House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Sugar Industry

6:44 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sugar is one of the backbone agricultural industries of Queensland and the nation. The Australian sugar industry is one of the world's most efficient producers and exporters of sugar and is the leader in the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Indeed, as a nation we are the third-largest exporter of sugar in the world. We have some 6,000 sugarcane growers in Australia, some 4,000 mainly-family farms growing sugar along Australia's eastern seaboard, and there are more on the west coast, near the Ord. The sugar industry directly and indirectly employs and supports 40,000 jobs throughout Australia and underpins the economic stability of many coastal communities, particularly in Queensland. In that state, sugar is the social fabric that has woven itself through the development of towns up and down that state's coastline.

The sugar industry has seen its fair share of challenges. Canegrowers have battled on amid floods and bad weather, the deregulation of their industry, a corrupt world market, the recent forward-pricing debacle and also cane disease, such as smut, orange rust and now yellow leaf. These have all been the enemies from within for the sugar industry. But in recent times the sugar industry has also faced attacks from enemies without. Those enemies take the form of the nanny-state brigade, who would seek to regulate and control the consumption of sugar—as if we, the consumers, were all children who needed to be told what to do. The end result has been a contraction of the sugar industry, putting those 40,000 direct and indirect jobs associated with the industry at risk, putting the livelihoods of those 6,000 canegrowers—and in Queensland the near-4,000 farming families—at risk, right around this nation.

When I was a child there was a television commercial that was done, I believe, by the canegrowers organisation. It told us that sugar was a natural part of life. Today, we are told by this chorus of dietetic dictators that sugar is a poison, that sugar is toxic and that sugar is addictive—akin to drugs like heroin. The self-styled experts who use these words preach selective and mostly anecdotal information about sugar and health, which basically seeks to undermine consumer confidence in the safety of sugar. They demonise sugar, not based on sound evidence but on opinion and conjecture.

The nanny-state brigade claim that sugar is one of the key nutrients that are instrumental in the development of obesity. The reality is, there have been a number of major expert committees around the world that have looked into these exact claims, and all of them have concluded that there is no evidence of harm that can be attributed to current sugar consumption levels. Indeed, in this country, the National Health and Medical Research Council did a recent scientific review of the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They found in that review no conclusive link between sugar intake and obesity. In fact, they gave the papers that tried to peddle the story about a link between sugar and obesity a grade of D, which is akin to the D that you get on a report card at school—in other words, a fail. They noted that the evidence base for the claims—that there was a link between sugar and obesity—was poor, that the studies were inconsistent and that it was difficult to separate changes in total energy consumption from changes in sugar consumption.

I just wish the NHMRC had listened to their own advice, because they also went the way of the nanny-state do-gooders, by changing the Australian Dietary Guidelines from recommending that people should 'consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars' to recommending that people 'limit intake of food and drinks containing added sugar, and particularly limit sugar-sweetened drinks'. That change could now be used to influence Food Standards Australia New Zealand to set standards for food production in this country.

The World Health Organisation no less has found that the fundamental cause of obesity and being overweight is an energy imbalance between the calories consumed and the calories expended, so it is more complex than just removing sugar from the equation. There are calories outside of sugar—and there is the question of exercise. I am no poster boy for public health but I have to say that I cannot and do not blame sugar for my physique. It did not come about by putting too much sugar in my cups of tea. It did not come about because I selected only products with added sugar in them. It came about because of poor decisions to do with dieting, consuming foods high in fats and calories, and a lack of exercise, so I blame myself, not sugar, for my weight gain.

The facts speak volumes when it comes to sugar and obesity. The Green Pool Commodity Specialist compiled a report last year entitled Sugar consumption in Australia: a statistical update. The report found that sugar consumption in Australia had actually fallen by 9.3 per cent over the past eight years from 46.26 kilograms per person per year in 2004 to 41.97 kilograms in 2011.

