Reflections on the 2018 Urban Agriculture Forum

After returning from the Urban Agriculture Forum last month in Melbourne, I’ve put together some reflections on this fantastic event. We don’t often associate cities with growing food, so I’ve also included a brief explanation of what urban agriculture is, and the importance of it in building healthy, sustainable, resilient and thriving cities.

“From Resilience to Liveability” was the theme for the two-day Urban Agriculture Forum, hosted by Sustain: the Australian Food Network and the William Angliss Institute in Melbourne on 23-24 February 2018. As always, it was a pleasure to be in Melbourne for a few days. A city with ample examples of urban agriculture initiatives, projects and policies; implemented and supported by local community groups, schools, local governments, and not for profit organisations, among others. Yet, like most cities, it contends with ongoing urbanisation and this continued population growth, development and urban sprawl, results in the progressive loss of productive agricultural land in, and around the city.

With a packed attendance of 250+ participants, the extensive program catered to a varied group of people including gardeners, academics, advocates, health professionals, entrepreneurs, chefs, planners and more.   Addressing everything from urban agriculture principles through to practice and policy, delegates had the option to choose from a diverse range of concurrent sessions across the two days, as well as an exceptional array of panels and plenaries.

Some of the key themes from the forum included a focus on how we build cities and suburbs that are food secure and resilient, how we utilise policy to create healthy and sustainable local food systems, the governance of urban agriculture, practical application of growing food both in backyards and public urban spaces and community connectivity through local food production.

Dr Lenore Newman from the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia provided an excellent keynote for the forum, sharing her learning’s of a unique peri-urban initiative: the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), near Vancouver. Considered the most progressive legislation of its time when it was passed in 1972, it aimed to protect land with the most fertile soil for the purpose of agriculture only. The ALR is a highly productive area, with both intensive and small-scale farmers producing for both export and local markets. As Lenore stated “when we protected farmland it gave us the great opportunity to do other stuff”, which saw farmers creating diversified businesses and farm landscapes ranging from market gardens, microbreweries, alongside large scale industrialised farms. Despite the huge success the ALR has had, the constant threat of land speculation and the removal of land by local, provincial and federal governments for various infrastructure and utilities; is ongoing. An independent commission, however, administers the ALR and this has provided an additional layer of protection against change in governments and the call of developers.

An exciting element of the program was the Ideas Harvest. This was dedicated to open-space, participant led discussions on a range of topics that were crowd sourced on the first day. The Ideas Harvest provided an opportunity for sharing knowledge, learning’s and encouragement, and brought testament to the fact that groups harness a power much greater than individuals alone.

Other highlights include the food (of course), which was delicious, nutritious and sourced from local Victorian farms, catered for by the Melbourne Farmers Markets. As always at events like these, opportunities for networking were aplenty, and conversations and connections flourished in the breaks. The two-day event concluded with a collective brainstorming session on “The Melbourne Statement”, to be used as a call for action on the Victorian State Government to support greater investment in localised food systems in Victoria.

So what exactly is urban agriculture and why do we need it?

In 2016, over 50% of the world’s population lived in cities.   This is projected to increase to 60-80% by 2050, according to the UN. The need to look at how cities feed themselves is not a new phenomenon. Cities generally consume, not produce food and this increases their vulnerability to food security.

In the face of climate change, linked with an increasing incidence of extreme weather events, cities are particularly at risk of being cut off from their food supply due to cyclones and floods. A real and relevant threat, experienced by Brisbane residents when the city’s Rocklea markets flooded in 2011. Climate change is merely one risk to a cities food security. For certain population groups (5% of the Australian population and 20% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population), their susceptibility to food security is much greater than the threat of natural disasters (note: food insecurity is not unique to cities alone). Food security is diminished when there is limited access to, and availability of nutritious and affordable food.

The FAO states that urban agriculture is “the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.” A number of councils, many of which are in Melbourne, recognise the role urban agriculture plays in increasing urban resilience in a changing climate, and improving food security in our cities. However, the benefits of urban agriculture and a local food system go far beyond this. Councils are cognisant of the wide-reaching benefits, including building businesses and local economies, generating local employment, enhanced community participation, increased social connectedness and enhanced environmental outcomes, enabling councils to achieve various objectives including building communities, health and wellbeing.

