Australia’s first Fair Food Week
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 17th August, 2013
On the 1st August this year I attended Australia’s first Symposium on Supermarket Power. Jointly organised by the law schools of Monash and Melbourne University, the aim of this event was to explore the extent of supermarket power in Australia’s economy and society, the impacts of that power, and what if anything could be done about it.
It was a fascinating event in many ways. We heard from a financial analyst documenting the extraordinary sales growth and profit performance of Woolworths and Coles over the past decade, along with some cautionary words expecting both indicators to moderate somewhat in the current decade because of the entry of Aldi and CostCo into the Australian market.
We heard about the new supermarket adjudicator appointed under the UK’s mandatory supermarket code of conduct, and how she intended to exercise her powers, including by the imposition of ‘punitive fines’ based on a percentage of turnover in the event of repeated abuses of market power down the supply chain by the supermarket majors.
Tasmanian senator Peter Whish-Wilson announced that the Greens want to extend divestiture powers to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and to impose an immediate moratorium on the opening of any new stores by the duopoly. We also heard from Robert Hadler, General Manager of Corporate Affairs at Coles, who welcomed the discussion and acknowledged that Coles (and, by implication, Woolworths) needed to do more to justify their ‘social license’ to operate.
I was invited to attend to speak about the challenges facing our food system and the emerging ‘fair food’ movement. I had the audience smiling when I put up a slide with that ubiquitous social media question, ‘WTF?’
‘What does he mean?’, I’m sure they wondered. Then I showed the short film, Orange Tree Blues, which tells the moving story of Riverina citrus grower Mick Audinno finding himself forced to rip out hectares of healthy orange trees because he had lost his markets as a result of cheaper imported juice concentrate.
And then my next slide revealed two new meanings of WTF:
This is a question, I told the audience, that every Australian should be asking themselves. Because we are losing farmers at a truly alarming rate – an average of 76 per week from 2006-2011, expected to rise to 130 per week during the current decade.
A gentleman from the Victorian State government, himself a farmer, came up to me afterwards and told me I was being ‘mischievous’ with these figures (which, by the way, come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and KPMG). His point being that it doesn’t matter if we lose eight ‘inefficient’ farmers, if we can replace them with one who is much more ‘productive’ and ‘efficient’.
But this rather misses the point. In our singular and relentless focus on productivity and efficiencies, we lose sight of so much else, the value of which cannot be simplistically reduced to monetary calculations. This is what scholar John McMmurtry terms ‘the life-blind structure of the neoclassical paradigm’: the exclusion as a matter of definition of considerations such as human health and well-being, and eco-system integrity, that are actually fundamental to our continued survival as a species, let alone our civilisation in its current form.
In an effort to foreground a national conversation on food and agriculture that begins from the question, ‘What values do we as Australians want to underlie our food system?’, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) is facilitating the country’s first-ever Fair Food Week, from 19-25 August.
What we call ‘fair food’ is food that is produced in ways that are fair to all and that guarantee economic and nutritional health to everyone in Australia’s food value chain – Australian farmers, Australian food processors, small to medium size food retailers and we who eat the products of these producers and enterprises.
Already over 90 events have been organised around the country, including forums, workshops, film screenings, farm dinners, garden tours food swaps and much more. We have been humbled by the response Fair Food Week has received. It speaks to the emergence of a fair food movement in Australia that is rapidly growing in confidence and capacity.