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Eat, think, and be merry

As we gather to share a meal with friends and family this festive season, it is the ideal time to reflect on our relationship with food, including our dependence on those who grow it for us. Australians…

Christmas is a time of plenty - but to ensure we keep eating well in the future, it’s time to rethink the way we buy and produce food. Barbeque image from www.shutterstock.com

As we gather to share a meal with friends and family this festive season, it is the ideal time to reflect on our relationship with food, including our dependence on those who grow it for us.

Australians enjoy one of the safest, most abundant and still relatively affordable food systems in the world.

But we are also are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, related to a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet that is partly due to our cereal-dominated agriculture.

At the same time, many of the farms and food processing businesses supplying our food are struggling to produce a decent return on their investment.

And the natural resources underpinning our food production are under threat from climate change, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and competing claims from mining and other uses.

While these challenges are reasonably well recognised, there is little consensus on how to respond - which is worth reflecting on now, while we still have the time to make better choices for Australia’s food future.

Planning for feast or famine?

Among government, academic and industry circles, the most common approach is to support only incremental changes to the way we grow and manage our food production.

But that’s not the only view, with a growing minority calling for much greater, transformative change.

The Australian government is currently developing the first National Food Plan, examining whether we have the right policies in place to support a sustainable, resilient and globally-competitive food supply.

The consultation paper released in July paints a generally rosy picture of Australian food, and the government should be commended for trying to come up with a comprehensive plan on such a vital issue.

However, if the final National Food Plan is similar to the consultation paper, then it looks likely to back the dominant approach, focusing largely on increasing productivity and harnessing market forces to drive greater efficiency and competitiveness.

That kind of thinking is a classic example of neo-liberalism.

If we fail to question that approach, we are taking a huge gamble on our future food security.

Counting the true costs

More intensive agricultural practices can often help boost productivity - something that is easy to measure, and is generally assumed to always be a good thing.

But what about the downsides?

Sometimes these downsides can be harder to measure, but they are no less important - for instance, the degradation of the natural resource base, or the loss of community services and ‘social capital’ that can occur as smaller farms are bought up and consolidated into a bigger property.

Unfortunately, under the dominant approach to agriculture policy, such legitimate concerns are often not accounted for.

The obesity epidemic and its associated health costs can also be written-off as a similar “externality”, or a cost that is not fully accounted for, in our current food system.

Food for the future

The challenge of global food security has been described as one of the greatest challenges facing humankind.

How we respond to to this challenge will largely determine the future of humanity.

The next few decades between now and 2050 have been described by some as “the bottleneck”, when human appetites for more of everything will test several global ecological limits.

The interconnected challenges of food and water security, human health, a healthy environment and energy security will require far more integrated responses from government and business.

Just doing more of the same will not be enough to solve the complex, uncertain, and contested challenges of tomorrow.

Breaking down barriers for action

This real-world need for an integrated and systemic response is often in direct conflict with the traditional discipline structures so diligently protected in our universities and research organisations.

The challenge of sustainability requires an ‘un-disciplined’ response, including rethinking the role of science and research in our food and agriculture systems.

The starting point for this critical re-evaluation needs to start with what we value.

We need to examine alternatives to the dominant approach of productionist agriculture, focusing on efficiency and competitiveness above all else.

Are there alternative paradigms that might be more sympathetic to nature and rural communities?

One possible alternative is the agrarian vision, summed up so eloquently by American poet, philosopher and farmer, Wendell Berry.

In his recent lecture, “It All Turns On Affection”, Berry argues for a return to local agricultural economies, based on a deep affection for the land.

In Australia, we need to be talking about the complex issues involved with trying to deliver on the government’s aim of a genuinely “sustainable and resilient” food supply.

Healthier choices

So as we look forward to another year, let us consider the food on our plates and how we can all become more aware and active in our food choices.

We can do that any time we’re about to buy food, by asking three important questions.

Is this a healthy food choice? What is the environmental footprint of my food choices? And are producers and processors receiving a fair share of my food dollar?

In Australia we really do enjoy a wonderful food supply and we have much to be thankful for.

But we also need to take responsibility for our individual food choices and collectively strive for good, clean and fair food outcomes.

And this Christmas, let’s not forget a toast of appreciation to our farmers. Cheers!

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Croft

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thanks Bill, well said, and may I draw your attention to the People's Food Plan being developed for Australia. http://www.australianfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/2012/09/14/peoples-food-plan-values-principles-and-best-practice-discussion-draft-now-available/

    In a nutshell, the People's Food Plan is a national collaborative exercise in participatory and deliberative democracy. It seeks to provide a coherent vision, narrative and political strategy for the diverse array of individuals and organisations working for a fair, sustainable and resilient food system in Australia.

    You may also be interested in a deconstruction of the National Food Plan green paper earlier this year that was the catalyst for the development of the People's Food Plan https://theconversation.edu.au/the-draft-national-food-plan-putting-corporate-hunger-first-8342

    And finally, as a farmer, I appreciate your parting comment - cheers!

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Michael Croft

      that link is fixed now.

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    2. Bill Bellotti

      Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Thanks Michael,
      I am aware of the Food Sovereignty Alliance, but I have not got around to reading their Plan yet. I think the Food Sovereignty Alliance is an example of many grassroots organisations that have in common a concern that our current food system has some serious shortcomings. The Sydney Food Fairness Alliance (http://sydneyfoodfairness.org.au/) and the 3 Pillars Food Summit (http://www.3pillarsnetwork.com.au/p3_Events-Resources.html?&event=88) are other examples.

      While I support the need for a critical reevaluation of paradigms, I also acknowledge that there are 1 billion food insecure people in the world so we will need to keep a firm focus on production.

