Category Archives: Fair Food systems

THE END OF AN ERA

Dear colleagues

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.

Warmly

Nick

Dr Nick Rose
Co-founder and Vice-President, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance
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Executive Director
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The real costs of cheap food

The real costs of ‘cheap’ food

Nick Rose

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.

WTF?
WTF?

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.

Local food production means resilience

Expanding trust horizons in Karangi

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 6th April, 2013

In February last year , Canada-based blogger Nicole Foss (www.automaticearth.com) spoke at the Cavanbagh Centre in Coffs Harbour, as part of her speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand. Nicole is now back in Australia for another speaking tour, though she won’t be visiting Coffs on this occasion.

In Coffs as elsewhere, Nicole offered her perspective on what she terms the unfolding ‘deflationary depression’, caused by the build-up of unsustainable debt levels throughout the global economy, combined with the anticipated impacts of dwindling supplies of cheap energy. Events in many countries in southern Europe would seem to offer early confirmation of her analysis.

Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleigh
Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleigh

Nicole also talked about the shrinking  ‘trust horizon’ that she believes will accompany a prolonged economic contraction. She argues that ‘relationships of trust are the glue that holds societies together’; and while in good times trust expands and the sense of ‘us vs them’ recedes, the opposite is true when hard times fall.

Putting this in a wider historical context, Dr Ben Habib of La Trobe University notes how the Chinese people coped with around 140 years of upheaval, revolution and war from the 1830s to the 1970s by ‘drawing on a cultural practice called guanxi (pronounced “gwan-shee”) which is about maintaining networks of ongoing personal relationships based on mutual benefit through reciprocal ties and obligations.” It was guanxi, according to Dr Habib, that enabled ‘greater social stability at the local level in China than would otherwise have existed during this turbulent period.’

Enter Sam Mihelffy, who migrated to the Coffs Coast with her husband Aaron and young family from Noosa five years ago. They bought a 34-acre property in Karangi, with established stands of citrus, pecans, macadamia, avocado and custard apples. They added some blueberries, apple trees, a vegie garden and most recently dragon fruit; and for the first time in their lives became farmers.

At the start, they weren’t ready for taking on this sort of life project. “It was mind-blowing”, says Sam. “We definitely moved in there with our hearts and not our heads, we didn’t really take on the concept of growing on such a large scale. It’s been a massive learning curve, and we’ve only really scratched the surface. But it’s something you evolve with, it’s really exciting.”

They diversified the farm by fencing it into three paddocks and adding a flock of 30 sheep, three alpacas, six ducks, a shetland pony and a pet pig. So was born the concept of ‘Me-Healthy Farm’ (a play on their name, Mihelffy), a ‘whole farm’ experience. Sam and Aaron opened the farm on Sundays for friends and the public to visit, buy fresh local produce at the farm shop (both from their own farm and nearby properties), and relax with a cup of coffee and some homemade cake, while kids could run around and feed the animals.

Sam Mihelffy at her Coffs Coast Growers Market stall
Sam Mihelffy at her Coffs Coast Growers Market stall

Providing that direct connection with farm animals was a big part of Sam’s motivation. “A lot of kids, even in Coffs Harbour, don’t have that experience, not even with the sheep”, says Sam. “A baby lamb being fed, they have no concept of that, so it’s really that we could show kids, hey look, this is what it’s like to live on a farm, come and have that experience for the day.”

And the concept proved very popular. “The fact that the kids could roam free was a great pull for parents”, Sam says.  “They got excited about the fact that they could chill out, the kids could feed the animals – there were so many different aspects. And get some fresh produce. It was a real experience – and we don’t have that happening any more [in modern society].”

Sadly though Sam and Aaron have had to pause it for the time being, because the amount of work involved in having their farm open every Sunday with a farm shop, was proving to be too much with a young family. But it’s time could come again – and given the need to strengthen our trust horizons – it might be sooner than later.

In Sam’s words, “This is where we should all be going. It’s really what we want to do. It wasn’t just about us – it was about our local community, [about] all the local products of the area. This is what we need to do, get back into that trading idea, someone specialises in garlic, someone specialises in ginger, someone’s doing beef, someone’s doing honey. If anything ever happens, we need to create that community where we can support each other.”

An Australia Day resolution

An Australia Day resolution

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 24th January, 2013

The traditional and conventional thing is to make resolutions on New Year’s Day, or shortly thereafter.

