Regional Development Australia - Northern Rivers

​Submission from Regional Development Australia ¨C Northern Rivers

2 September 2011

Regional Development Australia ¨C Northern Rivers (RDA ¨C Northern Rivers) welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the National Food Plan Issues Paper.

Our organisation is a non©\profit community©\based and regionally focused organisation that connects people and businesses in our region to opportunities through partnerships focusing on community, environment and economy. RDA ¨C Northern Rivers encourages the Commonwealth Government for taking a proactive approach towards the issues surrounding food industry development and future food security.

Agricultural Snapshot

The Northern Rivers region is located on the North Coast of NSW, stretching from the Clarence River in the south to the Queensland border in the north. The region¡¯s rich volcanic soils have high agricultural productivity. These are largely frost©\free and support a range of agricultural industries including sub tropical fruit and vegetable crops, meat, dairy and sugar cane. New horticultural crops such as macadamias, avocadoes, coffee, tea, bush foods, herbs, bamboo, lychees and a range of other tropical fruits continue to emerge.

Meat and dairy continue to be a major user of agricultural lands, accounting for 90% of the region¡¯s milk supply from 145 dairy farms (NORCO Annual Report; 2009). There are also approximately 12,400 properties that stock beef cattle in the region (Pers. com. North Coast Livestock Health & Pest Authority; 2010). The region produces 29,525 tonnes of crops; 4,010,186 head of livestock; 21,525 tonnes of vegetables and 44, 978 tonnes of fruit (ABS, Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2008©\09. Cat. No. 7121.0; 2010).

The agricultural industry is supported by local organisations with strong research capabilities, which are pursuing innovative new ways to improve soil health and mitigate climate change.

Climate change and natural disaster impacts

While projections indicate that the Northern Rivers will not be as adversely affected by climate change impacts as other regions, such as the Murray©\Darling Basin, the continuing rise of oil prices will have an impact on food affordability.

CSIRO climate change projections prepared for the New South Wales Government (Climate Change in the Northern Rivers Catchment; 2007) for the Northern Rivers Catchment indicate that: ¡°although changes in average temperature, rainfall and evaporation will have long©\term consequences for the catchment, the impacts of climate change are more likely to be felt through extreme weather events. Projections suggest there may well be more hot days, bushfires, droughts and intense storms¡±. A reduction in winter rainfall and a decrease in soil moisture in winter and spring are projected for this region. Sea levels will rise, changing flood patterns and affecting the coast.

Community impacts on assets, residential and commercial property from coastal inundation will be widespread. Infrastructure that is likely to be affected as water levels rise include fishing ports at Tweed, Ballina, Evans Head, Iluka and Yamba, as well as the commercial shipping wharf on Goodwin Island, which may affect the region¡¯s significant commercial fishing industry.

RDA ¨C Northern Rivers Program Delivery

RDA ¨C Northern Rivers coordinates two programs focused on the food industry.

Northern Rivers Food is an industry©\driven, membership group, which focuses on promotion, training, networking and development. For more information see www.northernriversfood.org.au.

The Local Food Source Identification project is a component of the Northern Rivers Food Links Marketing Plan and aims to increase the labeling, quantity and variety of locally grown food in food retail outlets across the Northern Rivers. This is intended to raise consumer awareness of the benefits of purchasing and consuming locally grown food. The Northern Rivers Food Links project, seeks to mitigate climate change impacts associated with food production, distribution and consumption by reducing the reliance of food sourced outside of the region and increasing adoption of more sustainable food practices. For more information see www.northernriversfoodlin​ks.com.au and www.sustainfood.com.au.

National Food Plan Issues Paper

RDA ¨C Northern Rivers provides the following responses to specific questions in the issues paper:

1. What is the most important thing you think a national food plan should try and achieve?

A national food plan should seek to achieve a consistent, comprehensive but flexible approach to food production, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption with a focus on supporting more sustainable practices, strengthening the food industry and building community resilience to factors affecting food security. Key directions include:

  • Succession planning ¨C nurturing the development of a new generation of farmers;
  • Adaptability and diversification ¨C for the food sector to focus on productive entrepreneurship adapting to new challenges across the whole supply chain;
  • Sustainability and natural resource management ¨C integrating best practice land and natural resource management techniques, reducing the reliance on high energy farm inputs;
  • Protection of agricultural land ¨C in coastal NSW, there is significant competition for agricultural land for residential development, resulting in speculation, and impacting on long term farm management business models;
  • Value chain development ¨C improving efficiency and innovation through all aspects of food production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption;
  • Consumer awareness of food value ¨C enhancing consumer awareness of the true value and costs of food production, and the contribution of farmers as land stewards as well as food producers and that this is recognised in their return on investment.

