Monday, July 25, 2011

Is Australia a net food importer?

Measuring food is difficult. Do we use kilograms, or calories?

I’ve covered the value of food security before.  But the obvious truth that Australia is a massive exporter of food, in terms of both kilograms and calories, does not stand in the way of the grocery lobby group, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (and yes, I am very late to this story).

Here are some examples

This alarming result shows food and grocery manufacturing – which employs 288,000 people – is now a net-importer of food and grocery products which impacts industry’s growth and competitiveness (here)

But Ross Gittins' b%&*$it detector was straight on to it

According to figures compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last year we had total exports of food of $25.4 billion and total food imports of $11 billion, leaving us with a surplus of $14.4 billion. Even if we ignore unprocessed and look only at processed food, we still had a trade surplus of $5.8 billion. (here)

He continues to pick apart the claims.

So how did the food and grocery council get exports of $21.5 billion and imports of $23.3 billion for 2009-10, giving that deficit of $1.8 billion? By using its own definition of ''food and groceries''. We're not talking about farmers here, but the people who take their produce and process it for supermarkets.

So the council's figures exclude all our unprocessed food exports, including wheat (worth $4.8 billion in 2009), other grains and live animals. On the other hand, they include ''grocery manufacturing products'' such as medicines and pharmaceuticals, plastic bags and film, paper products and detergents.

That's food? It turns out that our exports of ''groceries'' totalled $4.9 billion in 2009-10, whereas our imports totalled $12.9 billion, leaving us a ''grocery'' trade deficit of $8 billion. This is hardly surprising. Since when was Australia big in the manufacture of medicines? If you leave out groceries, the report's figures show we had exports of processed food and beverages worth $15.9 billion, compared with imports of $9.9 billion, plus exports of fresh produce worth $700 million against imports of less than $500 million.

That leaves us with a trade surplus of $6.2 billion for fresh and processed food and beverages. We've been conned.

This all leads me back to the arguments I made about the value of food security. If food security is important, why isn’t grocery security, or medicine security, or car making security, or plane making security, or any other fundamental economic ingredient? Indeed, we could not produce the amount of food we currently do without imported picking, packing and transport equipment, so unless we ‘secure’ those, we won’t ever have food security.

The graph below is a final reminder about our food net export position relative to other nations, and our relatively low direct agricultural subsidies.


  1. Cameron

    > why isn’t grocery security, or medicine security, or car making security, or plane making security, or any other fundamental economic ingredient?

    you starve faster without food than other things, and which grocery do you mean other than food? However I agree that the others should be fundamental too

    I would like to see your figures broken down a little into categories ... like is that only wheat and meat in which we are exporters? Or is the stuff of a balanced diet included there?

  2. Good question about exporting a balanced diet. I might chase up some figures but won't have time for a week or so.

    My point is that we would also starve without oil, machinery for harvesting, packing, storing and transporting food.

    If the world (I guess mostly Americans and Japanese) stopped selling us parts for our industrial equipment used in the food production chain, we would also starve. Food security only exists if security of many other goods also exists.


  3. >If the world (I guess mostly Americans and Japanese) stopped selling us parts

    then we'd probably make them ourselves. I know some people who are in the manufacturing business and they are going either to the wall or through hard times BECAUSE of cheap parts from the USA One wonders if free trade (made in Mexico) effects the price of these cheap parts

    we once upon a time built cars here (for the Japanese even) but we can't compete with the low prices of China (so plants are closed and moved). The capacity of the population to do technical work is actually an investment, but its a living one and unlike a lump of rock or metal won't just sit in a safe waiting to be worth more

  4. Many thanks to the western countries like Australia and visionaries like you, Which made Chinese's future brighter and truly achieve modernization since the country's establishment. australian export