I hope this finds you all well and looking forward to peaceful holiday time with friends and family.
I am writing to inform you that, after much reflection, I have decided to resign from the current AFSA Committee, owing to work, family and other commitments.
As you would all appreciate, having been a principal founder of AFSA and devoted a large portion of my life, at considerable personal sacrifice, to building it into a leading actor in the food movement in Australia over the past five and a half years, this is not a decision I have taken lightly. The AFSA journey has at times been tumultuous and difficult, yet it has also had many rewards and satisfactions. Not the least of which has been the pleasure of working with a large number of inspiring and motivated individuals – including of course your good selves – all around the country over many years, all of whom are wanting to play their part in supporting and amplifying the fair food movement here and globally. I always have done and will continue to draw inspiration from the passion and energy of these wonderful people.
The legacy of those five+ years is a significant one: the People’s Food Plan, Fair Food Week (over 260 events), the Fair Food documentary now screened more than 50 times, and the Fair Food book, whose sales are now approaching 2000. All of this, and much more in the past 12 months, has played a major role in raising awareness of the need for more and more people to become politically engaged in the long-term and vital work of building a fairer food system for all.
And sometimes the most encouraging news comes from unexpected sources that may not have had anything to with our efforts. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that from 2017 the Food Tech cookery subject will be replaced as an elective in Year 11 and 12 in all Victorian secondary schools, with a new Food Studies elective. I have reviewed the proposed curriculum, and it is a very good coverage of a food literacy and food systems subject. The expectation is that the numbers of high school students taking the subject will rise from the 3000 who currently take Food Tech, to more than 10,000 taking Food Studies in a few years’ time. They will be a powerful and growing constituency for a fair food system, which confirms my firm conviction that major change is both possible and underway.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all of you for the wonderful work you have done and continue to do in support of the food movement in this country. That so much has been achieved in this period is a reflection of the work of us all as a collective, both within AFSA and of course well beyond it. I am well aware of my own shortcomings and limitations as an individual and an activist, and thank all of you for your patience and understanding along the way. I also want to take this opportunity to apologise for any offences I have caused both overtly and through neglect. What I can say categorically is that I have always tried to act according to what I believed and understood to be in the best interests of the food movement in this country, whilst realising that, being human, we all make mistakes.
I wish you all well in your respective professional and personal lives, and no doubt my path will continue to cross with many of yours in the months and years ahead.
All the best for a wonderful 2016.
Democracy and Solidarity
This is the text of my address to the Public Meeting on the Kernot Dairy, Gippsland, 12.5.15, held at RMIT Building 56, Queensberry St, Melb. 50 people were in attendance.
We’re here tonight for a political meeting. This is not about party politics; rather, it’s about politics in the deep sense, of who holds power in our society, and how that power is exercised, for whose benefit, and with what consequences.
That’s what we’re here to discuss tonight, in the very specific context of a clear intention by one corporation to transform a Gippsland dairy farm into a highly intensified system of production.
Our food system is facing a series of crises. One of them is the exploitation of vulnerable workers. Some of you may have seen the Four Corners program, Slaving Away, on Monday 4th May. It exposed the distressing and disturbing reality that significant portions of our cheap food system depend on the ruthless exploitation and abuse of migrant workers, most of whom are in this country on short-term working visas.
It’s all too easy in such circumstances to point the finger of blame at the few ‘rotten apples’, the unscrupulous labour hire contractors, or the few large farms that use their services. But the real beneficiaries are the major supermarkets, and the fast food companies, that buy these products at the lowest possible cost.
As Tammi wrote last week on the AFSA website, what this Four Corners program actually revealed is a system that’s failing, at many levels, to secure the well-being of all. These migrant workers are experiencing truly appalling treatment, without any doubt. But let’s not forget the millions of chickens and pigs in their cages in the dozens of factory farms that already exist in Australia. Let’s not forget the 1 million-plus Australians who experience food insecurity on a regular basis. Let’s not forget the millions more who suffer chronic pain and early death as a result of type 2 diabetes, and other diseases of diets based on cheap and empty calories.
Let’s not forget the farmers, who on average receive only 10 cents of every dollars’ worth of food they produce; and who feel so devalued by our cheap food culture, that they experience rates of suicide and depression at twice the national average.