The report also found that over the past 60 years consumption of sugar in Australia had fallen by 15 kilograms per person per year—that is a 26.4 per cent drop from the peak of 57 kilograms per person per year in 1951. No-one can say in those same time frames that obesity has declined in this country. This was found in a paper entitled

The Australian paradox: a substantial decline in sugars intake over the same timeframe that overweight and obesity have increased. The name of the report says exactly what the report found. One of the authors of that report was Professor Jennie Brand-Miller who holds a personal chair in human nutrition in the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders at the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney. The other author was Dr Alan Barclay, the Chief Scientific Officer, at the Glycemic Index Foundation and a spokesman for the Dieticians Association of Australia.

The Dieticians Association of Australia have also come out saying that this attempt to demonise sugar and link sugar directly to obesity is not helpful. The same view is shared by the Australian Diabetes Foundation. Dr Alan Barclay, who I have just talked about, is quoted as saying:

‘Sugar’ is not the issue—it is far more complicated than that.

He goes on to say:

… casting sugar as the ultimate villain and calling for regulation is misleading, unfounded and unnecessary.

Despite the facts that are on the table, this demonisation of sugar continues to be peddled in the press, almost unchallenged, and now it is leading the nanny-state brigade to call for attacks based on the content of sugar in food—in other words, a sugar tax. Other countries have introduced such a tax, including France, Finland, Norway, Hungary and Denmark, with little or no impact on obesity levels. I note Denmark actually repealed its sugar tax, because it has an impact on industry and jobs.

It is no surprise when you find a failed policy with industry collapse and job losses that you also find the Greens. Last week the Greens in Tasmania—their Tasmanian health spokesman—publicly called for the introduction of a sugar tax. He said:

The proposal for a federal sugar tax has merit as the obesity epidemic means that all options must be seriously considered …

This is not just some thought-bubble by a lone Greens MP; it is Greens policy that was announced by their former leader Bob Brown at the tax summit in 2011. Bob Brown said that a sugar tax should be introduced. As we have seen with so many other issues, including the carbon tax, that where the Greens push, Labor often follows. But it will not take much of a push because, back in 2009, my immediate predecessor as the member for Dawson, James Bidgood, called for a tax on food with a high sugar content. That is a disgrace for a person who was the representative of a sugar seat.

Now we have a chance to unit in this parliament: Labor, Liberal, National, Katter Australia Party and maybe even the Greens—I do dream, I know. Now is the chance to unit behind this motion and rule out a sugar tax from ever happening in Australia. The industry needs to be supported. It needs to be strengthened. It needs to be assisted through the removal of red and green tape and the opening up of new markets. What it does not need or ever needs is the demonisation of its product, sugar, and a great big new tax on sugar. I ask the House to support the sugar industry, to support cane-farming families and to support this motion. Thank you very much.

6:54 pm

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to talk on this motion of Mr Christensen, the member for Dawson. It proposes that there be no tax based on the sugar content in food. The motion states that the sugar industry is one of the world's most efficient and innovative producers and exporters of sugar and a leader in the adoption of sustainable farming practices. That is quite true. I think it is pretty efficient and getting more so. I can remember when I was first elected to the parliament over 20 years ago that the Labor government in those days was endeavouring to focus on the efficiency of the industry, as well as the difficulties of run-off from cane farming onto the Great Barrier Reef. The Minister for Primary Industries in those days was very active in setting it up and putting a lot of money into the industry. It is also about becoming more productive, using less fertiliser but getting more from the production side. That is what it has to be all about. Australia is the third largest exporter of sugar in the world. That is a fact. We have some six thousand cane growers in Australia and more than 4,000 farms growing sugar along the eastern seaboard. They are another couple of facts. The sugar industry directly and indirectly supports 40,000 jobs in Australia, underpinning the economic stability and social fabric of many coastal communities.