Recommendation:

It is recommended that the National Food Plan ensure actions focus on:

  • Succession planning
  • Adaptability and diversification
  • Sustainability and natural resource management
  • Protection of agricultural land
  • Value chain development
  • Consumer awareness of food value

2. What do you think the vision and objectives for a national food plan should be?

The vision of the national food plan should be to ensure a sustainable food future for Australia. Its objectives should include the improvement of sustainable productivity through not only streamlining policy and regulatory framework but also by supporting existing and future food©\related programs and ensuring adequate consultation on a regional level. The vision needs to ensure that the whole of the Australian community understands our food production capabilities and acknowledges the benefits of this sector providing a range of valued career paths to a wider sector of the population.

27. How could the food industry develop more value©\added and product diversification opportunities? What stops businesses from doing this now?

Access to knowledge, expertise, research, development and innovation is critical for industry development and product diversification. In NSW, the research functions of the State Department for agriculture placed in regions have been reduced. The loss of these facilities reduces the capability of regional agricultural communities to access innovation, research and development capabilities.

Another factor to support businesses in product diversification and value©\adding is learning from their peers. In the Northern Rivers region, Northern Rivers Food began in response to requests by the food industry to enhance business and industry growth. Northern Rivers Food has provided networking, professional development, mentoring and cross©\business referrals and matching services to support business growth and innovation. These services are highly valued by the valueadding sector of the region¡¯s food industry, as the quality of business development support specific to the industry is often lacking in regions in Australia. Businesses have been able to access new markets, improve production/marketing processes, or address supply chain issues through their involvement.

However, Northern Rivers Food lacks sufficient resources and critical mass of membership to ensure the continued provision of these services. Initially funded through a grant from the NSW government, industry membership, service fees and established under the auspices of Regional Development Australia ¨C Northern Rivers, it is working to establish a viable funding model. It does, however, highlight the important contribution of regional industry development services, which require both government and industry support to be sustainable.

Recommendation:

It is recommended that the National Food Plan recognise that holistic food development requires national, state and regional support. The Government needs examine models of regional industry development (in the food and other sectors) to determine their contribution towards growth and development of the food sector, with an aim to identifying the support required by government to sustain regional industry development capability. 39. Are there labour supply issues with skilled and professional workers in the food industry? If so, what are they, and what caused them? What particular skills or professions are in short supply and why? Is there a role for government in improving the supply of skilled and profession staff?

In the Northern Rivers, significant labour supply issues have been identified at:

  • the farm grower level across a multiple range of industries, due to the ageing of farmers;
  • sugar cane harvesting;
  • processing both sugar cane and beef cattle products ¨C requiring processors within these facilities, as well as trade©\based technicians to ensure ongoing maintenance of the processing and support facilities;
  • farm management level; and
  • food services sector ¨C particularly in terms of cooks and chefs with a specialty focus (e.g. Asian food).

Some of the causes and potential solutions include:

  • trade based skills are at risk of higher value employment opportunities associated with the mining sector, and many trade employees trained by the local farming cooperatives leave employment upon completion of their training;
  • perceptions of farming as an industry do not highlight the important contributions of technology and science and highlight opportunities to attract new generation farmers; and
  • a need to shift to new employment models to attract non©\traditional entrants to farming practice.

Recommendation:

Government has a significant role to play in assisting with the development, promotion and positioning of workforce development and career pathway opportunities in the food industry, highlighting the roles of innovation, science and technology in the sector.

45. What else could governments or non©\government groups do to promote economic and social sustainability of food production, processing, or distribution (including resilience to economic or other shocks)?

There is minimal extension support for farmers in NSW. To assist farmers transition to new and viable models of food production in a low carbon economy requires significant extension support an assistance. The Australian Government is recognizing this need through programs such as the Carbon Farming Initiative creating new market opportunities and training support to enable land managers to identify how to access this sort of support.

Succession planning is also critical, and requires a greater understanding of career pathways within the diversity of the food industry, as well as the shift from manual to mechanized systems and approaches.