Within the broader context of food systems change, urban agriculture and urban food policies are merely one part of the solution. It would be unrealistic to expect that urban agriculture alone, will feed burgeoning cities. Yet, without a doubt it plays an essential part. The Urban Agriculture Forum shone the light on the multitude of benefits urban agriculture provides, and the ways in which we can push for creating more food secure and resilient cities. As Dr Nick Rose, Executive Director of Sustain states, “Cities feeding themselves in an idea that can change the world. An idea whose time has come…”

Craig Reucassel: Warrior against Australia’s War on Waste

Craig Reucassel first etched his way into our memory through the various stunts he and the Chaser team performed over the years. Through his familiar use of humour and satire, he’s once again captured the hearts and minds of Australian’s, this time challenging us to join him in the fight against the War on Waste.

Food waste is a hot topic right now. While the issue itself is not new and has been campaigned for many years, Craig has done an impressive job shining the light on this significant economic and environmental problem, gathering the troops to rally for change.

It’s a grim picture when you look at what’s been reported on food waste. Australia is one of the most wasteful countries in the developed world. We throw out approximately one in five shopping bags, which equates to 3.1 million tonnes of food. Additionally, 2.2 million tonnes is disposed of by the commercial and industrial sector, costing the economy approximately $20 billion each year.

The issue is not just the amount of food thrown to landfill, but also the enormous amount of resources, including water, energy and fuel, that are utilised in the process of growing and distributing the food that we ultimately waste. As Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, affirms in in his TED talk “at the moment we are trashing our land to grow food that no one eats. ”

As the ‘War on Waste’ show highlighted, food waste is complex. Fresh produce is discarded before it even hits the market shelves; it’s thrown out in both shops and homes because of best-before and use-by dates; it goes off in our fridge before we have the chance to use it; or the excess ends up in our bins.

One of the significant issues surrounding food waste is the large proportion of a crop that doesn’t even make it to market. As Craig reported in the first episode of the show, up to 40 per cent of a banana crop could be rejected due to their unacceptable shape and size. The reason for this is complicated. Retailers believe that the regulations they have in place for the size specifications of fruit and vegetables, accurately represent what the consumer wants.   Many consumers, on the other hand, refute this and say that size doesn’t matter.

Is it really the consumer’s who don’t want ‘wonky’ or ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables, or is it that retailers have led us to believe this? Or could it be both? Craig emphasises “over the years supermarkets have developed more and more perfect fruit, and consumers have been trained to expect that.” So how do we change our expectations of what fruit and vegetables are meant to look like?

Craig believes there is a way. One option may be for supermarkets to start selling more imperfect fruit and vegetables alongside consumer education regarding food waste, and then we could start to see a change. A positive example of progress in the United Kingdom that Craig spoke of was that some supermarkets have started buying the whole crop to use.   It then becomes the responsibility of the supermarket to use the seconds in other value-added products they sell in-store.

Thinking of innovative ways to conquer this issue is paramount. As the most recent episode demonstrated, some banana farmers in North Queensland have identified new markets for their seconds, thus they are utilising a much larger percentage of their crop, which is promising to see. YWaste is an app that’s been developed for food retailers to sell their products at a discounted rate that would usually have been thrown out at the end of the day. City Councils in Adelaide provide an additional bin as part of their kerbside system that allows residents to throw out organic materials. Through diverting food waste from landfill and turning it into compost, this significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A wide range of foods can be composted, essentially ‘if it grows, it goes’. The food scraps then undergo a composting process and are incorporated into garden soils and mulches supplied by Jeffries, thus greatly improving the quality of soils in South Australia.

It’s evident the show has had a tremendous impact on raising awareness and changing consumer behaviour. Nevertheless, the resounding success of the show is likely attributed to its multi-level approach. Craig engaged everyone in the conversation. MPs, supermarkets, farmers, food rescue organisations, businesses, schools, communities and individuals were all called upon for action. The individual success stories abounded. When questioned on where the big wins are likely to be with regards to food waste, Craig was adamant that the most effective change needs to happen at a policy level.

He states:

How do you set up the system to get the best results to influence change for people who don’t give a shit?”

Australia has recently released a National Food Waste Strategy with an ambitious target of halving food waste by 2030. Four policy areas are central to the strategy – policy support, business improvements, market development and behaviour change. $1.37 million has been allocated in funding in the first 24 months to establish an independent body to coordinate strategy implementation, a voluntary commitment program and a baseline of national food waste to ensure progress can be monitored and reported. This is a positive step in the right direction. May we continue to see the ongoing investment that’s required to tackle this significant issue in our food system.