The motion expresses concerns about claims that sugar is toxic. That is probably an extreme view that is put around. The motion rejects calls for a tax based on the sugar content of particular food products. Australia is the third biggest exporter of sugar. The industry has undergone a lot of changes. It tackled and got rid of tariffs. It survived all of that. It did a pretty good job coming through that one. We use granulated sugars every day in our food and drinks. We know icing sugar is great on raspberries and strawberries from the great Tasmanian state. The Australian Dietary Guidelines for the intake of foods and drinks containing added sugar, like soft drinks and confectionery, have recently been revised to strengthen the advice for the consumption of sugar from moderate to limited. It is like anything that is taken in excess. If you see a mother putting soft drinks into a baby's bottle you would start to get concerned.

Those are the things we have to face up to and we need to make sure that we talk in reality. I was reading that our bodies need the right balance of sugar to function normally, as they do with everything else. I will not comment on the intake of rum and sugar for the sake of the member for Hinkler, who has just arrived in the chamber. I would like to refer to the good old Tasmanian apple, which is said to be both a killer and a cure, meaning that the natural sugars in the apples are high but they are balanced by the fibre in the apple so that it becomes a very good thing to eat. The old saying is: 'An apple a day will keep that doctor away.' The honourable member was talking about reaching the stage where sugar was banned not only in soft drink production.

I saw on Friday last in the Hobart Mercury 'Bring in a sugar tax', following the release of the state public health report by Dr Taylor, who is the Director of Public Health in Tasmania. He said Australia needed to seriously consider a tax on unhealthy food. I suppose it is pretty easy to pass it over from the state to the Commonwealth but I think Dr Taylor was genuine. He was talking about statistics that showed people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds have more health problems linked in part to the culture of consuming cheap fast foods, which, according to the statistics, is true.

The state Minister for Health, Michelle O'Byrne, said that putting in place a tax is a pretty serious matter and would require significant scrutiny to ensure that it would achieve an outcome. I think that is where it comes to a dead end. I think it is pretty difficult to put a tax on sugar or a tax on fat or anything else and then say 'this is the outcome'. We need to deal with issues but we need to deal with them in a proper way through education, knowledge and good labelling so people understand what they are taking in.

I also think the sugar industry needs to deal with many issues. I saw just recently that this Labor government has certainly been doing a fair bit. The Prime Minister was in the seat of Dawson in April. The government promised another $200 million over the next five years for the next stage of the Reef Rescue program. The program already has stopped 92,000 tonnes of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment going on to the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking at new ways of doing things and what you use sugar for, I am reminded of the amount of ethanol that comes from sugar in places like Brazil, which seems to get on very well. I think about 25 per cent of what drives cars in Brazil comes from sugar cane. They have an enormous bio ethanol industry. It all comes from sugar cane. There is a lot of opportunity to do that. This present government has contributed over $9 million from the Clean Technology Food and Foundries Investment Program to McKay Sugar Limited. I am sure the member put out a press release praising the government for putting money into his electorate. That company is investing over $120 million to reduce carbon emissions across its operations by 70 per cent for every unit of production, which is a credit to it. I congratulate it on achieving that.

We have an industry which plays a very important role, especially in those areas where the member for Dawson, who moved this motion in the House, comes from. We do have to confront the issues the industry is dealing with in growing sugar cane—the run-off effect and the health of the Great Barrier Reef, which the industry is dealing with in a very constructive way—and also improving productivity at the same time.

We need to deal with in a proper and constructive manner the issues we confront of sugars in our food and in our diets. We need to do that basing it on science. We should not just be blaming sugar. That seems to be an easy cop out to me. It is about education, better labelling, knowledge of our foods. I think of all the good programs like the Stephanie Alexander program, which will convince kids in schools to understand nutrition and food. That is one of the ways forward.

7:04 pm

Photo of Paul NevillePaul Neville (Hinkler, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I support the excellent motion of the member for Dawson on the sugar industry. Since Louis Hope grew the first sugar cane at Ormiston near Brisbane in 1864 we have seen the sugar industry grow from Far North Queensland, north of Mossman, all the way to Coffs Harbour. It has condensed over recent years from Mossman down to the Northern Rivers, but it is a major crop and certainly a major crop in Queensland. There are a few statistics to confirm that. Australia is the third largest raw sugar supplier in the world. Sugar is the seventh largest agricultural export from Australia, and 80 per cent of the product from the crop is exported. Its value to Australia is up to $2 billion a year. We crush 30 to 35 million tonnes of cane for four to 4½ million tonnes of raw sugar, and that supports 4,000 farmers, 24 sugar mills and six bulk sugar shipping terminals. In addition to that we have distilleries, including for the famous Bundaberg Rum, referred to earlier, which the girls drink as well as the boys, and we also have various refineries at Bundaberg, Mackay and elsewhere.