That makes perfect sense. Start the year off on a positive note, turn over a new leaf, and all that.

But resolutions can be made at any time. So why not make an Australia Day resolution? Something that each of us decides that we can do to help make this country a better place to live in, and leave it a better place for our kids.

My resolution is to keep working, in the ways that I can, for a fairer and more sustainable food and farming system for our region, and our country. So that our soils are regenerated, rather than degraded. So that our water tables are replenished, rather than depleted and polluted. So that our cities are full of food growing and producing areas, in schools, in childcare and aged care centres, in streets, parks, vacant lots and rooftops. In backyards, frontyards, and community gardens. So that everyone, no matter who they are or how much money they have in their pocket or bank account, can enjoy healthy, nourishing food, every day.

So that our farmers get a fairer deal, and are not up to their necks in debt. So that five Australian farmers don’t continue to leave the land every day. And so that our children will want to embrace farming and food production, and caring for the land, as a fufilling and dignified life choice.

Because what we have forgotten, in our modern, information age and consumer economy, is that any civilization, anywhere, is ultimately founded on agriculture. If we don’t get the food production right, if we don’t look after the land, the water and the men and women who do the work of producing the food, then we may as well forget about all the rest.

I think these resolutions chime with the sentiments of a great many Australians. In fact, I know they do, because last September, in my role as national co-ordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, I was approached by the Australia Institute to include some questions in their regular national attitudes and behaviours survey.

These surveys go out to around 1,400 Australians, being a representative cross-section of men and women, city and country dwellers, different political affiliations, age groupings and so on.

We asked three questions in the October 2012 survey. The first was, ‘What top two measures should Australia adopt to ensure that sufficient quantitites of fresh, healthy and affordable foods are available to all?’, 86% nominated ‘Support local farmers to produce more’, and 63% nominated ‘Protect our best farmland from different uses, e.g. mining / housing’. 25% said ‘support people to grow more of their own food’, and a mere 5% nominated ‘import more of our basic food requirements’ as one of their top two choices.

The second question was, ‘How important is it to you that Australian family farmers and small-to-medium sized food businesses are economically viable?’. 62% said ‘very important’, and 30% said ‘quite important’. 2.3% said ‘not very important’ and a tiny 0.4% said ‘not important at all.’

Finally, when asked ‘What do you think should be the main two goals of Australia’s food system?’, a whopping 85% nominated ‘Promote and support regional / local food production and access to locally produced food’. 43.5% nominated ‘Achieve a globally competitive food industry and new export markets’, and 35.6% said ‘Ensure ecosystem integrity’.

Should any government or political party choose to take notice, these figures speak to a massive national consensus in favour of policies and public investment in regional and local food economies, and for support for our local farmers and food producers. Such policies enjoy twice the level of support of the goal of building ‘a globally competitive food industry and new export markets’.

Can you guess which is the primary objective of the Federal Government’s National Food Plan, due out shortly?

Food Hubs – essential infrastructure for a Fair Food System

Food Hubs

A version of this article appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 21.4.12.

Last time I wrote about the efforts underway in Girgarre to turn a new page in the history of the Australian co-operative movement, by launching a ‘Food Hub’ manufacturing centre that is co-operatively owned and run by workers, growers and the broader community.

I’m happy to report that while Heinz has now sold its Girgarre site to another buyer, the Goulburn Valley Food Action Committee has found an alternative greenfield site in Kyabram, and are planning to launch the first of their new products, designed by Peter Russell-Clark, by the middle of May. The results of their feasibility study have now come in, and they show, according to Chairperson Les Cameron, that ‘demand for Australian product is greater than ever before…the Heinz approach of creating a product, marketing it and then trying to sell it through the major supermarkets is no longer the way to go. [The study] is showing a number of significant, medium-size companies are looking for Australian product; and sub groups who will not buy anything else.’

So far, so good. I’m following these developments with great interest. When their products are available in Coffs Harbour, I’ll be sure to let you know!

But back to the question: what is a Food Hub? In essence, it’s a conscious attempt to scale up local and regional food economies. If there’s been a single persistent and fairly persuasive criticism of the local food movement over the years, it’s this: that while its aims and principles might be great, and while farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture might work quite well for smaller producers, local food as a whole actually fails to deliver the goods in terms of offering reliable markets with sufficient throughput and volumes for commercial-scale farmers.

That function, so this reasoning goes, can only be filled by central wholesale markets; or, in this country, by supermarket distribution centres.

