Submission in response to the issues paper to inform development of a national food plan

2 September 2012

Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), was formed 23 years ago, and was originally known as Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population. We are the only environment group in Australia with a specific population focus.


Among our aims and objectives, the following are relevant to the issues paper and motivate our response:
    • To contribute to public awareness of the limits of Australian population growth from ecological, social and economic viewpoints,
    • To promote awareness that the survival of an ecologically sustainable population depends on its renewable resource base, and
    • To promote urban and rural lifestyles and practices that are in harmony with the realities of the Australian environment, its resource base and its biodiversity.
SPA submits that, in preparing a national food plan, the government must deal with the reality that no environmental problem can be solved by human population growth and indeed that any environmental problem will be exacerbated by that growth.


We note the optimism of the Minister for Agriculture in his foreword to the paper where he says that “Australia must position itself to manage future risks, but equally, to reap future gains”. However SPA is of the view that these two objectives will most likely be in contradiction.
This is because the issues paper fails to recognise the full impact of population increase. For the most part, references to population are given in terms of anticipated global growth and the positive consequences for Australia, and where minimal reference is made to anticipated Australian population growth the impact appears not to have been grasped. Most importantly the paper suffers from a lack of balance between consideration of a food supply and that of food demand. It is meaningless to discuss food security without specifying the population to which it applies. Food security cannot be defined in the context of a steadily growing population.
SPA is disappointed that the issues paper has failed to address the vital issues of peak oil and peak phosphorus, while some other risks have been glossed over, impacts understated or, while acknowledged, do not appear to be fully comprehended.
So that the mathematics of population growth is understood, SPA presents a modern-day fable written by one of our members, Mr Asbjorn Kanck, for your consideration.
Once there was a village with ten families who shared a 1000 litre waste bin between them. This meant they could all put in 100 litres of waste before the bin was full. The waste collection truck would come in each month and swap the bin with another 1000 litre bin.
However one day the waste truck turned up and said the company would now be providing 950 litre bins, so each family would have to reduce the volume of their waste by five litres a month to 95 litres. This was only a five percent reduction on what they were used to so there were not too many grumbles and everyone was fairly happy.
Later on the village population increased by two families (20%) and they each wanted to tip their 95 litres of waste into the same bin, which of course would not fit. The waste management company would not provide a bigger bin and said they would all have to reduce their waste further. How much would this be?
The 190 litre reduction (the two additional families’ 95 litres) had to be spread between the 12 families so this worked out to be 190/12 or 15.8 litres for each family. This meant that each family could only dump 79.2 litres of waste into the big bin each month. This is now a reduction of 20.8% compared to the original 5% – so there now has to be a more than threefold reduction in waste, compared to the original need for each family, merely because of a 20% increase in their population.
Stated government aims – such as increasing productivity in the agricultural and forestry industry by 50 per cent and reducing net carbon emissions per unit of food and fibre by at least 50 per cent between now and 2030 (p.63 of the Issues Paper) – are laudable. But because of population growth the targets will have to be significantly higher to produce a real result of 50 per cent. We suggest you seek mathematical modelling to determine by just how much.
Climate change
While the issues paper talks of “natural disasters”, events such as bushfires and flooding are being dramatically exacerbated in both frequency and impact by climate change. This in itself argues against certainty in a national food plan. In this regard suggesting that the food industry “could” face challenges around such disasters understates the future potential problems.
Who could have predicted or even imagined the destruction of wheat crops in Russia and the Ukraine last year as a consequence of fires? On our own shores, Queensland has had six category-4 cyclones in the past century. One occurred in 1918, and the other five have occurred in the last six years. If these “natural disasters” occur in a number of countries in the same year, falling back on the option of importing/exporting may not be an option.
The fable presented to you earlier in the submission was prepared in order to demonstrate how, based on current rates of population growth, even if the Federal government’s 5% carbon emissions target is met by all existing Australians, any benefit gained will have been completely wiped out before we get to 2020.
The impact of increasing population is far more substantial than most people understand, and must lead to questioning of food security plans when the Australian population doubles, as it will most likely do by mid-century.
Although the Australian Government is unwilling to acknowledge the added impacts to climate change caused by population increase, last year NGO representatives from nine nations from the Horn of Africa came together to produce a position statement on the combined impact of these two issues. The statement recognised that “rapid population growth increases total carbon emissions, … increases the number of victims requiring adaptation measures, … thus exacerbates all problems of both mitigation and adaptation”.1 It would be inexplicable if this was the impact on one continent, but not on another.
