.

Economic theorists may well be happy if we shut down all those industries where we don’t have a comparative advantage. However, it won’t satisfy the people who work in those industries – who vote. And I doubt if they appreciate being called rent seekers.

We have had nearly 50 years of our politicians and community acting on the simplistic highly value laden advice of economists and it has created significant problems. We need to push back against the self-serving arrogance that has become a hallmark of modern Australian economic input.




Fighting the fat epidemic

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As Australian children go about their daily lives, they are exposed to a huge amount of unhealthy food marketing. Food companies and fast food chains bombard kids with unhealthy food on television, on the street, at the shops, while watching and playing sport, online, and sometimes even at school.

More than a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese – and that number is increasing. This serious public health issue comes with significant consequences for individual children, their families and our community.

Substantial evidence tells us marketing influences children’s food preferences and consumption, contributing to overweight and obesity.

Good nutrition in children is essential for their healthy growth and development which leads to substantial health benefits later in life. Establishing a healthy pattern of eating and drinking early in life can have far-reaching consequences including maintaining a healthy weight, reducing the risk of chronic disease and protection against premature mortality.

We all know that many children’s diets fall well short of recommended balances – children typically eat too many unhealthy foods and too few of the things that are good for them. Recent research shows that, while some areas are improving, others are not – and leaving this to chance is not working.

The food and advertising industries have continually failed to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing, despite ample opportunity and increasingly complex regulatory frameworks.

But why has the system failed?

The food and advertising industries currently set their own rules for marketing food to children. In other words, food industry advertising codes are voluntary and many companies have not signed up. This is not surprising: the food industry’s ultimate goal of increasing profits by selling more products is in clear conflict with the public health goal of improving diets and encouraging people to avoid unhealthy food.

Furthermore, compliance isn’t effectively enforced or independently monitored for those who do sign up. Companies might be required to stop showing an advertisement found to breach a code, but there are no additional penalties.

Surprisingly, a lot of marketing isn’t covered at all by food industry codes, including sports sponsorship, packaging featuring cartoons and familiar characters, in-store promotions, competitions and giveaways. And then marketing is only covered if it’s ‘directed primarily to children’. Media popular with both children and adults is unlikely to be covered eg mainstream TV shows and sports broadcasts. Oh, and no code covers older children, with age limits of either 12 or 14 years old. Furthermore, the codes don’t adequately protect children from digital marketing.

Food companies can decide which foods are ‘healthier’ and can be marketed to children. This is why we see foods including high-sugar breakfast cereals, ice creams and biscuits categorised as ‘healthier’ under the food industry codes.

The Obesity Policy Coalition, a group of respected health and research organisations, believes that the issue of our children’s future health is too important to be left to the whims of corporate profit imperatives. It argues that the federal government must regulate to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

They are proposing the introduction of mandatory regulations that apply to all food companies and fast food chains.

These regulations should apply to all forms of advertising, marketing and promotion; all forms of media including television, cinema, outdoor advertising, radio, internet and print; digital media such as social media and mobile applications; and any new and emerging technology. The scheme must also cover promotional strategies such as brand advertising, product packaging, in-store displays, sponsorship of children’s sport, product placement, competitions and offers of free toys and giveaways. It would prevent unhealthy food advertising when kids are likely to be engaging with various media formats. Outside of these times, it should apply to any advertisement that uses techniques that appeal to children.

The new scheme would need to clearly define ‘unhealthy food’ by reference to an appropriate nutrient profiling model; and it should apply to children up to 16 years old.

Such a scheme should also impose meaningful disincentives and sanctions for breaches to content creators, publishers and broadcasters. Importantly, it should be administered and enforced by an adequately resourced independent agency.

We are clearly failing in our responsibility as a community to ensure our children have the best possible start in life. The current obesity crisis is slated to cost the Australian health system billions. Even on the basis of cost alone, it is time we had a serious look at this and other possible ways to address this seemingly intractable challenge.

Not in my backyard

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The great Roman poet Virgil died in the year 19 BC. He’s famous for warning people about the Trojan horse. “Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts,” he said.

Move forward more than two thousand years, and now we are warned to beware of politicians bearing gifts.

We all know that, if they give you $10 in one hand, they will take $50 from the other hand. Unfortunately, they tend to give to some but take from others.

Egged on by vociferous green groups, the promise of ecotourism riches is the latest version of the Trojan horse. Namely, the lure of an economic revival from floods of visitors seeking out natural wonders in your neck of the woods.

Ecotourism seems to be the panacea for governments seeking to close or prohibit something. Shut the forestry industry, prevent the construction of a pulp mill, kick out the salmon farmers — all in the name of ecotourism.

When all the dust settles, though, it is not uncommon to find that very few jobs have been created; and the supposed new industry wouldn’t generate enough economic activity to keep the local corner store open.

Lots of people are not directly affected by these decisions and they can’t see what the fuss is all about. But if your job relies on those activities, then it can be devastating. Just anyone whose job five years ago depended on the forestry industry.

Very few places fulfil the ecotourism promise. Even some of our most famous and popular natural attractions require artificial visitor centres and displays to make sure the experience is top notch.

More scrutiny needs to be placed on the smokescreen that is ecotourism. It is a warm and fuzzy concept used to try to convince urban dwellers that they are protecting nature. In fact, much of the time, they are shutting industries, destroying jobs and harming local economies that have no hope to survive on a carload of backpacking tourists who may stop for a tank of petrol and a cup of coffee.

The latest Trojan horse being dragged into the town square is the turning the so-called Tarkine into a new national park.  As beautiful as parts of the area are, is putting up a new name and stopping logging and mining that has been going on for generations in places the vast majority of people will never venture into really going to produce a tourism bonanza? I mean, the beautiful bits are already there, so what is stopping the flood of tourists now?

Tasmanians are hugely successful NIMBYists. More than half the state (54 per cent to be precise) is now locked into public parks, reserves and wilderness areas. There’s probably another 10 – 12 per cent in private conservation reserves. That doesn’t leave much space for economic activity.

Whilst there has been an increase in tourism numbers, surveys of visitors show these are mainly people coming for the food, the scenery and, increasingly, the golf. These visitors have not created a deluge of tourism-related jobs – and, in fact, in some regional areas unemployment remains higher than national averages.

At the same time, the urban green NIMBY class opposes any new economic development (like the proposed ecotourism resort on the east coast, or the Mt Wellington cable car) and continues to try to shut down some of the remaining industries (like salmon and the remaining private sector forestry industry). It’s not just Tasmanians, either – many of the people that push these lines are fly-in-fly-out professional activists.

Our apparent unwillingness to earn our keep has led to the accusations of Tasmania being a mendicant state. If the rest of Australia wants economic activity in Tasmania to be shut down to placate urban green groups, someone has to pay – and it should rightly be them too.

All the while, huge tracts of our state are unmanaged – no fire prevention, no weed control, no pest management, no fences. All the experts tell us that it will inevitably result in widespread natural disaster. The intensity of wildfires across the world over recent years tell us this is true.

So here we are facing increased risks from natural disasters and also the human disasters that follow from failed economic readjustments.

And we can’t say we haven’t been warned.