The Food Hub is an attempt to tackle this criticism head-on.  Originating in the United States in the 1990s, Food Hubs have expanded across that country, with more than 100 in operation, and many experiencing strong growth and expansion. Their primary functions are typically the aggregation, marketing and distribution of local fresh and processed produce. In some ways they resemble a wholesaler, but with the key difference that their mandate is to source as much local produce as possible, and channel it into local businesses, institutions and households. In the process they create more demand for local food, help build the capacity of local producers, and get much better returns for farmers than they receive in the central market system.

All the things a Local Food Hub can do
All the things a Local Food Hub can do

Government purchasing power seems to have played a big role in fostering the growth of Food Hubs, with 40% counting among their clients public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

According to a recent survey of Food Hubs by the US Department of Agriculture, some of the longer-running hubs have become significant local businesses. One has 100 suppliers, including many small and mid-sized producers, and offers over 7,000 products. This Hub owns a 30,000 sq.ft. warehouse and 11 trucks, with 34 full-time employees and over US$6 million in sales in 2010.

But Food Hubs can do much more than aggregation, marketing and distribution. As in the Goulburn Valley, they can combine manufacturing and processing with innovative product development and multiple traineeships. The Local Food Hub in Charlottesville has a five-acre demonstration farm, where they run training days for local growers and offer apprenticeships and internships for the next generation of farmers. 20% of the food grown on this farm is donated to local food banks and anti-hunger organisations.

And so on. Because there’s no single business model, and because these hubs are locally-owned and controlled, responding to local needs and priorities, the forms they take will vary widely. That they are emerging and expanding at this point in time, when the existing food system is plagued by so many profound dysfunctionalities, is a cause for great optimism.

Food for Thought – Growing, Sharing + Eating Local Food

And another great read from Suzette Jackson – fond memories for me of Australia’s first Fair Food Week!

Food for Thought – Growing, Sharing + Eating Local Food.

La Vida Locavore: Food Sovereignty as Government Intervention: The View of Via Campesina and US Family Farmers

Republished with the permission of Brad Wilson – an ‘Iowa farmer in organic transition. Former farm organizer and farm policy staff for Iowa CCI and rep to regional Sustainable Ag Working Group. Wrote staff manuals on commodity title in 1990s. National Family Farm Coalition board.’

Originally published at the link below on 21st February, 2012:

La Vida Locavore:: Food Sovereignty as Government Intervention: The View of Via Campesina and US Family Farmers

Dominant Interpretations of Food Sovereignty

I find that, in the US, “food sovereignty” is often defined as having increased local and regional control over food systems, and politically this often includes national control for small countries, such as Least Developed Countries.  Along with this, small-scaled, even pre-industrial systems are often praised for having features of ecological, social and economic sustainability.  These virtues then compare favorably to the mega-industrial farm and food systems that are pushed by mega-corporations and the major mega-industrialized countries (that these corporations dominate) and the major international institutions (ie. WTO, IMF). This praise has been confirmed by recent international studies.Second, I find that advocacy for this view is typically represented in advocacy for general “principles.”  I have seen little in the way of specific policies and programs for specific decisions made by specific decision-makers  (ie. geared to US activists, with specific US decisions and decision makers to be influenced).In this view, then, the essence of food sovereignty is defined by general principles of local sustainability.
Alternate Views of Via Campesina and the US National Family Farm Coalition

While the dominant view is big on general principles and local, self-initiated sustainability, I find it to be weak on justice, especially farm justice, and weak on the kind of “issue” specificity that is needed for authentic organizing.In contrast, Via Campesina and the National Family Farm Coalition focus on farm justice (“farm sovereignty”?) in ways that focus directly on key, macro level decisions and decision-makers.  A good illustration of this can be found in the 2003 Via Campesina document, “It is urgent to re-orient the debate on agriculture and initiate a policy of food sovereignty,” which was a “Post-Cancún Release.”1This document emphasizes that food sovereignty is “urgent” and states:  “The first important step: we must centre the debate on food sovereignty and production rather than trade.”  General principles are then given:  “To engage in agricultural production that ensures food needs, respects the environment and provides peasants with a life of dignity, . . .”

