The food security issue has already blown up this year, courtesy of an ABARES report on Wednesday about levels of foreign ownership in agriculture. The report drew a smattering of media coverage but the usual food security hysteria was missing because of the inconvenient reality check it delivered, that only 11.3% of Australian farmland was owned or partly owned by foreign companies. That’s why the report drew claims of "whitewash" from the Nationals’ John Cobb, although he quickly insisted the "flimsy, rehashed" report wasn’t ABARES’s fault but Labor’s, naturally, and in particular no one in cabinet was from the bush. And Bill Heffernan today was threatening to compel FIRB officials to attend hearings of his Rural Affairs committee on the issue. Normally, departments decide themselves which officials attend hearings. The ABARES report in fact was a welcome corrective to a lot of the nonsense being peddled by politicians from various points of the political spectrum. That 11.3% figure was about the best thing going in it for the hysterics. And even it was misleading: the figure that’s both of wholly and partly foreign owned. Of that 11.3%, ABARES says, around half is majority Australian-owned. So, the amount of agricultural land outright controlled by foreign companies is less than 6%. Not overly conducive to hysteria, is it? The report also looked at FIRB data for 2009-10. FIRB data is problematic because it only captures foreign government investment applications or investment applications over $230 million, and doesn’t capture actual investment anyway. But that showed total foreign investment in agriculture and food manufacturing (including tobacco) at less than 4% of overall foreign investment. And who are the biggest investors? The food security hysterics such as Barnaby Joyce like to portray the issue in terms best suited to the old Fu Manchu stories -- it’s the sinister Chinese buying up our farm land. But in 2009-10, it was the US that was the source of the largest amount of investment applications across the economy generally and in agriculture (bear in mind US investors get special treatment under FIRB courtesy of the Howard government’s AUSFTA), followed by Malaysia, then the British. Chinese firms had no investment applications at all that year. It gets worst for the "foreigners stealing our land" narrative: one of the key investors in agricultural land are foreign pension funds, rather than state-owned companies of Big Ag hell bent on controlling our food. ABARES examined the issue of state-owned investments and what motivates them. What it offers should be read by every conspiracy theorist and food security advocate in the country.
"But the suggestion that the purchase of farmland in a foreign country is an effective means of increasing the supply of food at home demands some analysis. Australia and many other world food suppliers have well-established and efficient marketing institutions for food exports, and bypassing these to make direct shipments from one or a few farms would be an expensive way to move produce abroad. To achieve economies in this process, and to have a significant impact on the food supply in the investing country, would require land purchases on a scale that vastly exceeds present levels. The cost would be extreme -- purchasing food from the world market, even with the aid of government subsidies if required, is likely to be a significantly cheaper option. There is also considerable uncertainty as to whether such a strategy would be fiscally sustainable in the long term, if no consideration is given to profitability. For example, Cotula et al. (2009) conclude that evidence for the perception that China supports Chinese enterprises to acquire land abroad as part of a national food-security strategy is highly questionable."
ABARES also notes that FIRB considers national security when assessing state-owned investment applications. The best part of the report, though, is its succinct history of the role of foreign investment in agriculture -- and the critical role foreign investment played in its development in Australia. It reels off example after example of the role of foreign investment since the earliest days of white settlement, including the establishment of entire industries like cotton. In criticising the report, Cobb complained that what was needed was a "forensic examination" of the issue and "real data about the levels of foreign ownership of farm land and agribusiness". The problem is, ABARES’s report does indeed contain plenty of real data. It’s just, inconveniently, that they don’t suit the food security narrative.