Australia is rapidly losing control of its food resources. The purchase of AWB – the former Australian Wheat Board – by the Canadian company Agrium, now approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board, is the tip of an iceberg where large segments of food processing and marketing have been sold offshore.
Production is now the last bastion of predominantly local ownership in the food chain. But with increasing interest by foreign companies – and governments, including China’s – quality farmland is also a target.
In short, Australians are in danger of becoming servants, not masters, of their own food resources.
This is not an alarmist view. In a US report last year titled The Great Land Grab, the Oakland Institute said oil-rich, arable-poor Middle East and wealthy Asian countries “are seeking to acquire land as part of a long-term strategy for food security”. Purchases in South America, the subcontinent and Asia have begun.
Australia and New Zealand are high on China’s list. In June, a Tasmanian real estate agent reported strong interest from China in northern Tasmanian dairy farms. Immediately afterwards, the Chinese government-controlled Bright Food Group bought New Zealand’s third-largest dairy processing company, Synlait, which has 15 independently owned farms, after being beaten by a Singaporean company for CSR’s Sucrogen sugar and energy business.
When overlaid with other food resource acquisitions, such trends should ring alarm bells in a country that has lost control of most of its food marketing and processing. But overseas purchases of rural property and food-related companies for less than $231 million do not need Foreign Investment Review Board approval.
Paul Myers is a former editor of The Land and was founding editor and publisher of OUTBACK magazine.