In the War on Waste Craig validated that your voice does matter. Through the power of social media and political pressure, he showed us that as individuals we can pressure retailers and MPs to change. The ban the bag campaign has had some huge wins because we, the individual, spoke up. So continue to speak up. Let the supermarkets know #sizedoesntmatter. You can do this on social media or in person. Ask your local council what they are doing about a green waste bin. The show may have ended but let’s keep the conversation going and advocate for necessary change at a local, regional and national level. Our warrior may have led the charge, but we must continue the fight.


South East Queensland Urban Farm Gathering

A place where farmers, chefs and advocates came together to discuss local food systems.

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of urban farmers from across South East Queensland (SEQ), in my hometown of Brisbane.

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet and hear from a number of farmers growing food in Brisbane and the surrounding suburbs. If you’re anything like me, when you think of food production, you don’t tend to think of big cities. But what I realised as I sat there listening to everyone’s stories, is that local food and the benefits it brings, may be more accessible than you think. I want to introduce you to the wonderful farmers and chef, who were present that day.

The event was coordinated and hosted by Green Dean Urban Farmer. Dean has been involved in the urban farming movement for over 10 years. He has a wealth of knowledge on permaculture, urban farming, soil care, organic edible gardening, keeping chickens, worm farming, creating biodiversity, cooking, nutrition, food sustainability, community resilience and much more. His passion lies in educating and consulting in these areas and supporting communities and individuals in setting up their own urban farms in SEQ. Dean has founded numerous projects over the years, including Green Dean’s Crop Swaps, The KFC Project (2012-2017), Australian Kimchi Appreciation Society (AKAS), Fermental As Anything and many more.

Higgledy-Piggledy Farm is a quarter acre farm 14 kilometres from the city in Eight Mile Plains. Rell and Viv grow chemical free, seasonal vegetables using permaculture principles in the backyard of their suburban home. They have free-range chickens, ducks and quails, and distribute to customers within a 10-kilometre radius of the farm. Utilising nearly every spare patch of soil, it’s very impressive what Rell and Viv produce in such a small space.

River Soil Organics is a three quarter acre farm near the river in Oxley, farmed by Micah and Matt. They sell direct to the community through farm gate sales on Friday afternoons from 2.30pm onwards, at 110 Clivedon Avenue. If you live locally be sure to get in quick because they always sell out. The organic produce is picked the day before and sold 100 metres from the farm at affordable prices, comparable to the leading supermarkets. They also sell to two buyers group, including one in Oxley, which is The Edible Suburb Project.

The Mini Farm Project is a not for profit permaculture farming organisation that grows food for those in need using garden pods in under-utilised spaces across Brisbane. It has two active sites; one in Camp Hill, their flagship site, which is land shared by Timber Tots Child Care and sponsored by Wine & Dine’m Catering, and another site at Woolloongabba.   They also have an additional inactive site with a chicken farmer south of Beaudesert, on a land share contract for 30 acres for 10 years. 15 acres is planned to be converted to donation crops and 15 acres is planned to be for cash crops to self fund the project. During its testing phase, The Mini Farm Project harvested 94 kg of produce from Camp Hill, which has been used in the meals provided at a homeless shelter at Caboolture.

Millen Farm is on 2500 square metres in Samford Valley, which is 30 minutes from Brisbane CBD.   It’s a not for profit organisation that has been founded, established and managed by the community, for the community. Arran is the farmer at Millen Farm, which produces organic, sustainable produce sold within the local community. They also run workshops, including how to compost, build an Australian bee box, and permaculture design in practice.

Peter Kearney from My Food Garden spoke about a number of exciting projects he’s been involved with, providing advice to developers on urban farming projects. Peter has numerous years experience and delivers a range of services including mentoring, urban agriculture consulting, educational workshops on a wide variety of topics, such as organic gardening and biodynamic methods. He also supports people interested in building their own backyard or community garden. Peter is delivering a talk on biodynamic gardening at the Relaxation Centre of Queensland on Friday 27 October.

Forkhay City Farms is a not for profit backyard based urban farming project in Bulimba coordinated by James Blyth. This initiative is still in its infancy and slowly gaining momentum. Excitingly, James is also leading on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project at a local school and supporting children to grow their own food sustainably, which they then use in the kitchen to cook with.