The sugar industry is part of the fabric of all those cities and towns along the coast. It has been the basis of irrigation schemes that the Bjelke-Petersen government set up in many places during its term in office. There was a dam being built every 18 months. In my area we have the Paradise Dam and the Monduran Dam. Bundaberg has not the biggest irrigation scheme in Australia but the most intensive. It supports sugar cane and small crop farms. You can see what the value of that would be from the figures I have just provided. However, we find now, with this abundant amount of water, with these canals and pipes, this intricate system of irrigation, that the price of electricity has got to a point where, for example, spray irrigation is no longer sustainable. The farmers cannot afford to irrigate their crops. What a nonsense. Australia has built all these marvellous dams, and now we have lifted our power costs so high that people cannot afford to use the water.

Power has gone up 250 per cent in Queensland since 2000—12½ per cent a year. What is worse is that it is going to go up 17½ per cent a year for the next seven years. That is going to put irrigation out of the range of most farmers. They have come to members of parliament and asked that irrigation tariffs 62, 65 and 66 have the network component removed to bring the price of those three tariffs down to something more reasonable. Instead of 17½ per cent and 12½ per cent per year, power prices would go up by the increase in the consumer price index. It is crazy to think that we have allowed such a marvellous industry to be brought to its knees because of the price of power in this country. It is a blot on the previous state government that it has got to this.

The member for Lyons in his presentation made a very good point: sugar used properly and in moderation is good. It is important for the canning industry, the food industry, the confectionary industry and the liquor industry. All of them require sugar. We need to make sure that these products are consumed properly. CSR is making LoGiCane, which is a product with a low glycaemic index, and it releases its energy slowly so it lessens hunger cravings and so on. The Isis Central mill has a product called Queensland high pol sugar, which is a semi-raw sugar that is very popular and very healthy. So let us have an end to this denigration of sugar as a food product and let us support the farmers who are having a tough time. (Time expired)

7:09 pm

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am going to talk about the importance of the sugar industry to the Northern Rivers and its importance in my seat of Page. The sugar industry has been a part of life in northern New South Wales for more than 100 years. The New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative is a major employer on the North Coast and employs more than 400 people across major sites and accounts for $230 million of regional economic output. Total and indirect employment in the region is estimated at 2,200. This includes 450 mill and refinery employees and 550 cane farmers.

The New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative was formed when canegrowers purchased the three New South Wales sugar mills in 1978. These three mills are located at Condong on the Tweed River, in the seat of my colleague the honourable member for Richmond, and in my seat of Page at Broadwater on the Richmond River and Harwood on the Clarence River. In addition, the cooperative now operates a sugar refinery located alongside the Harwood mill. The New South Wales sugar industry occupies approximately 34,000 hectares of the Northern Rivers region and extends from near the Queensland border in the north to Grafton in the south. Some of this is on the cooperative's website and, from there, you start to get the picture that the sugar industry is an important industry in the Northern Rivers region on the North Coast.

I have listened to the contributions and have read the motion of the member for Dawson. I completely understand the member for Dawson's motivation of wanting to protect the sugar industry. I have also heard the contributions about food, nutrition and science. All things in moderation—that is always the key, but so many people are so aware now. They read so much and there is so much information on the internet that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees and to work out what is the good science about nutrition and all those things. It is incumbent on us to be involved in that debate.