Significantly, the principles sentence ends as follows:  “an active intervention by the government is indispensable.”  In other words “the first important step” is not about local things that we, or peasants or farmers, do ourselves.  It’s about government action at the macro level to achieve the principles of “food sovereignty.”  For the sake of US farmers and Via Campesina, it is crucial that this emphasis is not missed in discussions of food sovereignty inside the US as the US government is the most important one where “active intervention” is needed.  The next words are:  “This intervention must ensure:” which is followed by a list of 6 items.  Items 2-4 (half) are:

” • control of imports in order to stabilize the internal price to a level that covers the costs of production,
• control of production (i.e. supply management) in order to avoid surpluses,
• international commodity agreements to control supply and guarantee fair prices to peasant producers for export products such as coffee, cotton, etc.”

We see then that Via Campesina quickly moves from the general principles a list of specific actions that are needed by various government decision makers (ie. “supply management” and “fair prices”).

Though not specified, the specific decision-makers (for US advocates) behind these decisions include the following:

• US Congress and presidents, who decide whether or not we have price floors (and whether they’re set at fair trade levels,) plus supply management in the farm bill

• US presidential administrations and their trade negotiators, to favor allowing countries to prevent the dumping of imports and to develop methods of international supply management and price support.

The peasants of Via Campesina know the importance of farm prices, and of managing supply to help obtain them, but they have very little influence on the US Congress and President.  It’s essential that we properly understand Via Campesina on these specifics of what food sovereignty means, and mobilize the rest of the new US food movement, and bring in the broader (beyond family farm justice advocates) farm movement.

The US is the dominant global exporter of major farm commodities, and has often been about as big as OPEC in oil (cotton, wheat), or much bigger, (corn, soybeans), or otherwise the dominant price-setting force (rice).  Food Sovereignty advocates here must lead on these issues.  Via Campesina members who live in other countries must rely on US organizing to win justice in the US farm bill and in our highly influencial approach to trade.

A key place to start is with the Food from Family Farms Act of the US National Family Farm Coalition.2  This is the key farm bill policy alternative in the US that supports the kind of farm justice described by Via Campesina above.  My web sites are designed to do support these policies of justice.  I’ve collected the key resources to bridge the gap between farm justice peasants and farmers, on one hand, and those who think food sovereignty doesn’t emphasize government intervention, or who think farm justice is about subsidies, on the other.  (Note:  peasants from the global South often also do accurately understand US farm bill issues.)

The Farm Subsidy Myth

Food sovereignty advocates and potential advocates in the US especially need to understand that farm subsidies, though part of WTO are not the relevant policies that need to be addressed here.  It is very widely believed that farm subsidies are the key policies (in the farm bill and in trade agreements) that help to achieve the price goals of Via Campesina.  WTO documents strongly affirms that perception.  Unfortunately at least 4 kinds of data prove this hypothesis is false.4  WTO and  most US conservatives and progressives are wrong.  The subsidy hypothesis is not supported by the relevant data.

Again, the US farm bill achieves Via Campesina’s global goals of food sovereignty only when it includes supply management and price floors set at fair trade levels, as we had 1942-1952.  With these policies there is no need for any farm commodity subsidies, and there were none when we had fair trade price floors in the past.

Issue Specificity and Authentic Organizing

The specific US farm bill decisions and decision makers related to the Via Campesina document (described above) lend themselves well to authentic grassroots organizing inside of the US on behalf of Via Campesina and US family farmers.

At the recent “Assembly” of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, in Oakland California, the family farm sub-group (ie. representatives of member organizations of the National Family Farm Coalition,) emphasized their direct experiences of injustice, with terms like “survival,” “despair” and “divorce.”  Another popular term heard from this group at the accompanying conference in California is “suicide.”  This emphasis reflects their long history of concretely fighting agribusiness and the current severe “dairy crisis” These terms were also big themes during the 1980s farm crisis, when large numbers of farms went quickly out of business, or were threatened with foreclosure.   The same applied during the CAFO crisis that was raging during 1990s, for example, as most diversified US farms lost their livestock value-added to CAFOs, due to huge, even multibillion dollar “implicit” (off the government books) subsidies from cheap feed (low grain prices,) to individual CAFO corporations.

US food and food sovereignty advocates wanting to focus on justice can learn from these groups to move quickly into pragmatic action.

Supply management and price floors are key food sovereignty issueds as define in grassroots organizing.  The late organizer behind National Peoples’ Action, Shel Trapp, for example, approaches the question of issues as follows:4

“When you find what appears to be an issue, three questions must be asked:

1. Can people be mobilized around this?
2. Is it specific?
3. Can something be done to change this situation?

If people cannot be mobilized around an issue, then you do not have an issue. A good way to “test” an issue is to call several people in your organization, talk about the situation and then ask:

Would you be interested in getting a few folks together to talk about this and see what can be done?”

