A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 15th November, 2014
Food and farming forums are the flavour of the month. On November 3rd, we had the well attended and highly successful Mid-North Coast Food Forum. Key themes emerging were the need for prominent and coordinated marketing and branding strategies to raise the profile of the region’s producers and food enterprises, the importance of finding ways to enable young people to enter farming, and the need for better coordination and collaboration across the sector.
Next week, from 16th to 18th November, the focus will shift to the Northern Rivers and Byron Bay, with the 4th Regional Food Cultures and Networks Conference. The focus is again very much on local and regional food: the Conference will “showcase innovative thinking and demonstrate approaches to the development and sustainability of local food; and examine the cultural, economic, social and environmental implications and opportunities around local and regional food.”
And two weeks after that a Fair Food and Law conference will take place at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, with the involvement of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Australian Earth Laws Association, and Monash University. That conference will explore the role of law and regulation in supporting – or not supporting – the creation and expansion of a fair food system.
All of this activity I find very positive and encouraging. It is only through bringing diverse individuals and stakeholders into the same room that we can begin to transcend institutional barriers and ways of thinking and acting. These spaces allow us to identify and explore what we have in common and begin to develop creative approaches to addressing common challenges.
I keep coming back to the need to support and keep our farmers on the land, help them develop as diverse, financially viable and ecologically sustainable systems as possible. And critically, to build pathways for young people to enter agriculture.
This was highlighted a few weeks ago, on October 16th , World Food Day, by the new UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver. She pointed out that 70% of the world’s food depends on family farmers, most operating farms of less than 2 hectares. That’s right: small-scale family farmers, who, we’re often told, are ‘inefficient’ and ‘not productive’, feed the world, not giant agri-business.
Not that they get a lot of thanks for it. On the contrary, these farmers are at the sharp end of a struggle for their land, which large agri-business corporations and financial institutions, ever hungry for ever more profit, want in increasing quantities.
This ‘global land grab’ is a zero sum game. 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. Industrialised large-scale monocultures are resource-intensive, wasteful, polluting and environmentally destructive. They also generate and intensify inequality, as I saw in Argentina, where the rapid expansion of the multi-million hectare ‘green deserts’ of GMO soy monocultures have forced hundreds of thousands of country folk into precarious villas de miseria (villages of misery) on the outskirts of the major cities.
This mode of production and social organization, the mindset that the earth is only here for us to endlessly exploit regardless of the consequences, so that a few ‘rich’ people can become ‘richer’, for a while – this is what has to change. And it is changing, and the producers and entrepreneurs and government representatives attending all the local and regional food conferences are the ones changing it.
This is part of what my colleague, regenerative sheep farmer and agrarian intellectual, Dr Charlie Massy, calls the Underground Insurgency: a ‘cascading series of personal transformations from soil up, culminating in the Great Turning’. I’ll say more about that in a future column.