      It's great to have a farmer in the conversation!

      Bill

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    3. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Michael Croft

      "While I support the need for a critical reevaluation of paradigms, I also acknowledge that there are 1 billion food insecure people in the world so we will need to keep a firm focus on production."

      Glad you mentioned re-evaluating paradigms. However I must point out that support for keeping a "firm focus on production" comes from within the productionist paradigm.

      Here is a paradox of that paradigm; nearly 10% of Australians are food insecure (go one day a week without food) in a country…

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    4. Rosemary Stanton

      Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at University of New South Wales

      In reply to Michael Croft

      It behoves us all to try to influence the National Food Plan because the current version looks only to expand 'business as usual'. That's simply not working to feed the world's population and even in a land of plenty such as Australia, we have significant numbers who cannot access good food.

      The current food industry's major concern is profit. I'm not knocking making a profit, but I am suggesting we need to pay more attention to what is being grown and how it is being used.

      It's a complex area…

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    5. Neville Mattick

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Michael Croft

      This is a very significant subject and I an heartened to read it over and over because it is close, very close to my heart and family tradition.

      Rosemary Stanton really hits the nail on the head with the profit taking after the farm gate. Sheep have recently been targeted and their wholesale value (where a grower sells at auction) has slumped to below cost and this is a year after the most recent hit on the Dairy Industry.

      I can see an era where a jet aircraft will import foreign food for…

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  2. Gary Cassidy

    Interesting article. Thanks.

    Although I do think the statement -
    "This real-world need for an integrated and systemic response is often in direct conflict with the traditional discipline structures so diligently protected in our universities and research organisations."
    - is an unsupported generalisation and requires explanation and/or clarification.

    Also I don't think an "un-disciplined" response would be efficient, economical or provide optimal outcomes. Perhaps a disciplined, scientific approach "to examine alternatives to the dominant approach of productionist agriculture, focusing on efficiency and competitiveness above all else."

    And thank you to the farmers for providing my delicious wide variety of food.

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    1. Bill Bellotti

      Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Gary Cassidy

      Thanks Gary,
      The whole issue of traditional disciplines, even the division between 'Science' and 'Arts', and the need for transdisciplinary research deserves a separate conversation. The point I would like to draw attention to is that most of the real world issues like climate change, food security, etc., cannot be solved by any single discipline. How we go about transdisciplinary research is still a work in progress. My use of the term 'un-disciplined' is really a play on words and does not…

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  3. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Wonderful piece Bill, and thank you for drawing my attention the Berry lecture (incidentally the link doesn't take you straight there b ut I found it.) Berry is the conscience of America, if not the world and provides a path through the rotting jungle for all of us.

    Could i suggest that Gary Cassidy reads the Berry piece and then re-thinks his call for 'efficient, economical ..optimal outcomes' in the light of an examination of affection.

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    1. Gary Cassidy

      In reply to John Newton

      Hi John,

      I'll have a read when time permits. Surely though we would require some defined measurables that can be tested, evaluated and compared. Otherwise you can end up with 30 different research groups (and perhaps various other non-research groups) with various recommendations all claiming that their recommendations are best? The question then becomes what measurables? I agree that productionist agriculture as a dominating paradigm is not optimal when the environment and peoples health are given higher value.

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  4. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Sadly, I think that your 'three important questions' will find little support outside of what the general Australian population refers to as the 'do-gooders'. For many (if not the majority) of people, the three important questions in food choice are: Does it taste good? Is it affordable? How long will it keep?

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    1. Bill Bellotti

      Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Margo Saunders

      Thanks Margo, I agree with your list of current drivers of consumer food choices. The challenge of changing food consumption patterns will be long term, and value laden. But we need to have this debate because of the scale of impacts of our food choices (health, environment, business), and the potential benefits of doing things differently.
      I think the approach should be educational rather than regulation, although all public policy levers will be needed.

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  5. Neville Mattick

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    This is a vexed area, rarely discussed widely and very well covered by Bill in this article which I am glad to read.

    My story is of a family now some 130 years in the same Landscape, just tonight after an interval of several years I have looked at the Drought Declarations for NSW as it looms nearer.

    If it is sustainable to have a family enterprise after all this time where the owner operators' no longer can afford any off farm help, do all the work, have perhaps a week or so away per year…

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    1. Bill Bellotti

      Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Neville, thanks for sharing your story. Too few people know and appreciate what farmers have to deal with season after season. Climate variability and change, commodity price fluctuations, and government regulations all must be managed on a daily basis. And you are right that consumers now spend proportionally much less of their income on food (overall probably a good thing), but also farmers receive a much smaller share of the consumer's food dollar (probably a bad thing).
      I hope that through education consumers would increase their knowledge of where their food comes from and be more willing to pay a fair price; one that covers cost of production, allows for investing in future sustainable intensification, and includes a profit to allow farmers a decent lifestyle.

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  6. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Gary – you speak of efficient and optimal outcomes. It was once thought – and in some places still is – that tearing down a rain forest to replace it with land for grazing cattle was efficient and resulted in optimal outcomes – when measured on the very narrow band of dollar profitability. Another example, turning old growth forests into Japanese toilet paper.

    Similarly, intensive chicken farming requiring routine administration of antibiotics and resulting in cruelty to the animals, optimal outcomes. Monoculture that has resulted in degraded soils and erosion: optimal outcomes.

    We have to look at land the way Berry suggests, with affection rather than a simple rape and pillage mentality.

    It does require an entirely new way of looking at farming – and life. For some reason I am reminded of something the late Robert Graves once said: ‘there’s no money in poetry. But then, there’s no poetry in money.’

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