Peak oil
SPA is perplexed that the paper makes no reference to the issue of peak oil, given that energy inputs are a major cost for the agricultural sector. In May 2008, in a submission to the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Impact of Peak Oil on South Australia, the South Australian Farmers Federation (SAFF) advised that the flow-on effects of oil prices “has a great impact on farmers directly through higher fuel prices and indirectly through the knock on effect in the costs of production, particularly in the cost of fertilizers and freight costs”2. The President of SAFF, Peter White, in his oral presentation, advised that although many food consumers expect farmers to absorb rising fuel oil costs, the substantial oil price increases we can expect in the near future will be such that farmers will have to either pass on those costs to the consumer or, if the price for their commodities is not high enough, get off the land. The consequence of the former will be higher food prices for the consumer and of the latter a reduction in supply of some commodities again leading to higher food prices.
Peak phosphorus
The issues paper acknowledges the widespread problem of a lack of soil fertility in Australia, observing that the need for fertilisers is an ongoing problem. Of particular note is the observation that 56 per cent of the phosphorus used in agriculture in Australia between 2001 and 2009 was imported. But the paper’s claim (p.10) that “at the present rate of extraction and current usage patterns, the global reserves of phosphates that can be economically extracted would be sufficient for around 100 years” appears to fly in the face of other scientific evidence about “peak phosphorus”. The evidence is that production/exploitation of phosphorus reached its world peak in 1989 and has been trending downwards ever since. An article by Dery & Anderson published on the website, Energy Bulletin, states that “even if we find a real substitute for fossil fuels, it will be impossible to maintain population growth because phosphate deposits are probably in decline”. 3
However, in the unlikely event that your paper’s assertion about availability of phosphate is correct (and we believe the evidence is to the contrary), as stated by you such availability is based on the present rate of extraction and current usage patterns. Yet the paper repeatedly acknowledges the fact of continuing global population growth – so rather than 7 billion people trying to access what is mainly rock phosphate, there will be 9 billion attempting the same in 40 years’ time. Therefore the demand will be up by almost 30 per cent and the extraction rate is therefore likely to be similarly higher.
However, unlike the peak oil problem, phosphorus is a renewable resource, although not necessarily in the form of rock phosphate. If the Federal Government is serious about addressing this issue, and is intent on growing our population, recovery of those phosphates from our ‘waste’ stream, in particular from sewage, must be an imperative in the food plan. In South Australia, farmers at Bolivar access treated sewage from the nearby treatment works to provide phosphate for their market gardens.
Workforce issues
There will, no doubt, be arguments presented that Australia will need to bring in more migrants to deal with the problem of prospective workforce shortages. These claims have been shown to be based on circular arguments of the workforce required given the assumption of high rates of immigration. Without high rates of immigration, there will be no workforce shortage4. Given the costs and damage of increasing population, SPA argues strongly against this, and advocates for the emphasis in the Food Plan to be on training.
Access to land
The paper acknowledges that access to land is a problem because of urban encroachment, but takes a hands-off approach. Urban encroachment is an inevitable consequence of a growing population: more people need more housing which in turn means more land is required. At the same time as a growing population demands more land for building houses, that same population is also creating demands for extra food. Only six per cent of Australia’s land is arable, most of that on the coast, in exactly the same area as most of our urban settlements (which of course is no co-incidence) and building houses on that same land amounts to crass stupidity.
If government continues to encourage population growth, as it seems to be determined to do, then the authors of the Food Plan must acknowledge that Australia’s ability to export food to assist the world’s growing population will be impeded as a consequence of growing houses instead of food.
Water and Groundwater
Water issues have been addressed after a fashion, again not taking into account the impacts of increased population. Under your climate change heading you observe that the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology are telling us that “drought occurrence could increase over most of Australia, but particularly in south-west Australia”. That being the case, what is the added impact of more people demanding the production of more food from less water?
To add insult to injury, the issue of groundwater has been completely missed. This is surprising as groundwater is the main source of water in the more arid regions of Australia where grazing is the principal food-producing activity. If the Australian Government is determined to grow our population, then the Food Plan must address where the water will be sourced since this resource is already over-committed.
The paper asks whether all the possible risks to our food security have been addressed. We have made it clear that the failure to consider the negative impact of population increase at the national level is clouding issues that will need to be resolved if a functional food plan is to be developed.



Yours sincerely


Hon. Sandra Kanck
National President


Sustainable Population Australia



1.Joint Position Statement from the Horn of Africa Civil Society Organisations “Population Growth and Climate Change” Kampala, Uganda, 14th September, 2010



4.Birell et al, “Immigration and Resources Boom Mark 2”, CPUR Research Report, July 2011

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