This food system is failing the great majority of people, in this country and worldwide, and the non-human species that are caught up in its voracious maw of ceaseless production. But it’s not failing the handful of corporations that make a handsome profit off the misery of the majority.
And that’s the problem we face. We’ve inherited a system that’s primarily designed and operated to feed corporate profit, rather than feed people fairly. It’s all about production, for production’s sake, regardless of the consequences. That’s what the Kernot dairy issue represents, as we’ll hear shortly. It’s a choice for all of us as to what food system we want for our country: one that primarily serves large corporations and banks; or one that serves people and ecosystems.
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We’re also hear tonight to reclaim our democratic culture, which lately has been under increasing strain. We have a journalist summarily sacked for committing the cardinal sin of criticizing the sanctification of Anzac Day. We have campaigning environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth under financial attack because they dare to mobilise communities to question the rush to frack our fertile farmlands. We have moves to criminalise animal welfare groups who dare to expose the cruelty meted out in factory farms.
At such times, it’s important that as many of us as possible stand up and speak the truth as we know it. Food sovereignty, we say, is the fundamental right of communities to democratically determine our food and farming systems. To participate in the making of decisions about who owns our farmland, and what sort of production systems should be employed. What should be grown or raised, and where and under what terms should the produce be sold? For the past few decades we have delegated all these decisions to a mythical and apparently all-powerful entity known as ‘the market’. But the market, far from being ‘free’ and a ‘level playing field’, is actually structured in favour of the largest and most powerful corporations.
How do we begin to change this? By gathering together in forums such as this, to hear directly from the producers and communities who are at the sharp end of these processes of ‘free trade’ and ‘globalisation’. By listening, and becoming informed of the issues, and what’s at stake.
And by taking action. Because that’s what this meeting is also about. Solidarity. Standing together with those who are trying to sound the alarm on what looks like a headlong rush to the intensification of dairy farming in Gippsland and elsewhere in Victoria. We have several people who’ve made the journey up the freeway to be with us tonight and share their stories with us. I’d like to invite them all to stand up now – and invite you all to give them a very warm round of applause. You are very welcome here; and we have come here tonight to support you.
But it’s also very important to remember that although the corporation that is planning the intensification of this dairy in Kernot is Chinese, we have no quarrel with the people of China. Food sovereignty is a global movement that embraces hundreds of millions of people in more than 80 countries, and it is firmly grounded in the principles of international solidarity and non-discrimination. What we oppose is a food system that privileges short-term financial gain for a tiny minority, over the long-term well-being of the vast majority of humanity, non-human species, and ecosystems everywhere. Ultimately we have one home, and it’s called Earth. And our responsibility is to adopt an ethic and a practice of care, and love, towards each other. Not only those closest to us, but those far away as well.
The widespread coverage of outbreaks of Hepatitis A in all eastern States and now in WA, linked to faecal contamination of frozen raspberries packaged in China, has proven a boon for Australian producers, with a surge in demand for local produce.
As someone who has been writing and speaking about the benefits of local food economies for many years, and warning about the risks and downsides of an increasingly globalised food system, these events feel like vindication.
The tragedy of course is that a number of individuals – and there will likely be many more – have had to suffer in order to raise these issues to the top of the political agenda.
That is unfortunately so often the case, however. Until something becomes a ‘media storm’, politicians see no need to act.
In this instance – as in just about everything else connected with our globalised food system – many people have been suffering for a long time. We just don’t get to hear about the near-Dickensian conditions of the largely female and indigenous farm workers in Chile who pick the fruit, or the factory workers in China who pack it. That’s not ‘news’.
Rather, their low wages and precarious working and life conditions are merely ‘factors of production’ that show up as a column of numbers in the balance sheets of the agri-business corporations that call the shots in the globalised food and farming system.
And their cheap labour is essential to keeping prices ‘Down! Down!’ and ‘Cheap! Cheap!’ at the supermarket checkouts.
The price of an item like frozen imported berries conceals so much.
As does the label, for that matter. In the wake of these outbreaks, much of the emphasis has been on improved labeling requirements and ensuring stricter safety standards, including more tests of imported produce.
