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.
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.
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.