What role for the northern 'food bowl'?

An independent report on the Ord River Scheme by auditor general Colin Murphy condemns the scheme as being plagued by cost blowouts, delays and poor planning.
An independent report on the Ord River Scheme by auditor general Colin Murphy condemns the scheme as being plagued by cost blowouts, delays and poor planning. Brad Durack

THERE was a period during primary school when my family ran out of food.

My father was in hospital for an extended stay, one of many I recall growing up.

Sick leave provisions had long since dried up and whatever annual leave had accrued was consumed during a previous illness.

There was nothing in the cupboards.

Admittedly, pumpkins always roamed near the back fence and there was a productive vine of chokos - always an Australian favourite, though never mine - at one side of the block.

Nonetheless, to my young eyes it must have seemed my mother, my three sisters and I had been cast adrift.

But this is no sob story.

My parents were proud, fiercely working class, and determined to carve out a life in the tiny fibro house they had purchased in Sydney's south-west on what my mother always referred to as "hire purchase”, after the banks refused them a loan.

They didn't ask for help, it wouldn't have occurred to them.

But help arrived anyway.

As I recall, it was a Sunday afternoon when I opened the front door to a man in a blue shirt badly tucked into grey dungarees over union work boots.

He introduced himself as Paul.

He was my father's boss at the milk depot, he said.

Paul filled the doorway, a figure made all the more imposing by his holding a big box bursting with food: tins, packets, fruit and veg, bottles of milk.

I called my mother. When she arrived, I clung to her side.

All "the boys” at work had taken up a collection.

They sent their best wishes that the box of goods might help things along.

My mother burst into tears.

The food would make all the difference, she said.

And it did.

Eventually, my father came home from hospital and, all too swiftly, returned to work.

I was glad he was home, of course.

But to be honest, I was gladder still to see food make a return to the cupboards.

I was reminded of this childhood scene when reading a UN report on food security this week.

Australians go hungry much less frequently these days, it seems, often intentionally.

Whether doing the 5/2 diet or fasting as a detox, hunger, for many, has become a choice.

For others, however, hunger remains a grim reality.

And as the world's population broaches 7.5billion, and with two billion more expected to have to share the world's bounty by 2050, concern over the security of our food supplies and the number of people going hungry will only grow.

Climate change adds a further chaos factor to the food equation, one that Australia is making a political choice to ignore right now, bereft as we are of any meaningful policy.

Thankfully, for the moment at least, Australia remains food secure.

But that security does not apply to all.

Researchers at Second Bite - an organisation supplying surplus fresh food to community food programs around Australia - have found that every year 1.2 million Australians struggle to put food on the table.

That's about 5% of the population. The figures are markedly worse among indigenous Australians.

In 2004-05, almost one-quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 15 years of age reported running out of food at some time during the previous year, compared with only 5% of non-indigenous Australians.

In Alice Springs, countless property break-ins produce astonishingly similar lists of stolen goods.

Such a list might typically include loaves of bread, cans of Coke and a hasty fistful of packets of chips.

Such hiests come courtesy of a largely unacknowledged fact: that while other factors are undoubtedly also at play, simple hunger often motivates theft among Aboriginal youth.

The picture is further clouded by patterns of excess in our consumption of food, plainly evident inside the throw-out bin behind your favourite restaurant.

A United Nations strategy suggests it is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food.

The second of its 17 goals for worldwide sustainable development, a UN goal of "zero hunger” calls for a profound change in the global food and agriculture system.

Such sentiments have spawned a move to enshrine the "right to food” in international policy, along with other economic, social and cultural rights, such as fresh water.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations adopted such an edict back in 2004.

Yet, as Sydney University researcher Dr Alana Mann notes, the right to food "remains unrealised for one out of seven people, globally”.

In recent years much coverage has been granted the idea that, in the future, the north of Australia will, indeed must, become the food bowl of Asia.

But a new book published by the CSIRO suggests such dreams should be tempered by the reality that Australia is already at or near optimum production.

Moreover, the products we choose to plant or raise in the north are crucial to any traction such a plan might eventually gain, if any.

Co-editor of Australia's Role in Feeding the World, Professor Tor Hundloe sees big opportunities in beef, wheat, milk and vegetables.

"If you think about the north,” he recently told media, "... its very good beef country ... and if the demand from places like China continues, [and if] the predictions are right, we'll make a squillion off beef.”

But talk of expanding the Ord River Scheme continued unabated this week, seemingly oblivious to last month's release of an independent report on the Ord by auditor general Colin Murphy.

Murphy's report condemns a scheme plagued by cost blowouts, delays and poor planning, but has nevertheless fallen on deaf ears.

Professor Hundloe, on the other hand, warns that while a shift from wool to beef can be expected in the long-term, owing to country in the north already being suitable for cattle, putting in dams (or presumably drastically expanding existing ones) to grow cotton or crops that demand a lot of water "probably won't meet the cost-benefit tests of economists”.

Topics:  food security population growth united nations

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