Both would be a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, claims that this outbreak boosts the ‘clean, green image’ of Australian produce need to be made with a little bit of humility. While our food handling and safety standards are certainly stringent, what about the use of chemicals in production?
The US Environmental Working Group releases an annual list of a ‘Dirty Dozen’ foods, that US Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program tests reveal have an unacceptably high level of chemical residues.
These tests have shown that conventionally-produced blueberries – a major crop on the Coffs Coast – have residues of up to 52 chemicals, including 8 carcinogens, 14 neurotoxins and 17 bee toxins. While this data relates to US production, what do we really know about chemical residues on our local produce? What would a ‘Made in Australia’ label tell us about potential risks to human and environmental health?
Then there is the whole can of worms that is the free trade agenda, which I’ve written about many times before. In a globalised system that is all about driving down costs and boosting production – and that’s true both here and elsewhere – human and environmental well-being are always going to be secondary priorities.
Ultimately this is the conversation that we as a society need to be mature enough to confront. The ‘cheap food’ paradigm is essential to a growth-based consumer economy. Why? Because keeping food cheap means consumers can devote more of their income to servicing debt to banks, and on discretionary purchases.
Tackling that conundrum is going to be really tough, because we all want to have our cake and eat it. Most of us haven’t grown up in an era of sacrifice and hardship. But the chill winds of austerity are blowing ever harder.
My view is that we can enjoy rich and fulfilling lives, while supporting our local producers, and helping them to produce really clean and green food. But we will need to break out of this paradigm of cheap food, and growth-and-production at all costs, to get there
In June 2013 I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of a Churchill Fellowship, to investigate innovative models of urban agriculture in the US mid-west, Toronto, and Argentina. I remember being told that ‘you have travelled, but you have not travelled as a Churchill Fellow.” At the time, I didn’t quite appreciate what that meant. I wasn’t planning to travel until the middle of 2014, so felt pleased with the award and then put the trip to the back of my mind.
As 2013 turned into 2014, I began my planning in earnest, contacting individuals and organisations in the three regions I intended to visit. The trip began to loom larger, and soon enough it was time to board the plane from Sydney to Chicago on 18 July, 2014.
So began two of the most extraordinary two months of my life. Words cannot do justice to the warmth, generosity, passion and inspiration that I encountered every day of those two months. It was truly a privilege to witness the extent and depth of commitment amongst the individuals I met to the cause of co-creating better and fairer communities, from the soil up.
I have now submitted my final report, which is available for download on the Churchill Trust website, and which I am also making available here: Rose_Nicholas_2013_Innovative_models_of_urban_agriculture. Below, I reproduce the Executive summary, and my conclusions and recommendations.
This Report describes a Churchill Fellowship to study innovative models of urban agriculture in the US Midwest, Toronto and five provinces of Argentina. The focus of the study was to explore models of urban agriculture that could generate livelihood opportunities, especially for young people; and / or enhance food security for vulnerable and low-income groups. The study involved visits to over 80 organisations and institutions across the regions visited, and interviews with more than 150 people.
Dr Rose was impressed and inspired in every place he visited. The following are examples of outstanding innovation, passion and creativity:
- VK Urban Farms, Chicago, Eric and Nicky von Kondrat
- Urban Canopy Farms, Alex Poltorak
- Victory Gardens Initiative, Milwaukee, Gretchen Mead
- Keep Growing Detroit, Detroit, Ashley Atkinson
- Earthworks Farm / Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Detroit, Patrick Crouch
- Community Food Centres, Toronto, Nick Saul
- Black Creek Community Farm, Toronto, Verity Dimock
- Pro Huerta Tucuman, San Miguel de Tucuman, Jose ‘Pancho’ Zelaya
- Urban Agriculture, Municipality of Rosario, Antonio Lattuca
- Programa PRODA, Neuquén, Ariel Zabert
- Pca Dos Chanar, Neuquén, Ignacio Pastawaki
Major lessons learnt and conclusions
Urban agriculture is flourishing; and is a source of connectedness, health and well-being, innovation, creativity, sustainable livelihoods, therapeutic benefits and enhanced food security for low-income populations in both North and South America. There are many opportunities for innovative models, enterprises, practices and policies to be adopted and supported in Australia. Commitment and resourcing from state and federal governments, and from the philanthropic and private sectors, would be extremely beneficial in terms of rapidly expanding and scaling up a relatively small but highly capable urban agriculture movement in Australia. Local governments have a critical strategic role in establishing support planning and policy frameworks to enable individuals and organisations to expand the excellent work already underway in Australia’s towns and cities.