Lui Varney is an aspiring urban farmer setting up a new farm in a backyard in Coopers Plains on a quarter acre. He plans to grow a range of seasonable vegetables and sell direct to the public at markets in Chillingham and in Brisbane.

Jerome Dalton from Dalton Hospitality Bespoke Catering and Events was also present and spoke about the catering and consulting services the company provides for functions and events in Brisbane. As a chef, he was extremely interested in sourcing more local food and was eager to understand and overcome, the logistics and practicalities of using smaller farms when planning menus for large numbers.

It’s really exciting to see so many urban farms in Brisbane and the outer suburbs, and this list is by no means complete. There are enormous benefits with growing food locally, and investing in urban farms is something we need to be advocating for at a local, state and national level.

The reason for this is that small-scale farms grow food in a way that nurtures and protects the land. This promotes soil health and improves biodiversity. There is minimal if any waste, since it is all composted back into the earth and reinvested back into the soil. Thus, there is less emissions and energy associated with the food, and the food miles are generally minimal.

The environmental benefits are great but there are also enormous social benefits. Many of the farmers sell their produce direct to the community. This local food economy has been shown to increase connection with consumers and the source of their food. It promotes transparency because consumers know exactly where their food comes from. It facilitates social connectedness between farmers and consumers benefiting all.

Other benefits include eating food that’s full of nutrients and flavour, and in season. Locally produced food can also improve the availability and access of affordable and healthy fruit and vegetables, for people who are food insecure.

For those of you who live in an urban area, I encourage you to find out where you’re nearest farm and farmer is. As I said earlier, it may be closer than you think.

Emma-Kate Rose: Transforming people’s attitudes through food

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

Emma-Kate Rose is well versed in advocating for change as part of Australia’s fair food movement. She has worked in this space for many years and has witnessed change in many forms, since her initial appointment as the General Happiness Manager of Food Connect in 2011. Together with her city cowboy, Robert Pekin, their vision is to see a highly distributed, highly participatory network of small place-based community food enterprises across Australia. Her passion in transforming people’s attitudes from an individualistic outlook on life to a more community minded outlook fuels this vision.

Reflecting on her passion Emma-Kate states:

“How can we do things using food as a vehicle to get people closer to the understanding that they aren’t just one person but are part of a bigger picture, and that they have a real meaningful contribution to make in this space?”

The Food Connect Foundation, of which Emma-Kate is Director, is powering this vehicle. Founded in 2009, the Food Connect Foundation is an innovator in the rise of a new food economy. It has many cogs in the wheel, one of these being the award winning Food Connect Brisbane (FCB). FCB is a food distribution social enterprise comprising multiple farmers, with an innovative community-based distribution system. Through an online subscription service, customers purchase weekly boxes of fresh, seasonal, ecological produce that has been sourced from local farmers within a 500-kilometre radius of Brisbane.  The boxes and/ or additional extras are then delivered through its unique distribution system called the City Cousin network. FCB also supplies many bulk buyer groups in South East Queensland using wholesale prices to access local food more affordably.

Emma-Kate acknowledges that this distribution system is a hybrid model of the well-known community supported agriculture (CSA) system. “The hybrid model made more sense in Brisbane. We call it community shared agriculture, since we want the farmers and consumers to share responsibility towards making a great food system.” This hybrid model inspired similar enterprises elsewhere including Food Connect Sydney (recently bought by Ooooby), CERES Fair Food and Bello Food Box.

Food Connect aspires to democratise the food system by increasing transparency, enhancing participation and providing opportunities for connection. One way they do this is by facilitating a unique connection between the farmer and consumer. This is achieved virtually through connecting online with all of the farmers who supply produce to Food Connect, or in person through regular farm tours. As the urban-rural divide increases, so too does the disconnect with our food and where it comes from, so this connection benefits both farmers and consumers. Emma-Kate states “with suicide rates three times higher in rural areas, it’s integral to break the isolation faced by our food growers. Farmers love being acknowledged and appreciated for what they do. You can see it in their eyes.”

At the heart of Food Connect’s ethos is that farmers are paid fairly for their produce. Generally, the leading retailers pay farmers, on average, 11 cents in the dollar – often well below the cost of production. In contrast, Food Connect farmers are paid forty cents in the dollar, essentially by cutting out the many middlemen in the supply chain. “The price is set with the farmer based on what their true costs are,” Emma-Kate emphasises.   Additionally, all Food Connect farmers know what their fellow farmers are paid, which has helped them to move away from a mentality focused on competition to one of cooperation. This also helps facilitate a shift away from the ‘get big or get out’ mantra often preached in agriculture.