I will say a couple of other things about defending the sugar industry in the Northern Rivers. One is about the Clean Technology Investment Program, which helps local manufacturers improve energy efficiency, reduce power bills—the member for Hinkler was talking about power bills, but it is not just the cost of power which has impacted on the industry; there have been a lot of other things—improve competitiveness and cut carbon pollution. The New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative at Harwood applied for and were awarded a grant under the program. The grant, for over a million dollars, was put towards a $3 million project—the cooperative is investing more than $2 million. The project will improve the efficiency of the sugar mill boiler and will cut carbon emissions by 53 per cent. But the great thing is that it will result in savings of $660,000 per year in energy costs. That big saving is being achieved while the project delivers good environmental outcomes at the same time.

The project involves installing an economiser at the Harwood sugar mill boiler. It will transfer energy from the exhaust gases to the boiler feedwater, heating the feedwater from 105 degrees Celsius to approximately 160 degrees Celsius. That improves the boiler's thermal efficiency and reduces energy consumption. These sorts of things are happening all over the Northern Rivers and are helping us move to a clean energy future there. We have one of the highest take-ups of renewables in our area—and it is really pleasing to see the New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative Ltd and the Harwood sugar mill coming on board with that.

I would like to make one other comment, very quickly: that the Regional Development Australia - Northern Rivers partnered with NSW Sugar and the Australian government to fill farm labour shortages with the introduction of a labour pool. It talks to the sugar industry because it helps sugar, macadamia and tea-tree farmers fill short-term and seasonal worker shortages in the Northern Rivers region.

7:15 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Health Services and Indigenous Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support my Queensland colleague on this very important motion that certainly from our point of view absolutely repudiates any possibility of a sugar tax in this nation. This side of politics is very firmly committed to making sure that we do not head down a path where we continue to raise taxes on hardworking Australian families, particularly in an area like diet. I have no problem with a government that make dietary recommendations or publishes dietary guidelines—I might even brook the notion of a CSIRO cookbook! But we certainly should not be in the game of having the government taxing particular items of food according to what the government feels is or is not something that is suitable to be consumed. There are plenty of ways to evaluate both what is a healthy food, by a nutrient analysis, and a safe food, under the food standards currently in place between Australia and New Zealand. It is quite another step, as has been proposed by the head of public health in Tasmania, to propose a sugar tax—either for that state or nationwide—as he did two days ago. That should not be supported and will not be supported by this side of the chamber.

I would like to devote my remaining time to what obviously underpins the great sugar industry of this nation, which indirectly or directly employs 40,000 Australians, which has 6,000 growers and which is the No. 1 exporter of sugar in the world. I also want to point out that, under the surface, there is quite an active debate between academics, groups that are supported by the food industry, and those that are supporting a range of different interests—even, lest I say, the author of Sweet Poison, David Gillespie—to try and shed some light on one constituent of the sugar molecule called fructose. We know that the body has hypothalamic regulation of protein intake and of fat intake, and that there are a few people that do not have good regulation of that intake. But we also know that sugar, broken down, is fundamentally fructose, glucose or galactose. Increasingly, light is shining on increased fructose consumption—which historically over the last few decades has increased—despite the findings of the 'Australian paradox' paper presented by Sim and Barclay, findings which have since been significantly attacked but are yet to be repudiated by the university that supported that research.

In essence, we are talking about what we are going to do for Australians whose consumption of high-energy food, particularly fast food, is inordinately large—consumption that in my part of the world, in regional Australia, leads to nearly three out of four adults being obese or overweight. Something has to be done. In this generation it will be the governments—both state and territory governments, and this federal government—that must find a solution. The solution is not blanket sugar taxes—I want to say that right now. The solution is more open dialogue. The debate around nutrition and dietary consumption should never become the tobacco debate, where we all hold firm and say that until the evidence is absolutely irrefutable we must do nothing. It is time that we negotiate, that we engage and that we speak to everyone—from the supermarkets to the retailers, from the food manufacturers to the growers—about identifying what is a healthy, balanced diet, and about encouraging Australians to stick to that.