Dissemination and implementation plan
Dissemination will be via existing (e.g. Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network) and emerging (‘Fair Food Network’) Australia-wide networks; through speaking engagements at food forums and related events; and through publications and writing. Dr Rose will work with colleagues in these networks, and in local governments around the country, to encourage the development of models, policies and resources to enable the expansion of urban agriculture. Longer-term goals include the recognition of urban agriculture in State planning frameworks; and the recognition of, and support for, urban agriculture in Federal food policy.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The principal conclusions from this Fellowship are as follows:
- Urban agriculture is multi-functional, multi-dimensional and offers a wide suite of benefits to individuals, communities, local businesses and governments.
- Urban agriculture encompasses much more than ‘growing food’, and it should be understood and supported in light of that essential understanding. For example, in Neuquén, Argentina, Dr Rose witnessed its therapeutic benefits in supporting young adults recovering from severe drug addiction; and also its therapeutic benefits for hospital patients suffering from mental health problems.
- While urban agriculture is multi-dimensional and multi-beneficial, it also can, and does, make an important contribution to the food security needs of low-income and vulnerable populations. This is especially important in the Australian urban context, where recent indications and trends suggest that food insecurity is a rapidly growing problem for large numbers of people in many of our communities.
- Urban agriculture also has significant potential as a means to generative livelihoods and income for its practitioners, who in many places tend to be young. Linking sales from urban farms into local commercial circuits, which include farmers markets, community-supported agriculture box subscriptions, local restaurants, cafes and grocery stores, and the potential for such exchanges to be scaled up over time, means that urban agriculture has an important urban renewal and economic development dimension.
- This multi-functionality of urban agriculture, and in particular its economic development potential, is increasingly well understood by local governments in the US, Toronto and Argentina; and by provincial governments (Ontario, Neuquén). Hence these various levels of government have established enabling frameworks, policies and resource allocations to support the expansion of urban agriculture in diverse opportunities. When combined with injections of philanthropic funding, such frameworks and resourcing can lead to impressive results.
- The potential of urban agriculture is best realised through creative and authentic collaborations, which can and does happen at different scales and with differing combinations of actors and organisations. Well-functioning networks, coalitions and alliances are very important to the success of urban agriculture.
- Urban agriculture forms one element of a local, sustainable and fair food system. Such systems are being created by innovative and passionate individuals and organisations in civil society; and in many places their efforts in turn are being supported and enabled by policy frameworks and resources from local, state, provincial and federal governments; and through philanthropic and community financing.
The principal recommendations from this Fellowship are as follows:
- Individuals and organisations directly involved in urban agriculture should actively explore ways to expand its current scope, which is largely confined to non-commercial and self-provisioning community gardening. Urban agriculture as a potentially viable commercial activity should be actively explored and promoted; as should urban agriculture as a means to enhance the food security of low-income and vulnerable groups.
- Individuals and organisations directly and indirectly involved in urban agriculture should examine ways in which they can effectively form part of a network that supports the achievement of their respective organisational, financial and advocacy goals.
- All local governments should work collaboratively with community organisations and other stakeholders to audit all land potentially available within their LGA area that could be suitable for food production, and then classify the sites according to levels of suitability and types of urban agriculture activity that potentially could take place on them.
- All State governments should review their planning provisions and legislation to ensure that urban agriculture is included as a permitted and encouraged use across a range of zones, to indicate to local government that the policy approach in this area is one of enablement and encouragement, rather than risk aversion. In other words, the presumption with urban agriculture should be ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’.
- The Federal Government should acknowledge the value and importance of urban agriculture, and indeed of local food systems and economies, as a matter of public health, local economic development, environmental sustainability and community well-being, as well as enhanced social capital.
- This acknowledgement and recognition should come in the form of a dedicated Federal Urban Agriculture and Local Food Fund, to be disbursed via an application process that encourages regional and collaborative initiatives with high and long-term impact, to scale up and expand initiatives already existing, and enable the flourishing of multiple new projects and models. Funding should be provided to research partnerships to document changes achieved by the projects and create the evidence base to justify further and ongoing public and private investment. The amount should be reviewed annually to take account of increasing need and capacity, however the suggested starting figure, based on the Ontario Local Food Fund (see above), is $20 mn.