With grand plans on the horizon, the Food Connect warehouse in Salisbury is set to become a buzzing food hub in 2018. Inspired by similar models in the United States, the vision is to have 20 food enterprises under the one roof, attracting a local community of like-minded citizens and consumers who are interested in sourcing locally produced food and creating a resilient local economy. There will be established kitchens with equipment, shared infrastructure, including printers and office space. The food hub will have food businesses, a people’s supermarkets selling fresh produce plus value added products made onsite, and also include a café, bar and event space.

Emma-Kate discusses how the food hub would like to be part of the solution in addressing food insecurity in the area:

“We’re 12 kilometres from the CBD, and it’s in a location where we know we can easily reach out to lower socioeconomic suburbs which are classified as food desserts, and for those areas to be able to be serviced to enable them to access really good quality, affordable food. We aim to develop educational programs including food literacy and cooking skills workshops, engaging with the community on a level where we’re helping people skill up for the future.”

Emma-Kate’s vision is to see similar models replicated elsewhere across Australia. She states, “we believe we can create a viable alternative for rural areas, post coal, to be able to start creating their own enterprises and food economy and we think this is the best model to do that.” There has been a growing movement of food hubs in the US and this is slowly gaining traction in Australia. Emma Kate believes “this has the potential to change communities across Australia to develop their own place based and unique ways of doing a food economy, which is highly distributed and networked and highly participatory, in terms of decision making and investment.”   Backed with the right systems and ethical principles, together with local government support, this model has the potential to be easily replicated around Australia.

In a food system where two supermarket giants dominate the retail market in Australia, it’s inspiring and exciting to see the Food Connect Foundation build a new model. A model that puts a fair price for farmers at the heart of it. A model that allows consumers to become active participants by supporting local businesses and local growers. A model that enhances connection and fosters a greater sense of community. As R. Buckminster Fuller states “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” May this hold true for Emma-Kate and the Food Connection Foundation.

Thor Svensen: Leader in creating a transparent and sustainable community food system

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” is the sage advice from Mahatma Gandhi. Many of us are familiar with this well known quote, yet how many of us choose to act on it? Thor Svensen, founder of Sovereign Foods, is one such change-maker, creating a transparent local food network in the heart of Brisbane.

Thor first caught my attention last year when I saw him present at the Building a Fairer Food System Community Symposium. Hearing him speak about Sovereign Foods, his drive and determination for creating a fairer food system was palatable.

The seed for Sovereign Foods was planted after researching a food politics honours project on local food. This led onto a journey of discovery about Australia’s food system, including an inability to personally source grains and pulses that weren’t imported, or hadn’t been sitting in warehouses for lengthy periods of time. Recognising the need for more transparency in the food system, Thor sought to create one himself.

In 2015, Sovereign Foods was registered as a business and from the onset had widespread support from already established co-operatives in Brisbane. Thor highlights “from the moment we started raising capital there was significant ownership from the community, who contributed to developing a healthy economy from the ground up.”

Sovereign Foods is a fantastic example of a fairer food system. All products are grown and produced within Australia in ecologically sound ways. Thor maintains excellent relationships with his farmers and producers and it is integral that they are all paid fairly. Products are sourced direct from the farm and these are distributed locally through established co-operatives or local farmers markets. Consumers pay a fair price for minimally processed grains and pulses, which are important staples in a health promoting diet.

Thor believes in “the idea that people have a right to govern their own food,” hence food sovereignty underpins the work of Sovereign Foods. The Declaration of Nyéléni states “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” At its core, Sovereign Foods has built a community that governs the way food is produced, traded and consumed.

Thor highlights that one of the great things about Sovereign Foods has been the:

“incredible growth in a few years and the great community around us who believe in what we do. Most people really care about why we do what we do.”

As supporters of an economically and socially just, and environmentally sustainable food system, food citizens may be a fitting description of Sovereign Foods customers.

It’s been a whirlwind journey so far and Thor has no intention of slowing down. A commercial kitchen has just been installed at their Moorooka warehouse. From there they plan on delivering a range of cooking classes, including fermenting workshops. The kitchen is also a fantastic space for professional chefs looking for a space to let. In addition, Thor states, “we’re aiming to value add produce and make our own retail line.” This is part of his five-year vision along with Sovereign Foods becoming a “hub for a lot of different initiatives, and having a number of collectives and people working out of this space.”