The other major player in this space that has already spoken on this topic is the Dietitians Association of Australia. I am disappointed that the dietitians did not come to a federal, bipartisan forum held in this place in October of last year. The forum was attended by FSANZ and by the NHMRC, but amongst the 5,100 members of the DAA, they could not find one person to come and present at that forum and that discussion on sugar—a forum that had senior academics and other lay writers present. It is a debate that has to be had, not one that should be suppressed. When it comes to working out whether we need stronger guidelines, as we saw published earlier this year after significant delays, that move from moderating to restricting is a significant recommendation which does not need to affect the sugar price at all. It does not need to affect our overall consumption; it is just a reminder to those that have significant overconsumption of sugar—and that can be potentially 100 kilograms or more per year—that that the recommendations suggest half of that, at best. The average Australian consumes 50 kilograms of sugar plus another 10 per year consumed in juices. The debate is not about the national consumption. The debate is about excessive and wanton consumption in small numbers of Australians. That is a health issue that every one of us needs to commit to. Nut-net is another group that has worked very hard to combat some of the contributions by Gillespie and, by giving both of them an equal say, I am simply saying that we need to stick to the big picture. We need to admit that diabetes may not be a disease of sugar but it is certainly a disease of over-consumption of food and a disease of overweight. It is patently obvious that sugar is part of that formula and must remain in that national debate.

7:20 pm

Photo of Kirsten LivermoreKirsten Livermore (Capricornia, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on and to support this motion. I was going to start my contribution by saying how pleased I was to see the news today that Paul Schembri has been elected unopposed to be the new chair of Canegrowers Queensland. He would be very well known to the member for Dawson and plenty of other people in the House. He has been the vice chairman of Canegrowers Queensland for many years and the chair of the organisation in Mackay. He has a wealth of experience as a grower and a very effective advocate for the industry in all its dimensions. I wish Paul all the best in his new role and he will welcome the opportunity to steer the organisation at a time when the industry faces the usual challenges of an export oriented product and plenty of opportunities for the future.

It has been great to sit in on the debate so far. The motion tells us why it is very important for the parliament to spend time considering the status and outlook for the sugar industry. It is an important industry for my electorate and of course an absolutely vital one for the member for Dawson. I believe all members should know that the sugar industry is a significant part of the Queensland economy and, indeed, the Australian economy because it ranks as the seventh largest of all Australia's agricultural exports with a value of around $2 billion per year. I can understand why the member for Dawson want s to use this motion to promote the industry and to defend it from perceived threats, but we should not let the debate paint a picture of an industry in some kind of crisis or without a strong future. That would be misleading. I would acknowledge, as I am sure others in this debate have done, that the industry has come off some highs in recent years. There was a five per cent drop in earnings from sugar in the year just gone. ABARES, in its most recent commodities outlook for the March quarter, shows us, however, that the international price in 2013, while lower than they were getting off the highs in 2011-12, is still higher than the average over the last 10 years. Looking ahead, ABARES is projecting prices to hold up in the years out to 2017-18 and, very importantly for this debate, its data is showing very strong growth in sugar consumption in the international sphere. We can expect continued growth of around three per cent in the next few years in line with the growing world population and rising incomes. Those factors, of course, led the Labor Party to develop the National Food Plan.

I would like to take a quick look at the claims of whether sugar is toxic and then at what action the government is called on to take. The whole question of sugar's effect on health and its contribution to obesity is very hotly debated, as it has been here tonight with this motion. There are calls for the government to act in various ways. The government is acting on the question of food, nutrition and its contribution to good health and wellbeing, but it is doing that through a very science based and evidence based approach through the review of food labelling and the Australian Dietary Guidelines, an update of which was released in February. The Australian Dietary Guidelines are all about dealing with the evidence and with scientific research to make these decisions. They have taken the step, looking at all the scientific research, to recommend that people limit the intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars. But, beyond that, the government is looking at things like the Food and Health Dialogue—which the member for Bowman was sort of advocating without, I think, really knowing the detail of it. The Food and Health Dialogue involves government, science and the medical fraternity and industry looking at how products can be reformulated to reduce things like salt and sugar to get those health outcomes without having the kind of king-hit on an industry that the member for Dawson is concerned about.

Debate adjourned.