In the Northern Rivers region, the Northern Rivers Food Links (NRFL) project was granted $2 million in funding by the NSW Environment Trust in 2008 to mitigate climate change impacts associated with food production and distribution, and strengthen community resilience to climate change and peak oil impacts (see www.northernriversfoodlinks.com.au). The program has focused on:

  • Community©\based food production models;
  • Marketing and education;
  • Food distribution systems;
  • Sustainable agriculture programs; and
  • Resourcing local government with tools for food related policies, procedures and practices.

The project has achieved significant successes, and is currently evaluating outcomes and behavior change, and could be a useful model for the National Food Plan to consider in building resilience to economic and other shocks.

In addition, Sustain Northern Rivers is a cross ©\portfolio, regionally specific approach to a collaborative platform for action on climate change. Over twenty key organisations, including local and State Government agencies, regional development NGOs (e.g. RDA, Northern Rivers Social Development Council etc), community based organisations, youth groups, industry networks and the major regional newspaper network are working together to provide a local response to a global threat.

To leverage regional capacity, Sustain Northern Rivers has been developing a Regional Transition Model for a Low Carbon Future. This detailed proposal is a result of 18 months of collaboration and planning. Four working groups devised a number of strategies to address climate change mitigation and adaptation for a four©\year project timeframe, focused on the key areas of energy, transport, food and social innovation. Priorities identified for food for the region include:

  • Regional climate adaptation food sovereignty strategy
  • Agricultural transition strategy
  • Grower succession plan
  • Sustain FOOD website
  • Organic food bowl investment
  • Food distribution networks
  • Program evaluation.

The Transition Strategy is still in development, but representatives of Sustain Northern Rivers would welcome an opportunity to meet with representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to discuss these proposals and seek the support of the Australian Government in delivering on these regional initiatives.

Recommendation:

  • It is recommended that the National Food Plan review the Northern Rivers Food Links project evaluation and determine the approaches that best help build resilience for economic food sustainability.
  • It is recommended that the National Food Plan ensures that resources are allocated to support succession planning and extension support to assist with a transition to a low carbon economy for the agricultural sector.
  • It is recommended that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry meet with representatives from the Sustain Northern Rivers Climate Change Collaboration to examine opportunities from the Sustain FOOD component of the Northern Rivers Regional Transition Model for a Low Carbon Future to be supported by the National Food Plan.

46. What region©\specific issues should be taken into account in a national food plan?

The Northern Rivers region features high unemployment, a higher than average ageing population, and one of the highest proportions of residents on the lowest incomes in NSW.

As aforementioned, climate change and natural disaster events have and will continue to affect food production and supply in the region. The region¡¯s geographical isolation from Sydney means the region is often considered remote. Its proximity to Brisbane results in the region operating as a dispersed suburb of South East Queensland (with a population of 4.4 million people) yet unable access support from the Queensland government to service our growing needs. This means the infrastructure and services suffer from a lack of investment to maintain them and meet needs.

The Northern Rivers is part of the fastest growth area in NSW. Employment is fuelled by population growth (services), but our capacity to create jobs cannot keep pace with this growth. The Northern Rivers has a history of long©\term/entrenched unemployment for many residents, high levels of casualisation and underemployment.

Many residents suffer from social isolation (especially the elderly, youth and low income earners) as a result of the regional settlement pattern, lack of transport, low socio©\economic status and lack of facilities/services etc, making food affordability and accessibility a critical regional issue.

RDA ¨C Northern Rivers is in the process of completing a Food Industry Profile for the Northern Rivers region and will provide this to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to support this submission. The Profile identifies the region©\specific issues and data that should be considered in theNational Food Plan. One of the issues, associated with developing the profile is the difficulty of getting accurate data on all aspects of the food industry to inform planning.

Recommendations::

  • It is recommended that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry accept the Northern Rivers Food Industry Profile as supporting documentation about regional specific issues to consider in development of the National Food Plan after the closing date for submissions.
  • It is recommended that the National Food Plan ensures regions can access food industry data sources with current information on all aspects of food production, manufacturing and distribution.

Conclusion

As a region, the Northern Rivers is responding to food industry development and food security issues in innovative, progressive and practical ways through program delivery, capacity©\building and strategic planning. Strengthening the existing food industry and promoting business development will continue to bolster this region¡¯s food supply chain, enhancing food security for the region.

RDA ¨C Northern Rivers appreciates the opportunity to respond to the National Food Plan Issues Paper. For further information on the matters raised in this submission, contact me on 02 6622 4011.

Yours Sincerely,

[signed]

Katrina Luckie
CEO

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