- State governments should support this Federal Urban Agriculture and Local Food Fund through their own co-financing mechanisms, according to an assessment of the needs and capacity of the urban agriculture and local food sectors in their own states. For the more populous states (Victoria, NSW, Qld) this co-financing mechanism should be in the order of $5 mn – $10 mn, to be reviewed annually in consultation with the sector. Different financing mechanisms can also be explored, such as a levy on developers, supermarkets, insurance companies, and other relevant private sector stakeholders.
When will Australia have a Local Food Act?
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 14th June, 2014
At the beginning of November 2013, the Parliament of Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, passed the Local Food Act 2013.
This is a highly significant measure, because it represents one of the first instances of a sub-national legislature not only recognizing, but institutionalizing and resourcing, the growing local food movement.
The local food movement has been pilloried by many and dismissed by others as as little more than a ‘feel-good niche sector’, catering to the demands of the ‘worried well’ for ethical produce, but with little prospect either of feeding the hungry masses or of improving the bottom line of producers.
I have news for those critics. Local food is here to stay; and its significance and impact will only grow in the coming years.
Why? Let’s start with the preamble of the Canadian legislation:
“Ontario has robust and resilient local food systems: a highly productive agricultural land base, a favourable climate and water supply, efficient transportation and distribution systems, and knowledgeable, innovative farmers, food processors, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs. These resources help ensure that local food systems thrive throughout the province, allowing the people of Ontario to know where their food comes from and connect with those who produce it.
“The variety of food produced, harvested and made in Ontario reflects the diversity of its people. This variety is something to be celebrated, cherished and supported. Strong local and regional food systems deliver economic benefits and build strong communities.
“Maintaining and growing Ontario’s local and regional food systems requires a shared vision and a collaborative approach that includes working with public sector organizations. The process of setting goals and targets to which the people of Ontario can aspire provides an opportunity to work with industry, the public sector and other partners to promote local food and to develop a shared understanding of what needs to be done to support local food in Ontario.”
The arguments for supporting local food are multi-dimensional. Certainly the economic case is emphasized, and rightly so, because the benefits of the type of economic development fostered by local food systems are widely spread amongst all the players along the food value chain. And if those businesses are locally owned, as they often are, then the economic multiplier effect is strongly enhanced.
But in addition to the economic case, local food systems promote healthier eating habits (think school kitchen gardens), can improve access to good food for low income and vulnerable populations, and can encourage producers to transition to more sustainable and ethical practices of land-use management and animal husbandry.
Conscious of this multi-dimensionality, the Local Food Act mandates the Minister of Agriculture and Food to set goals or targets with respect to:
- Improving food literacy in respect of local food
- Encouraging increased use of local food by public sector organisations, and
- Increasing access to local food
The reference to public sector purchasing is of particular importance, as the adoption of procurement goals and targets has been critical in nurturing infant local food enterprises, such as Local Food Hubs. The Local Food Act specifies that the goals and targets set by the Minister may be ‘general or particular in [their] application’. This means that the Minister can set targets for particular businesses or public sector organisations (including hospitals and aged-care facilities); for particular geographical areas; and for particular food groups.
The Act also has a social justice intention: it creates a ‘community food program tax credit’ for farmers who donate produce to food banks and similar organisations, of up to 25% of the ‘fair market value’ of that produce.
In addition to the Local Food Act, the Ontarian Government has also created a Local Food Fund, worth up to C$30 million over three years to support innovative projects that enhance the purchase of local food and contribute to economic development. The Fund’s outcomes are:
- Increased awareness of and celebration of local food
- Influencing Ontarians to demand and choose more local food
- Ensuring local food is identifiable and widely available
- Helping Ontario’s agri-food sector deliver products that consumers want
- Strengthening local food economies from farm to fork
No Australian state has done anything similar, though that may well change in the next few years. However, at the local level, Coffs Harbour Council has given a high prominence to localization and food in its recently adopted Economic Strategy 2014-2017, and we’ll look at that next time.