If you live in Brisbane and wish to support a transparent food system, you can find Sovereign Foods at Davies Park Market on Saturday’s and Northey Street City Farm Organic Market on Sunday’s. You can also stock up on their locally sourced and sustainable flours, grains, pulses and other pantry goods through their online shop. If you’re interested in getting involved in a community buyers group, or setting one up in your local area they are happy to help. Thor believes, “the co-op model works really well with Sovereign Foods and there are many benefits.” Through this model, Sovereign Foods “is trying to get as close to the end consumer as possible because co-ops don’t add a surcharge. They allow the best price for the grower and best price for the consumer.” For change-maker Thor, his ability to create a viable alternative to supermarkets, by cutting out retailers and keeping costs low is a huge success within our current global food system. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about Sovereign Foods.

Joel Orchard: Small scale farmer and big future thinker

What started out as an aspiration to be self sufficient, has evolved into a vision to grow and support young farmers into a profession that has enormous reward, alongside huge risk, immense challenges and a great deal of fulfillment. What’s more Joel can see the future in small-scale farming and has a vision for how we can shift to sustainable farming practices and develop local food systems, challenging the predominant industrialised model of agriculture.

With a name like Orchard perhaps he was destined to be connected deeply to the earth because his roots run deep. Joel grew up in a farming community in southern Victoria and worked on dairy farms in his youth. Despite these early connections to farming, he first started growing his own food while studying in Melbourne. His desire to grow enough food for himself and generate his own nourishment, led him on a journey up the east coast in search of enough land to make a livelihood out of it.

There were few opportunities for a young farmer wanting to start from scratch. He encountered numerous barriers including the significant capital to buy land and equipment, along with limited entry points for someone with no farming background and limited experience.

Now Joel rents one and a half acres at Mullumbimby Community Gardens, where he has a small scale diversified farm, harvesting a range of crops with up to 12-15 vegetable lines growing at a particular time. He does this alongside managing a beehive, making liquid fertilisers from the worm farms; minimising waste by using food scraps from a nearby organic retailer and is currently putting together a solar powered aquaponic system to sustain his off-grid farm. He had a flourishing Community Supported Agriculture scheme established with regular subscribers, gratified with the fruits of his labour. Sadly, after the torrential downpour the region experienced in April, his entire farm was completely submerged by water, which meant starting over, just when things were going well.

Truly a farmer’s worst nightmare, yet sadly a harsh reality that our famers face. Our weather is unpredictable and it’s been documented that Australia is set to experience even more extreme weather events as we face the uncertainties that climate change brings. This is even more reason for encouraging and supporting sustainable agriculture, also known as agroecology.

Running a small scale farm is nonetheless, just one hat that Joel wears at present. Recognising that the average age of farmers in Australia exceeds 56, the need to support new young farmers into farming is essential.

Joel highlights:

“Nothing is being done to stimulate or support young people to get into food production to support a rapidly growing population. I really want to be setting a framework in that they will operate in. Dynamic and diverse agricultural enterprises can respond to deal with climate change, another huge thing for young farmers.”

This is why Joel has established Future Feeders which provides young people wanting to get into farming with opportunities to learn. Partnering with a local training institute, alongside providing the land, equipment and established crops, Joel is giving interns an opportunity for collective skill development, minus the enormous barriers he faced when entering small scale farming.

This has also led to the formation of the Northern Rivers Young Farmers Alliance to facilitate peer support for young farmers in the area. This is a network of farmers under 40 who share the same values in ecological agriculture and sustainable land management. Joel praises the alliance, acknowledging there are “enormous benefits for a support network, however one challenge is that when farmers are already stretched to thin, it’s hard to find time to be involved in a food movement.” Despite these challenges, the group meets monthly and provides fantastic opportunities for support, collaboration and networking.

When asked about his five-year vision Joel would love to see small-scale farms in his local area form a collaborative farming network. Reflecting on the economic inefficiencies of small-scale farms Joel aspires to see “a range of emerging farmers form as a cooperative. Efficiencies go up because they become part of a bigger farm on the books, but they still benefit from being able to explore farming at their own autonomy.” It’s clear he’s given this a lot of thought because Joel states “through making the farm look bigger under a collective identify, it provides enormous benefits such as increased buying power for various inputs, as well as increasing efficiencies for distribution through accessing bigger markets. A network has a lot of advantages instead of doing all of that at the same time.”

