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Through grassroots movements like La Via Campesina, farmers around the world are working to reassert the rights of local food producers. Global Justice Now/Flickr, CC BY

Working to reclaim and rebuild our food systems from the ground up

This article is part of the ongoing Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

One might be tempted to ask “what’s cooking?” as a slew of leading thinkers on food systems change converge on Australia.

Among those giving workshops, talks and town halls in cities throughout Australia this month are: Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Food First think-tank in Oakland, California, and author of A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism; Jahi Chappell, author of Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond; Jonathan Latham, author of The Poison Papers; Carey Gillam, author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science; and food systems researchers Charles Levkoe and Jose L. Vivero Pol. Devita Davison, co-founder of FoodLab Detroit, travelled here in 2017 to share how food entrepreneurs are breathing life back into her post-industrial city.

Brought to our shores by local advocates of food systems change, these thought leaders are sharing their knowledge and experiences of how we might reclaim a food system that has effectively been corporatised, to the great detriment of our health, our planet and our democracy.

Contrary to popular critique, our food system is not broken. As Holt-Giménez explains so eloquently in his book, it works perfectly well for Big Food. Multinational food, beverage, agri-business and retail corporations control global supply chains. But they don’t feed the world.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that family farms produce 80% of the world’s food in 2014. It’s mostly produced by women and girls who, ironically, are the most likely to be food-insecure.

Why? Largely due to poverty, made worse by flawed government policies and global mega-corporations that wield the power to destroy local food economies, ruin human health and annihilate biodiversity.

Four companies: Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, DowDuPont and BASF now control over 50% of the world’s commercial seeds. These highly profitable businesses are enabled by a regulatory system that effectively criminalises the saving, exchange and sale of seeds by local farmers.

In terms of health, nearly one in three people globally suffer from at least one form of malnutrition in the form of wasting, stunting, vitamin deficiency, diabetes or obesity in what has become known as the “double burden” of malnutrition.

How have we got here? As Holt-Giménez explains, the global capitalist economy that drives our food system has fostered overproduction of cheap, calorific food. In doing so it has transformed the relationship between capital and labour to create social exclusion, poverty and food insecurity.

In pockets of economic irrelevance in every country and city on Earth people are deprived of basic infrastructure and services, particularly if they are perceived to have no value in global flows of wealth and property.

Hope of a turning point

Holt-Giménez has hope, however, that we are reaching a critical juncture in capitalism, with the emergence of “food utopias” that prefigure radical, structural change.

At the October 17 event “Building Food Utopias: Voice, Power and Agency”, hosted by University of Sydney, he was joined by sustainable food systems advocate Eva Perroni and Joel Orchard, founder of Future Feeders. It’s an organisation dedicated to creating peer-to-peer support networks for young farmers.

Given the average age of the Australian farmer is 56, Orchard’s initiative is a vital step to ensure our future food security, particularly in conditions of high financial risk and land scarcity.

Seeing milk poured down the drain because of low prices convinced Joel Orchard of the need to challenge industrial food production. AAP

As a scientist working with farmers to improve the quality of milk, Orchard saw those same farmers pouring it down drains in a depressed market. His experience led him to become part of the counter-movement against industrial agriculture.

Now managing his own peri-urban plot in Mullumbimby, Orchard has co-founded the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network Australia and New Zealand with Victorian grower Sally Ruljancich. It provides a platform for small-scale and agro-ecological farmers who need a strong voice in policymaking.

“Farming has historically been such an individual and isolating pursuit,” Orchard said. “It’s vital that we include the perspectives of farmers both at the policy and consumer education level.

"At the moment, many small-scale and agro-ecological farmers don’t have a say in the policies that make a difference to their working lives.”

The CSA Network joins a number of like-minded organisations including the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA). AFSA lobbied the Victorian government for planning system reforms that now recognise small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms as low risk. This has effectively unshackled these farmers from their industrial counterparts in planning legislation.

At the Food Sovereignty Convergence in Canberra this month, AFSA amended its constitution to be an explicitly farmer-led organisation, like its international allies La Via Campesina and the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty.

“Putting the voice and decision-making power in the hands of small-scale agroecological farmers puts AFSA in alignment with the global food sovereignty movement – we’re here to radically transform the food system from the ground up,” said AFSA president and farmer Tammi Jonas.

An underground insurgency

These farmers are part of what Charles Massy, in his remarkable book Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, calls an “underground insurgency”. They are regenerating the land and revisioning market exchange. They represent an emergent thinking that manifests itself not only in care for the Earth but in genuine concern for the health of rural and urban eaters.

These networks are essential in the counter-movement against input-intensive, conventional modes of agriculture and the crippling effects of market concentration – including the “Colesworth” duopoly in Australia – that put the price squeeze on farmers.

According to Holt-Giménez, strengthening these social networks and institutions that promote the interests of small-scale, agroecological farmers is essential in our privatised food system. “It’s in policymakers’ best interest to strengthen them so that truly transformative and effective public policy is achieved.”

Information-sharing with international advocates is key to the transformation we need, but solutions also lie closer to home.

Indigenous Australians developed sophisticated ecosystem management. By “getting out of the way of Mother Nature” – or combining ecological literacy with lack of ego, as Massy puts it – First Nations people survived for more than 40,000 years.

Their innovation is now internationally recognised through initiatives like the Aboriginal Carbon Fund, which is building a sustainable Aboriginal carbon industry through peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing.

The voices of these local thought leaders must be included in policymaking.

Novel approaches to community engagement are needed to bring us all together on food-related issues. These include communities of practice, food policy councils, social enterprises and solidarity economies.

Many of these fledgling “utopias” are already incubating in rural towns and urban neighbourhoods.

One thing is clear. Separated more by time and capacity than ideological approach, groups and communities working for a better food system are mobilising across Australia. Our food system is ripe for repairing, reclaiming and revisioning.

The author acknowledges and thanks: food activist and researcher Eva Perroni, organiser of Holt-Giménez’s visit to Australia; Sydney Environment Institute, Sydney Policy Lab and Sydney Ideas.

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