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If you support the demand for a Local Food Act in Australia, sign the petition launched by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance last year. While this was in the context of the Victorian state election, the principles apply across the whole country: https://www.change.org/p/all-candidates-and-parties-for-the-2014-victoria-election-commit-to-a-local-food-act-and-local-food-fund-for-victoria
The real costs of ‘cheap’ food
This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 19.2.11
There’s been plenty of talk over the past month or so about the impact that the extreme weather events north of the border will have on food and grocery prices, vegetables and bananas especially.
There’s lots of things to say about this, beginning with the fact that if the mid-north coast still had a viable banana industry, and if production wasn’t so centralised and concentrated in cyclone-prone areas of north Queensland, then consumers might not be so vulnerable to the sorts of price spikes we’re likely to see in the coming months.
Be that as it may, there’s a bigger question at stake which is rarely addressed, and that’s whether the ‘normal’ price we pay for our groceries is sufficient to maintain a healthy, diverse and viable agricultural sector in this country over the medium and long-term, given the way that current market mechanisms operate.
It’s hardly any secret that many farmers are doing it tough, and have done so for a long time. So it should come as no surprise that Australia has lost around 50,000 farmers since the mid-1960s, and the exodus continues, with five farmers leaving the land every day.
Nor should it be any surprise that the average age of the Australian farmer is approaching 60. There simply aren’t the incentives for young people to want to embrace agriculture as a career and lifestyle choice. Which begs the question: who’s going to do the work of feeding us in 15 or 20 years’ time, when most farmers will be approaching 80, and there’ll be 35,000 fewer of them?
Does this sound like a crisis-in-the-making to you? It certainly does to me. In fact, it’s a crisis that’s been with us for many years now.
Which brings us back to the central issue: the proper cost of food. Through the centuries, farmers have always sought a fair price – a just price – for their produce. The trouble in recent decades is that they simply have not been getting it. At the heart of the global crisis in agriculture – Australia is but one of dozens of countries affected – is that farm-gate prices have failed to keep pace with the rising costs of inputs, freight and labour. In many cases farm-gate prices have barely risen at all.
Alongside this cost-price squeeze, we have seen an equally strong trend towards the concentration of ownership and control of most aspects of the food-value chain: from seed, to agro-chemicals, to grain trading and meat-packing, to food processing and manufacturing, and to retailing. We have witnessed the corporatisation and monopolisation of food and agriculture.
Many would say that the two trends – the farm crisis, and the growth of agri-food monopolies – are closely linked. So closely, that the latter brings about the former.
There’s no simple answer to this, and I’m certainly not advocating a big price hike in groceries for consumers, least of all the many millions of middle and low-income Australians who are experiencing cost-of-living pressures already, with electricity and petrol price rises, not to mention the constantly rising cost of housing. But the question remains: how do we make farming viable – especially for smaller scale, bio-diverse farms – and yet keep food affordable?
We do need to move away from the culture of cheap food, where price is the sole criterion for making purchasing decisions. The logic of the food system as it stands points in one direction: the factory farm. And if you want to know why that’s a future we ought to say no to, come and watch Food Inc: see the interviews with factory farmers and workers in the United States; the conditions in which the animals are kept; the phenomenal waste that is generated, and the severe consequences for human and environmental health. The good news is that there are alternatives, and they’re being implemented all over the world, including on the Coffs Coast.
This is the text of the speech delivered by AFSA National Coordinator Dr Nick Rose to the sell-out audience of 200 people, at the premiere of the Fair Food documentary at the National Gallery of Victoria on Tuesday 2nd December, 2014.
Why did we make this film? Because the Food System is broken.
Why is it broken?
Because we have fully applied the technologies and the mindset of industrialisation to food and farming. And because we have combined industrialisation with the logic and the imperative of endlessly increasing production, regardless of the consequences.
What does that mean? It means we have over-exploited our land, degraded our soils, and damaged our river systems. It means we have one of the highest rates of deforestation, biodiversity loss and species extinction on the planet. It means, globally, that the food system contributes as much as 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
It means that we have a supermarket duopoly which controls 70-80 percent of the grocery market, forcing farmers and food processors into price-taker relationships. 100 years ago farmers received 90 cents of every dollar’s worth of food they produced; today it’s around 10 cents.
