Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are Food Users Expectations Unrealistic in Terms of Prices Being Paid?

The following article is based on material collected at the recent 2020 Summit in Canberra, Australia.

It highlights the often unrealistic expectations that consumers are placing on food production, while demanding lower prices for food, something the world in the developed areas has expected and enjoyed for around 100 years. But meeting what are probalby unreal expectations in overall food safety, quality and availability does remove significant food from the consumer........and at what cost? It is all very well to say "lets all eat fresh natural food" but often that may not be possible except at impossibly high prices, or even technically impossible in some areas of the world. needs to be safe; it mostly was 40 or 50 years ago, yet many consumers demand still higher yardsticks. Is that always necessary? Simple things such as washing fresh foods before use in clean water [where available, as it is mostly in developed countries] can do a lot to remove problems just before consumption.

Recent comments this week by the UN and related agencies, specifically related to food production and availability also add to this conundrum.

The article prompted a lot of comment. What do you think?

Consumer expectations on how food is produced have become unrealistic, according to the chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, and there will need to be a trade off if food prices are to be affordable in the future.

Dick Wells was a rural delegate at the 2020 summit in Canberra on the weekend, and said while consumers rule, there's been "a disconnect" between them and the people trying to produce food and fibre under safe, clean, profitable conditions. Mr Wells said experience shows, in other industries as well, that to underestimate the capacity of the community and community outrage, even though it may not be based on sound science and evidence, can make the operating capacity of an industry very difficult. "The most recent example is of course the mulesing issue, with PETA and so on. I think people underestimated how they could marshal consumer outrage to create a backlash against industries," Mr Wells said.

"The frustration for us all in these sorts of things is when you understand the industry and the science behind these things, there's sound reasons for doing them.

"But there's a disconnect, and as a scientist that's one of the things I learnt – I used to think there was a logical process of evaluation and acquisition of data and decision making and that was the right answer. But science is only one part of the equation."

Mr Wells said increasingly consumers are "ruling the world". "They're increasingly expressing their wishes through big retailers who are seeking to supply them with the goods they want," Mr Wells said. "So in terms of quality assurance, its gone well beyond safety and gone right back up stream to how food is produced. "And it includes all these soft issues which are really quite challenging for us in agriculture, but at the end of the day consumers are still not prepared to pay any more for better upstream performance and this is the frustration for industry."

He said if you were to poll consumers, most would say they are most concerned about issues like environment and welfare. "But give them an opportunity to pay more for better upstream practice and they won't do it. "So the evolution has got to come with better communication and understanding to consumers about how our food is produced to reassure them that we produce food in a way that deals with a whole range of certain standards. "It's a trade-off. People are worried about grocery prices but you can't keep putting costs and expectations on upstream producers like farmers and others and then expect to absorb the cost."

But Mr Wells was cautious about labelling consumer expectations too high "because they rule".
"I think some of them are unrealistic…because they become ideological or philosophical.

"Take for example GM canola oil – we can show that there canola oil is no different from a GM plant, and the DNA in them has identical chemicals. "But the ideological argument has been 'I don't want oil from a GM crop irrespective'."

Mr Wells said the farm sector had always been product-focussed rather than service-focussed, but those sorts of ideological views had nothing to do with the product. "It's really about providing food service which encompasses all those other values and that's really challenging for an industry that's been supply-chain oriented.

"I think the challenge for us is to actually have responsible processes to try and understand consumer trends, even if they're irrational, and put in place processes about reassurance and quality control, even if it goes back to things that aren't making us any more dollars. "It's going to become a licence to operate rather if we do it in those ways rather than potentially an advantage in the market."

partially sourced from : Rural Press National News Service, Parliament House Bureau, Canberra.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Gamba Grass to be Declared a Weed

The Queensland government has succumbed to pressure from the greenies to declare gamba grass a Class 2 weed in Queensland. This is despite its role as an extremely valuable pasture species in the far north of Queensland.

The text of the Minister's statement is below:

Minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries -The Honourable Tim Mulherin
Thursday, April 03, 2008

Gamba grass to be declared a Class 2 weed

Gamba grass is to be declared a Class 2 weed in Queensland. The decision announced today by Minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries Tim Mulherin ends an extensive consultation process. “This is a sensible, balanced position that takes into account concerns from environmental and industry groups,” Mr Mulherin, said. “The reality is that gamba grass has the potential to become a major weed if not controlled but it also provides valuable cattle fodder, particularly in drought conditions. “Gamba grass is native to tropical Africa and can grow up to 4m tall. It exists in scattered areas, primarily across the Cape York and Gulf regions.’’

“It is estimated that it has been planted on around 18,000 hectares, based on the quantity of seed sold. “The decision will stop the sale of gamba grass seeds, require landholders to control it and require local governments to include it in their pest management plans for all areas.’’

Mr Mulherin said the decision did not force landowners, who had already planted the seed to provide fodder for their cattle, to immediately eradicate it from managed pastures. “But it does mean they will have to carefully control any potential spread,” he said. “This decision is to ensure that gamba grass does not get out of hand. “It is a serious offence to introduce, keep or supply a Class 2 pest without a permit issued by the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Penalties of up to $30,000 apply.’’

DPI&F will produce guidelines and an enforcement policy for landowners, information on management and if necessary, research on control practices. Mr Mulherin said the decision had not been made lightly. “It was important that the economic, environmental and social impacts of the plant were carefully weighed against its benefits,” he said.

