SOME people like to think that Australian agriculture is clean and green, which they believe translates into market opportunities.
Others insist that Australia as a whole can claim no such position, but Tasmania can. Across the ditch the Kiwis argue that Australia is neither clean nor green, but New Zealand is. It even forms the basis for their tourism advertising.
In fact there are thousands of claimants to the term, in Australia and around the world, and not all of them relate to food or agriculture.
A program in Los Angeles, California, for “off track” school students gives young people environmental work experience to teach them the value of “staying in school, preparing for college and giving back to their communities.” The program is known as Clean and Green.
In Pennsylvania, USA, the state government offers tax credits to rural property owners who adopt its criteria for protection of farmland, forest land and open spaces. The program is also known as Clean and Green.
The Singapore government has a program which aims to “inspire Singaporeans to care for and protect our living environment by adopting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle". Yes, it’s called Clean and Green.
Any number of food markets lay claim to the term, and hundreds of businesses have latched on to it as well, from a company with exclusive Australian distribution of Charlie’s Soap products, called Clean and Green, to a carwash in Albany, WA.
Yet as far as I know there is no convincing evidence that Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand, Pennsylvania, Singapore or any other state or country has achieved any advantage as a result of claiming to be clean and green.
There are plenty of anecdotes of course, and naturally some people say they are influenced by it, but that’s not reflected in what they do. The evidence suggests, at most, consumers will avoid products from countries they regard as the opposite of clean and green, like China.
In fact, the only people who seriously believe the claim has a positive impact are the ones using it themselves. It’s called believing your own propaganda.
Perhaps that’s why the experts in propaganda, politicians and regulators, are generally willing to impose regulations based on the assumption that it is meaningful. The Tasmanian and New Zealand governments, for example, justify refusing to allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops or the use of hormone growth promotants in cattle on the grounds that it would undermine their clean and green image.
Citing the same reason, they have also both introduced legislation to ban the use of battery cages in egg production and sow stalls in piggeries. It’s not hard to envisage it being used to ban four-wheel drives and trail bikes.
This highlights a common problem in agriculture - the tendency to regulate rather than leave it to the market. You want to be seen as clean and green? We’ll pass a law. It’s all in a good cause, like legislating virginity.
As always there are consequences.
Tasmanian and New Zealand producers are forced to endure the regulations imposed in support of the clean and green mythology irrespective of whether they personally subscribe to it. Beef producers are at a disadvantage relative to producers elsewhere due to their inability to use growth promotants, while farmers who grow canola are unable to take advantage of the productivity benefits of GM varieties.
And of course consumers are compelled to pay higher prices for eggs, irrespective of their attitude to cage production.
Clean and green is a marketing device just like fresh, new, bigger and, as I discussed recently, provenance. It may be successfully claimed by individual producers or perhaps even groups of them, but it should never be forced on a whole state or country.
It is not a big step from compelling producers to conform to forcing consumers to buy.
I believe more people are willing to buy a product because it is labelled "made in Australia" than because it comes from somewhere that describes itself as "clean and green".
And even then, most of those who say they prefer Australian made do not buy Australian made. There are a lot of myths surrounding that too.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org