The 3rd National Sustainable Food Summit

An agenda for transformation – or business as usual?

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 23rd March, 2013.

Transformation was the goal, of the organisers at least, of the 3rd National Sustainable Food Summit, just concluded in Melbourne. The summit organisers and promoters describe it as a ‘seminal event’ that ‘attracts delegates [from across] the food supply chain…It is the largest and most diverse gathering of practitioners interested in the sustainability of our food system.’

I attended because I had been invited to present on the work I’ve been involved in around the People’s Food Plan over the last 12 months, with the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. I also spoke briefly on the second day of the conference about the need to take urgent action to protect and preserve Australia’s dwindling supply of prime agricultural land – a report last year found that we have lost 89 million hectares over the past 26 years to four main drivers: mining, suburban sprawl, forestry and national parks.

Homage to the Seed, Artist Sophie Munns, from the Cover of the People's Food Plan Working Paper, February 2013
Homage to the Seed, Artist Sophie Munns, from the Cover of the People’s Food Plan Working Paper, February 2013


There is little doubting the need for major changes in Australia’s food system – and indeed the global food system. What I challenged participants to think about was what sort of transformation they wanted, because the word actually has two meanings. The first is a ‘dramatic change in form or appearance’, which would indicate cosmetic changes – ‘window dressing’, or ‘greenwashing’, rather than substantive changes.

The second meaning of transformation is metamorphosis, an altogether different process. Think of the utterly profound process of change that a caterpillar undergoes in order to become the butterfly, and you’ll have an idea of what’s involved.

What immediately struck me about the Summit was the sheer lack of people actually attending. I went to the inaugural Summit in Melbourne in 2011, at which well over 200 people attended. Two years later, the numbers were down to 120, and by the last session or two they had dwindled down to less than 50.

There was certainly a diversity of speakers and a breadth of topics covered. We heard from organic and sustainable farmers such as Liz Clay of the Gippsland Climate Change Network, Jenny O’Sullivan of ‘Linking Environment, Agriculture and People’, and Ian Perkins, organic cattle farmer from Toowomba. These farmers spoke with passion and vision about the need to regenerate the soil, to care for their land and to understand and value the connectivities between land, farmers, animals and local communities.

They and several other speakers identified farmer viability and profitability as one of the most critical issues this country is facing.

Then we heard from Professor Andrew Campbell, Director of the Research School for the Environment and Livelihoods at the Charles Darwin University in Darwin. He exploded the myth that Australia can ever make a really big contribution to ‘feeding the world’ or being ‘the food bowl of Asia’.

Mixed in amongst these voices who were pointing to the need for truly transformative thinking, we had a couple of ‘info-mercials’ from the corporate social responsibility officers ot the major supermarkets, endorsed by a representative from the World Wildlife Fund.

For a number of people I know, this Summit’s credibility as a potential force for visionary leadership on the path to genuine sustainability was deeply undermined last year in Sydney, when WWF explained its partnership with Coca Cola. This company has recently provoked outrage across Australia after suing the Northern Territory government to force it to abandon its highly successful and popular container recycling scheme, on the grounds that it would reduce sales. An environmental organisation is lending its credibility to – and receiving millions of dollars from – a multinational corporation that many believe puts its profit interests ahead of ecosystem integrity.

And therein lies the disconnect evident at the Summit and indeed in discussions about ‘sustainability’ in general. I can perhaps best illustrate this with a metaphor I shared with conference delegates on the second day, courtesy of cell biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, author of a wonderful book, Spontaneous Evolution.

He says that humanity has reached maximal growth in our caterpillar stage of evolution. We can’t physically grow any further. Rather, our choice now is to make a qualitative leap to a new and much more co-operative level of personal and societal development. We can either dedicate ourselves to making that leap, or we can put our energies into a self-destructive and self-defeating exercise of maintaining business as usual.

It’s up to us.