Conversations for transformation?

The National Sustainable Food Summit

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 16.4.11

On 5th and 6th April, I joined 320 others at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands for the very first National Sustainable Food Summit. The Summit, presented by event organisers 3 Pillars, and sponsored by the likes of the Meat & Livestock Association, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, and the National Farmers Federation, was remarkable in several respects.

First, it managed to bring together, in the same room and quite often around the same discussion table, representatives of the biggest corporations in food and agribusiness (e.g. Coles and Woolworths); state, federal and local government officers; individual farmers; scientists and academics; and members of the growing community food sector. Every state and territory was represented. This was in itself a major achievement, which would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

Secondly, the messages delivered by all keynote speakers were uncompromising in their honest presentation of the reality that if Australia wants to have a secure food supply – and above all one based on a healthy diet, produced in ways that restore rather than further degrade soil, water tables and ecosystems – then business as usual is simply not an option. More than that, it is quite simply not going to be possible to continue to produce current volumes of major agricultural commodities.

This seems counter-intuitive, given that Australia exports 60% of our agricultural produce. Yet, as speaker after speaker reiterated, there are several key limiting factors which will constrain the viability of large-scale monocultures in particular. They include: high levels of degraded soils; reductions in irrigation quotas to restore the health of the Murray-Darling system; the re-forestation of some agricultural land to meet emissions reductions targets; the impacts of peak oil, such as the diversion of food crops into feed-stock for biofuels; and the price and crop yield implications of peak phosphorous, given Australia’s dependence on imported fertilisers.

Add to this the pressures of the cost-price squeeze to which Australian farmers have been subjected for decades, and it’s not hard to picture the doom and gloom message promoted by science writer Julian Cribb, who was talking to his latest book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It.

Thirdly, the solutions presented were also far-reaching and quite radical in their implications. A number of speakers questioned the knee-jerk response which always looks to greater volumes of production as the answer to any food-related issue.

Rather, as Professor Richard Hames said, we should be looking to produce more of the right foods, in the right places, by the right people. In other words, less subsidised over-production of corn in the US, and more food crops grown by small farmers in the developing world. This applies also to Australia, where most of us consume an inadequate amount of fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet, and where we import a growing percentage of these fresh foods.

The need to progressively eliminate the tremendous waste in the food system, to invest much more heavily in agricultural R & D, and to move away from a pervasive culture of cheap food that devalues farmers and the work they do, also featured prominently in the ‘to do’ list. Myself and many others were pleased to see that food localisation was widely seen as an obvious and necessary pathway forward, with strategic land use planning – urban and peri-urban agriculture, community gardens, edible streetscapes and so on – identified as an urgent priority for all local and state governments in the coming years.

Yet in spite of so many positives, there was a noticeable lack of political realism that pervaded the Summit. Yes, the challenges are immense; yes, change is unavoidable. But nobody wanted to ask the hard questions: how do we confront the entrenched economic interests that profit so handsomely from the status quo? How do we regulate food and farming markets so that they deliver the outcomes of human well-being, ecosystem health and farmer viability as first priorities, rather than shareholder value?

Maybe it’s enough for now that the conversation has started. But if history teaches anything, it’s this: necessary change doesn’t happen just because a group of well-intentioned people say that it should.

4 thoughts on “Conversations for transformation?”

    1. From the mining boom to the dining boom – really? All we can think about is money and how to make more of it – or perhaps it’s not ‘we’, it’s the billionaires who want to become multi-billionaires, and the millionaires who dream of being billionaires…

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