PLANS to make Australian farms the food bowl for Asia's burgeoning middle class shine a spotlight on foreign ownership, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.
At Rossmar Park, a 5600-acre property at Caroona on northern NSW's Liverpool Plains, Tim Duddy farms cereal crops and cotton, and runs cattle - the seventh generation of his family to work the region's richly productive soil.
"There is not a parcel of land in the country that can lap us in what we can produce," he says of the Plains' huge output of cereal crops.
But the spectre of change is sweeping the region, as coal seam gas (CSG) and mining companies - including BHP, Santos and China's state-owned Shenhua - move on the rich deposits that lie beneath.
As spokesman for the Caroona Coal Action Group, Duddy was alarmed enough to stand as an independent candidate at last year's NSW state election.
Now he is angry the federal government's National Food Plan green paper - released on Tuesday for 10 weeks of public consultation - fails to address the link between mining and food production.
"There should be 15 pages on mining, not five lines," he says. "You need water to grow food. Well, mining and other extracting industries harm the water system. And that's just the start."
In its 274 pages, the green paper details the need for farmers and food processors to double production in coming decades, to become the food bowl for Asia's burgeoning middle class.
"The value of world food demand is expected to rise by 77 per cent by 2050. Most of this growth will occur in Asia, where demand is expected to double," it states.
"This gives our food sector strong prospects over the long term, given our proximity to Asia and strengths in key growth commodities such as beef, wheat, dairy products, sheep meat and sugar."
The paper also supports biotechnology as a means to increase productivity - including through genetically modified crops - and, critically, warns that "any reduction in foreign investment in the agricultural sector would likely result in lower food production with potentially higher food prices, lower employment, lower incomes in the sector and lower government revenue".
Duddy is unconvinced.
"I believe that in Australia we have everything we need to become a major, major player in international food production in the long-term," he says of the tension between the mining boom and the "dining boom".
"While foreign investment gives comfort or expedites development in the short term, it would be unwise - to use a rural analogy - to sell the front paddock to pay for the dinner party.
"We are quite capable of developing our agricultural land for ourselves."
National Farmers Federation (NFF) president Jock Laurie acknowledged foreign ownership is a live issue for his members, who are awaiting a national register of foreign owners.
"Our members feel uncomfortable about what is going on. The national register - of retrospective and future purchases - is essential," he said.
"But that register has to have honesty and integrity. If you have foreign money or government money hiding behind Australian-owned companies, you need to find a way to overcome that problem."
The associate professor Bill Pritchard, an economic geographer and food security expert from Sydney University, says the emotion surrounding foreign ownership is "not particularly well hinged to any substantive understanding of the way agricultural markets work and the food system works".
"There is a simplistic conflation in some people's mind that suggests that if someone else owns the land, suddenly we don't have the food any more that is grown on that land.
"It is a crazy set of associations to make because you might well have a foreign investor owning the land but they are going to sell to the market that makes sense," he said.
"I am fairly cynical when people play the foreign ownership card, though I completely understand the cultural resonance it has. The example I give in lectures and workshops is Baz Luhrmann's movie Australia. Nicole Kidman's character was the Pommie, absentee landowner.
"She was the hero in that movie yet she was a foreign owner."
Pritchard said in rural NSW and Victoria, a huge proportion of seasonal fruit and vegie pickers are Chinese, Indian, Filipino - not the itinerant Anglo Australians or Aborigines of a generations ago or the backpackers who followed them.
"You go into a pub, as I do while doing fieldwork in rural Australia, and you'll likely see a couple of Filipinos playing pool after a hard day's work in the field," he said.
"This slightly racial intonation of foreign ownership is really problematic - these things are happening regardless of who owns the farm."
The issue is a hot topic in Canberra, where country Liberals and the Nationals often decry the method of collecting foreign investment data.
Liberal backbencher Dan Tehan, a senior adviser to the Howard government trade minister Mark Vaile, said the green paper fails to address the issue of trade agreements with Asia.
He said New Zealand's agreements with China are giving its dairy industry preferential treatment over Australia, while South Korea, an important beef market, is suffering because of the US free-trade agreement with Seoul.
Tehan said the government's solution of greater foreign investment is "just poor, it's lazy and it lacks intellectual rigour".
Coles corporate affairs general manager Robert Hadler argues the biggest challenge facing the industry is not foreign investment but rising costs for producers.
"Food processing in Australia has been dominated by the multinationals. And Inghams [poultry production] may go to an overseas firm," he said.
"I don't think that is a fundamental problem as long as the produce is Australian, the jobs are Australian and the profits are re-invested back in Australia.
"I think having options, domestic and overseas, is good for Australian farmers and food manufacturers," he said.
But the entrepreneur Dick Smith says until the government recognises that requiring perpetual economic growth is not sustainable, Australia will "not get anywhere".
"Everything is written by the fact you have to have growth. To have growth we basically have to sell everything off."