While the regulatory steps necessary to enact the Class 2 declaration are carried out, an emergency pest notice preventing the further sale of gamba grass seed will be in place from mid-April.
[from the Ministers media statement]

This decision follows a similar ban in WA, introduced a month or so back.

Gamba grass is a very valuable pasture species, a major contributor to fodder sources in Africa [ its origin], South America, Asia and Australia. The latter three are areas where it has been introduced , mostly around the 1960s and 1970s, and where the plant has made extremely valuable contributions to fodder, both for direct grazing, and as cut and carry feed.

A decision is pending in the NT.

The issue has been driven by the green movement, with a lot of emotional material, and the media has played to that. As is common, the response from agriculture has been more muted, but the media is not listening.

A lot of misinformation on the plant has been used by the green movement to achieve their aims.

Unmanaged gamba will grow tall, and is a fire issue in the dry season. Absolutely true! But managed by grazing, mowing or similar measures to be kept short, dramatically reduces seed production and seed quality as seed production is forced into the dry period of the year, at least in seasonally wet/dry regions where it has been most useful. While not eliminated, a reduction of well over 90% in seed yield can be achieved. The fodder consumed if grazed also is very major contributer to animal production, especially in the dry season or early wet season as the plant responds very quickly to moisture, including heavy dew and short quick showers. Part of the reason for this has been elucidated over recent years, and is related to nitrogen accumulation in the root system - that also helps with the excellent biomass yields too.

It is also interesting to speculate on the role of gamba grass as a high yielding perennial cellulosic source in these regions. Afterall, the US is forging ahead with plans to develop switchgrass, a similar "weedy" grass found on the edge of many US mid west crop fields, as a cellulosic feedstock for new generation ethanol production.

There is no doubt that biomass production from gamba grass in areas receiving over 1000mm annual rainnfall in the wet / dry tropics is excellent. Could it have a future as a biomass crop?

It is an interesting option worth pursuing............and remember that one of the definitions for a weed "is a plant for which a use has not yet been found". Gamba grass already has a role as a fodder plant, and maybe there are more options too.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Update on Compadre Zoysia - great turf!

The following photos show a domestic lawn sown by Compadre seed in the Darwin region in late May 2007. The Dry Season had cool to very cool nights although days were around 30C, but with about 11 hours of sunlight.

The lawn developed well, and the following photos show the area in early April 2008, 10 months after establishment.

There have been no insect or disease problems, mowing is about every 3 weeks. The area has recently been cut very low to remove any thatch build up, in the absence of the availability of a verti cutter [or scarifier]. This is a precautionary management option as modest fertiliser levels were used in the establishment year, and may not be needed as fertiliser use is moderated in future.

It is a great lawn…………enjoyable to use, and for kids to play on. It is not itchy, if rolling on the lawn without a shirt, as often is the case if there are kids playing football!

Not only is it a great lawn, it cost less than one quarter the cost of using any turf sod!
For earlier photos see the post on this blog -

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Soil Carbon Sequestration Benefits for Land Managers - a Possible Way Forward

Graziers practising best management principles may be missing-out financially under current arrangements, as they store additional carbon in their soil, according to NSW Central-West Catchment Management Authority soil carbon expert John Lawrie.

A recent Sustainable Grazing Forum speaker at Broken Hill, New South Wales, Mr Lawrie explained the potential of soil carbon credits for landholders.

He outlined five major best management principles to benefit soil carbon increases, which included increasing groundcover, increasing perennial plants, increasing biodiversity and decreasing soil disturbance and compaction.
"These principals will also help the CMAs to achieve one of its major goals, which is to improve the health of their soils," he said.

Management practices that might qualify included stock exclusion areas, conservative stocking rates, better distribution of water supplies, time control grazing strategies, rabbit ripping and baiting, goat trapping, contour furrowing, water spreading or ponding, and tyne pitting. These are well established practices used for improved land management.

Mr Lawrie said graziers should be rewarded for adopting best-management practices by accrediting them as carbon positive farmers and provide them with the opportunity to receive funding for storing additional carbon in their soil. "By providing accreditation to suitable graziers, this would be an ideal way to improve soil health across the catchment, meet catchment targets, and provide graziers with an opportunity to access external sources of incentive funding for soil health improvement," he said.

Farmers willing to participate would need to provide a farm plan, soil tests and evidence of adoption of the best management principles.

"The scheme would allow CMAs to be favourably positioned when any international greenhouse gas abatement scheme is proposed," Mr Lawrie said. "This program could provide the opportunity to charge brokers a fee for being an experienced and independent accreditation organisation."

Mr Lawrie was one of many experts on-hand during the three-day forum, attended by about 45 participants from NSW's Far West Division, and hosted by the Western CMA, with support from the Lower-Murray Darling CMA.

The system proposed does offer a way forward for pastoralists to be able to gain some benefit from any proposed carbon credit scheme, by developing and implementing carbon accumulation schems on land they manage. It would have application across much of the pastoral zone of Australia. Fire management was not mentioned, but that factor is critical.......reducing fire will definitely improve, or reduce emitted carbon. The current West Arnhem project has demonstrated a very successful management plan, which works --

BUT.....currently agriculture [as broadly defined] is excluded from the concepts around carbon management, as it seems to be unfolding in Australia. It would be critical to have agriculture involved as soil accumulation of carbon has enormous potential for carbon capture while improving soil. There is a range of scientific and technical literature supporting soil carbon capture, and this concept as outlined does seem to offer a sensible range of tasks and issues that could work.

[partially sourced from media reports on the conference]