An issue is something that people can get right to work on, with a potential to win concrete changes.  It involves a specific decision from specific decision makers. As we approach the 2012 farm bill, it is essential that food sovereignty advocates inside the US focus directly on the key “issues” of justice,  identified by Via Campesina, for example, in the 2003 document identied above.

Notes

1. Via Campesina, “It is urgent to re-orient the debate on agriculture and initiate a policy of food sovereignty,” 9/2/03, http://viacampesina.org/en/ind…

2. “Food from Family Farms Act:  A Proposal for the 2007 U.S. Farm Bill,” National Family Farm Coalition, http://www.nffc.net/Learn/Fact…

3. See my “Michael Pollan Rebuttal,” (including 2 linked videos at YouTube) for the 4 proofs:  http://www.zcommunications.org…

4.  Shel Trapp, Basics of Organizing, NTIC, 1986, http://www.tenant.net/Organize…

For further reading:

Brad’s “Farm Bill Primer,” “Food Crisis Primer” and “Issue Organizing” content boxes (lists of links), zspace, (http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/bradwilson);

Brad’s YouTube Channel & “Farm Bill & Food Bill” playlist: (http://www.youtube.com/user/FireweedFarm#p/c/A1E706EFA90D1767).

Brad Wilson, “Via Campesina with NFFC: Support for Fair Farm Prices,” zspace, http://www.zcommunications.org…

Brad Wilson, “WTO Africa Group with NFFC, Not EWG,” zspace, http://www.zcommunications.org…

Brad Wilson, “Most EWG Subsidy ‘Recipients’ Are Too Tiny to Be ‘Farmers,'” zspace, http://www.zcommunications.org…

Interview: Nick Rose

Thanks to Juliette Anich for the opportunity to create this portrait. Being able to explain at length my motivations is a rare opportunity and much appreciated.

Of thuggery and utopia

16th October – World Food Sovereignty Day

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 15.10.11

16 October is World Food Day. It commemorates the day in 1945 on which the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations was established. The FAO is the pre-eminent global institution charged with working towards universal food security: its mandate is to ‘raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy’.

This year, the theme of World Food Day is ‘food prices – from crisis to stability’. Food price volatility in recent years has seen the numbers of malnourished increase significantly. Commemorative events will be held around the world, such as the ‘World Food Day Sunday Dinners’ being held across the US.

Some social movements believe that such actions are no longer sufficient, and that a rather more dramatic change in direction is needed. So they are now commemorating 16 October in a different way, by renaming it, ‘World Food Sovereignty Day’.

Two months ago, 400 (mostly young) people from 34 European countries, met for a week in Krems, Austria, to talk about what was happening to Europe, their futures, and their food systems, in the context of the increasing application of austerity programs being dictated by financial markets.

Food Sovereignty Forum in Krems, Austria, 2011
Food Sovereignty Forum in Krems, Austria, 2011

Prefiguring the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement a month later and its focus on the unfairness and inequalities of what Dick Smith calls ‘extreme capitalism’, they denounced the ‘model of industrialised agriculture controlled by a few transnational food corporations together with a small group of huge retailers’. This model, they said, had little interest in producing ‘food which is healthy, affordable and benefits people’, but was rather focused ‘on the production of raw materials such as agrofuels, animal feeds [and] commodity plantations’.

In Australia, Dick Smith has recently been talking about the ‘thuggery’ practiced by major supermarket chains, and how this silences and intimidates processors and farmers. In other countries, such as Honduras, there is thuggery of a rather more extreme version. There, following a military coup in June 2009, dozens of farmer leaders have been assassinated by private and state security forces, as they have tried to resist being evicted from their lands by companies in charge of a rapidly expanding palm oil monoculture.

Such examples suggest that the dominant global agri-food model almost seems to have zombie-like characteristics. Unsustainable from every perspective other than corporate balance sheets, it still manages to spread its talons around the world, draining life from ecosystems, forests and rural communities. Its ‘export vocation’, as scholar and food sovereignty activist Peter Rosset puts it, is effectively a ‘model of death’, and contrasts sharply with the ‘food producing vocation’ of smaller-scale farmers.