Farming has become de-valued in our highly urbanized culture; and not just economically. So it’s shocking, but not surprising, that 7 farmers leave the land every day, and that rates of suicide and depression amongst farmers are twice the national average.
Our industrialised food system produces too much food of the wrong type. So we’re subjected to an endless barrage of advertising, urging us to buy food products laced with excess sugars and salt. Dietary-related diseases are already amongst the biggest public health issues we face.
Our food system is not merely broken. It’s killing us, and ruining any chance that future generations have for a decent and liveable future. Yet the industrialised food system persists, and is expanding. Why? Because there are very powerful economic and financial interests that make a lot of money from the status quo. Because we are so disconnected from our food system. Because food is apparently abundant and cheap, and because we don’t join these dots.
We made this film, and we formed the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, because we can no longer tolerate this state of affairs. Because it’s no longer enough just to talk or think in terms of reforms. We need a transformation; we need a revolution.
And that revolution begins in our own minds, in our hearts, in our consciousness. We need to see ourselves as part of the story of the Great Work, the work that matters. As philosopher Thomas Berry puts it:
The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.
This is the challenge to every one of you here in this room. This is the choice facing every one of us alive today. Do we continue to allow our culture and our society to become ever-more destructive, and ever-more violent? Do we choose to remain in a paradigm which says that the Earth, and indeed ourselves, only exist for endless exploitation so that a tiny fraction of humanity can enjoy obscene levels of wealth?
Or do we choose to be part of the great challenge of our times – the greatest challenge of all times? To create a shared vision of a wonderful, bountiful world, where there is no hunger and no poverty; where soils are thriving, rivers are healthy and forests are abundant; where animals roam freely; and where all of us are healthy and flourishing.
Do we choose to see ourselves as victims of processes and powers beyond our control, and simply walk away and do nothing, resigned to our fate? Or do we choose to see ourselves as subjects and shapers of our own history, as creators and narrators of our own story, as powerful beings with the capacity to effect great changes?
Because I’m here to tell you, that’s who we are. We are powerful.
We made this film because these are messages that need to be heard. This is the story that needs to be told; that we need to tell ourselves, and each other. We made this film because we know that there are women and men all over this state, and all around this country, who have embraced this new paradigm, who are blazing a trail towards the decent, fair and liveable future that all of us want.
We’re here tonight to recognize and celebrate them.
They are our Fair Food Pioneers.
And this is the story of Fair Food.
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.
Fair Food Week 2014
This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on September 27th, 20214
From October 10-19 this year, thousands of Australians all over the country will be celebrating the second Fair Food Week.
Coordinated by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), these days are dedicated to celebrating the work of women and men in country and towns who are striving to create a fairer food system for their families and communities.
Fair Food Week is also about raising awareness amongst the broader public on the many critical issues our food and farming system is facing, and what we can do to tackle those issues.
This year, the organising team at AFSA have created four central themes to provide a focus for the dozens of events already scheduled. The four themes are:
- Beyond The Trolley – Fair Food shopping and eating. Events to raise awareness about the extreme concentration in the Australian supermarket sector, and promote locally-owned food businesses as alternative shopping options,
- Support your local community Fair Food projects and groups. The now defunct National Food Plan created for the first time a $1.5 mn fund to support community food projects, like community gardens, farmers markets and community kitchens. 364 groups applied to this fund, but it was axed in February this year by the new Federal government. AFSA is encouraging communities to raise funds for local food projects,
- Grow our Urban Agriculture. Having witnessed a small part of the dynamic global movement for urban agriculture over the past couple of months during my Churchill Fellowship, I am especially keen to see this movement flourish in Australia. I have spent time with local governments in Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, Rosario and Neuquen, and can see what a key role supportive policy frameworks – and resourcing – plays in the expansion of urban agriculture. So this is a great focus for Fair Food Week,
- Support Gas-Field Free Communities. I was delighted to see that that Lock the Gate Alliance, which unites farmers and rural communities with urban environmentalists, is now a major sponsor of Fair Food Week 2014. As many in the Coffs Coast and Northern Rivers regions of NSW know all too well, the rush for unconventional mining – fracking – poses serious environmental and social risks that are yet to be properly evaluated. Which is more important – a new mining boom that may last a few years and enrich a handful of mining executives even further, or safeguarding our best farmland for food security for future generations?
