Australia Broadcasting Corporation | 27 July 2010
By Emily Bourke
• Video: Could Australia lose control of its food resources? (Lateline Business)• Video: Cattle farmers take on food security (Lateline Business)
• Related Link: Selling the farmWhile Labor's election campaign is firmly focused on a sustainable population policy, critics say the party has failed to come to grips with the nation's future food security. An investigation by ABC News Online, Background Briefing and the PM program has uncovered concerns about the creeping acquisition by foreign interests, including foreign governments, of Australia's farms, including water rights and downstream production assets. Greens Senator Christine Milne is calling for a national food security plan. "I think it is essential the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) has a look at this issue of what is going on in Australia in terms of who owns our land and where that food will go in the end," she said. "But you can't do that until you have a national food security plan." Agriculture experts say the FIRB has fundamental shortcomings and many land purchases are taking place without adequate scrutiny because the transactions are too small. The sale of agricultural land is exempt under the rules of the FIRB unless the sale exceeds $231 million. Agriculture Minister Tony Burke was not available for interview about the calls for a food security plan nor could he offer a statement to the ABC. But assistant treasurer Nick Sherry did respond, saying foreign ownership of Australian agricultural land is low, and a steady flow of investment is vital for creating jobs. "Australian farmers and agricultural companies are entitled to sell their assets in their best interests," he said. Concerns remain The Coalition's spokesman on food security, John Cobb, says Labor has dropped the ball on agriculture policy, including quarantine and research and development. "We are not a country that puts foreign ownership to one side, we allow it," he said. "But I think there is a case to look at the amount that any one entity from overseas owns, I don't have a problem with that. "I think there are a lot of things we can do about food security and we will be announcing more of those next week." Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan is chairing a Senate committee inquiry into food production that will report on August 23. "At the present time there's no differentiation between private investment and sovereign investment," he said. "In other words, other countries' sovereign wealth funds buying our assets and then excluding us from access to them. "We need to put all this on a register, we need to lower the trigger point for reporting of foreign sales and we need to consider this as part of our sovereignty, strategic investment in Australia." Senator Sherry says that all foreign governments, or any company owned by them, must get approval from the FIRB before making a direct investment in Australia, "whether it's for one dollar or a billion dollars". According to farmer advocate Richard Bovill, if foreign interests take too great a share of Australian farms, the nation may not be able to cope with future food demands. "Foreign investment in Australia is an open book - we have a fear of the potential of the Chinese, but we shouldn't isolate the Chinese," he said. "The fact is the model in Australia allows anybody to come in and acquire our assets, to exploit basically those people who are vulnerable in Australia. "That's the scary thing. That's what we should be looking at. "We do the basic commodity production - we grow the grain and the milk and mine the minerals and allow everyone else to control the value-adding and the downstream processing and all of those things that actually create real wealth - we sell those opportunities to everybody else."
'Real concern' And he says the concerns have nothing to do with xenophobia. "If foreigners want to come and buy up Australia, we shouldn't be concerned about them buying up Australia. "We should be concerned about the fact that we've let our agriculture in Australia deteriorate to the point where Australian farmers cannot participate in that sale process - that's the real concern." He also accuses Labor of neglecting the sector. He says the Government has overburdened the dedicated minister, Mr Burke, by assigning him the additional and onerous sustainable population portfolio. "You can't have a regional strategy for regional Australia if you don't understand good agricultural policy," he said. "Unfortunately I think, politically, Labor has never been close to agriculture and it's been very clear in the actions of this Government that they've made agriculture a very low priority. Maybe because they believe farmers don't support the Labor Party. "But many, many other people in rural communities do support the Labor Party and Labor is letting those people down, because without viable farming communities you can't have a viable regional community."