So what do the young people who attended the European Forum for Food Sovereignty at Krems propose in its stead? In the first place, they demand the democratisation of food and agricultural systems, according to the principles of fundamental human rights, cooperation and solidarity.  Secondly, they want ‘resilient food production systems’, which utilise ecological production methods, and are based on ‘a multitude of smallholder farmers, gardeners and small-scale fishers who produce local food as the backbone of the food system’.

Thirdly, they are calling for decentralised food distribution networks and ‘diversified markets based on solidarity and fair prices’, with ‘intensified relations between producers and consumers in local food webs to counter the expansion and power of supermarkets’. They want dignified and decent working conditions and wages for all food sector workers.

Next, they oppose ‘the commodification, financialisation and patenting of our commons’, including land, seeds, livestock breeds, trees, water and the atmosphere. And finally, they are calling for public policies to support such food systems and food cultures, based firmly on the universal right to food and the satisfaction of basic human needs.

Is all this hopeless utopia, or grounded realism? Increasingly, the growing global food movements are providing the answer to that question.

Canadians endorse food sovereignty in public forums

A Food Plan for Industry, or a Plan for the People?

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 17.9.11

Canada’s political parties, and its food movement, have in recent years thoroughly discussed food policy formation. As Australia grapples for the first time with the idea of a National Food Plan, it’s instructive to look at the Canadian experience.

First, the political parties. In Canada’s most recent Federal election, held on 2nd May this year, all the major parties – the Conservatives, the Liberals, the New Democrats (NDP), the Greens and Bloc Québécois – went to the electorate with a platform on food policy. The Conservatives, and to a lesser extent the Liberals, were clearly focused on export agriculture, and opening up new markets. Each of the other three parties, by contrast, spoke of the need to work towards food sovereignty, broadly conceived as the ‘right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies.’

What this translated to in practice in the Canadian context was a need to protect farm incomes, both by reviewing the impacts of trade agreements on Canadian farmers, and by building strong and diverse local food systems so that more value in the food dollar is returned directly to farmers. The NDP identified the need for specific measures to find pathways for new entrants into farming, while the Greens linked climate change and emissions reduction to agriculture.

Of all the parties, only the NDP had carried out an extensive public consultation process of 28 community forums over 18 months in all Canadian provinces. At every forum participants overwhelmingly expressed their agreement that food sovereignty, as summarised above, should form the basis on which the Canadian government approaches its international trade negotiations.

The NDP reported that Canadians wanted a ‘comprehensive food strategy’, with the core objectives of ensuring access to healthy food for all Canadians; helping Canadian farmers deliver such access; and building a sustainable agriculture for the future.

As a matter of interest, the NDP recorded a 13% swing in its favour, nearly trebled its number of seats in the Canadian parliament, and now sits as the official opposition to the Conservatives for the first time in its history.

Also in the lead up to the election, a grass-roots citizen initiative led by Food Secure Canada published its ‘Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada’ report. This was, as I mentioned last time, the outcome of very extensive public discussions over two years, including 350 kitchen-table talks in which 3,500 Canadians participated. The report was embraced by both the NDP and the Greens.

People's Food Policy Project: Resetting the Table
People’s Food Policy Project: Resetting the Table

The report pointed out its unique status as ‘the first-ever national food policy to be developed by the food movement itself – a diverse and dynamic network of organizations and individuals working to build a healthy, ecological and just food system for Canada.’ As the authors state, those involved in this movement ‘are taking actions daily that are transforming our food system from the ground up’, and the challenge is to ‘translate [these actions] into policy’.

The Policy itself draws on comprehensive recommendations and guidelines developed in ten detailed discussion papers generated by the engagement process with the public. The key recommendations are as follows:

  • ‘Ensure food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced’ (e.g. mandatory local procurement policies for private and public organisations, and support for local food initiatives such as farmers markets)
  • Support producers in the transition to ecological production, including entry pathways for new farmers
  • ‘Enact a strong poverty elimination program with measurable targets and timelines’
  • ‘Create a nationally-funded Children and Food Strategy (e.g. school meals, school gardens, food literacy programs) to ensure that all children at all times have access to the food required for healthy lives’
  • ‘Ensure that the public, especially the most marginalised, are actively involved in decisions that affect the food system.’

You won’t find any of this in the Australian Government’s Issues Paper for a National Food Plan, which more closely resembles the food policy platform of the Canadian Conservative Party.