As in 2013, the inaugural year of Fair Food Week, there is a wide diversity of events already scheduled. These include visits to farms and community gardens, long table dinners on farms, farm and garden workshops, Fair Food forums, community cooking events, local business open days, celebrations of ethnic and regional food cultures, permabliztes, soup kitchens and more.
One event I am especially pleased to see is the Food Security Conference in Sydney, to be held on October 13-14. Organised by the newly-formed Right to Food Coalition, whose members include the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, Foodbank NSW, Red Cross, SecondBite, Blacktown City Council, NSW Department of Health (South Western Sydney District), Liverpool City Council and others, the centrepiece of this conference is the presentation by Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. Joel will be in Australia for a series of events during October. His focus is to raise awarness of the structural reasons why hunger persists in affluent countries like Australia and the United States, and why it is unacceptable to continue tolerating this reality.
Anyone can organise a Fair Food Week event! For more information and to see details of all events currently listed, visit www.fairfoodweek.org.au
Last time I wrote about the harsh poverty endured by millions of Argentines in the so-called villas de miseria that are found out on the outskirts of every large city in country. And the role that urban agriculture is playing in terms of enhancing life satisfaction and quality to many thousands of families, as well as contributing in a very tangible sense to household food security.
As I near the end of a month in the country, having visited five provinces and had dozens of conversations with government officials at all levels, as well as many urban gardeners and small-scale producers, I am constantly struck by the layers of complexity and difficulty that people here are grappling with.
Every country is complex, of course, and has its own particular history and development trajectory. In the case of Argentina, its history casts a very long shadow, which makes the task of change especially challenging.
Many of my conversations centre around la crisis of December 2001 as the period when the urban agriculture movement in this country went to an entirely new level. The Municipality of Rosario, which I mentioned last time, launched its Urban Agriculture program in 2001. The Province of Neuquén, where I visited last week, launched PRODA (Agro-Food Development Program) in 2003, as the country was exiting the worst of the crisis.
La crisis consisted in a localised ‘Great Depression’, starting in 1998 and continuing through to the end of 2002: during those years the Argentine economy shrank by 20%; 50% of Argentines were plunged into poverty and 25% into extreme poverty. By November 2001 Argentines had lost confidence in the banking system and were withdrawing cash en masse. The freeze of withdrawals led to the riots of 19-21 December, 2001, and an intense political turbulence which forced the President to resign and flee Government House in a helicopter.
Waves of bankruptcies and job losses followed, with the emergence of club de trueques, or swap-meets, not as something nice to do on a Sunday afternoon, but as a basic survival strategy. Another feature of the crisis were the so-called tomas – takeovers of bankrupt factories by workers, desperate to maintain their livelihoods.
As if such a crisis were not enough for the current generation to have to cope with, the country lived through an even more horrendous experience 25 years previously. This was the infamous ‘Dirty War‘ waged by a military dictatorship against its own people, from 1976-1983. Under the guise of ‘fighting’ small groups of leftist insurgents, the dictatorship established a national network of secret detention centres where tens of thousands of students, lawyers, doctors, teachers, trade unionists, social workers – in effect, anyone who was trying to work with poor people to help them assert their rights to a better life – were tortured and then ‘disappeared’, many thrown alive out of planes into the sea.
Most have never been found, and the psychosocial scars of this national trauma – now officially recognised and publicly described as ‘State terrorism’ – run deep indeed.
Over 500 children were born to pregnant women held in the detention centres. These babies were taken at birth from their mothers and placed with military families or their sympathisers. 116 have now been reunited with their birth families, in an ongoing process of national catharsis.
And for twenty years, the country’s economic fortunes have become hitched to the continued expansion of la sojera, a multi-million hectare swathe of territory – two-thirds or more of all arable land in the country – dedicated to one crop: chemical-hungry GM soy, destined for export to feed the pigs and chickens in the factory farms of Europe and China. It is a social and environmental catastrophe, but it brings in foreign currency for the government.
This is a tragic and troubled history, that would make many despair; yet countless thousands of Argentines are working hard to achieve a better future for their communities. I have been privileged to meet some of those people.