When asked what consumers can do if they want to support a fairer food system, Joel imparted three wise words “know your farmer.” He emphasised how this makes it more real for the farmer and more authentic for the consumer. You can do this through farmers markets or by checking out local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models in your area. Joel praises the CSA model because it shares the risk between both the farmer and consumer.

He states:

“Another reality for farmers is that they get left holding all the risk – whether the crops succeed or fail, or whether the market changes. In a CSA model, customers become shareholders; stakeholders in the farm itself and the risk is distributed. Everyone benefits when the system is working really well. Everyone shares the load when things don’t go well such as natural disasters or pests.”

As our conversation nears a close, I am left feeling hugely inspired by Joel’s big future thinking. A farmer, activist and connector, Joel is harvesting the seeds for change, cultivating the youth of today to enter the most important job ever required.   A profession that cares and nurtures the land, alongside the greatest responsibility of all, feeding us.

Photo credit: Jo Immig

Deep Winter 2017: Sowing the seeds for our farming future

The air was cool and crisp, as I set out for Deep Winter just after sunrise, eager to meet some farmers and foster a connection with those responsible for one of the most important duties on this planet, feeding people. As I drove south to Bangalow, the winter sun warmed the car and my soul, ready for a day of learning, sharing and connecting with small-plot farmers.

The meeting was held on the North Coast, New South Wales, and was the third annual Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, running over two and half days. I arrived on the second day to meet the eclectic group of attendees who had all enjoyed the fabulous first day of local area farm tours including The Farm Byron Bay, Boon Luck Farm (Tyagarah), Mullumbimby Community Gardens, Future Feeders and Life Force Organics (Mullumbimby).

The tremendous A and I Hall in Bangalow was the setting for a day and a half of sharing stories, learning’s and wisdom amongst farmers, gardeners, educators, eaters and advocates.

Jambe, who represented the Arakwal people of the region, kicked off the proceedings with a Welcome to Country. Graciously leading us through a Connection to Country, Jambe also invited us to connect deeply to the earth and country beneath us, just like the plants and vegetables that grow to nourish and sustain us.

The speed dating introductions followed, allowing us the opportunity to connect to others present at the gathering. It was energetic and intense, and in a short space of time, I met an abundance of small-scale regenerative farmers from across Australia. Owning or leasing land of various sizes, these market gardeners and farmers were here for knowledge, inspiration and camaraderie, rebutting against the long held view in agriculture of ‘get big or get out.’

The sessions addressed a range of topics including land access and ownership, organic certification and peer guaranteed systems, food distribution models, building consumer and chef relationships, and learning’s from young farmers.

Attending the session on land access, ownership and share agreements, I heard about the challenges and barriers people face face wanting to become farmers or lease land for farming. These included the significant cost of land in or near urban areas; the different loan agreements for agricultural land compared with your standard home loan; and the complexities of leasing land off land owners. Given that land ownership was often a significant entry point barrier, many pursued leasing land. Despite the challenges this also presented, one audience member emphasised, “we’re striving for a model of co-operative farming that works with the land, the farmer, and the community”, highlighting some of the many benefits of this model.

If the youth are the hope of our future then young farmers are the hope of our farms! In a profession where the majority of farmers in Australia are reaching retirement age, young farmers are the life-blood of the land. Each of the four farmers on the panel in the afternoon session had a different story to share, but the key theme that emerged was the sheer drive and determination of all who sat before me. Like any young person starting out in a new profession, time is taken to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in order to make it work. This requires substantial commitment, and is often supplemented by juggling paid work alongside establishing a farm. There is also significant capital outlay required to start farming and many accessed grants and/ or crowd funding platforms for essential items, often just beyond their reach. All were quite open about the turmoil that comes from enduring financial struggle, either in the beginning, or after losing crops through various weather events. Yet the love of the land, the food and the people is what lights the fire in their belly, keeps their hands dirty and their hearts full.

On my drive home with the sun setting to the west, a glorious red splashed across the sky leaving its mark on the day, and I reflected how Deep Winter left its mark on me. I felt privileged to meet so many inspiring farmers growing fresh, healthy food sustainably. Small-scale diversified farming provides so many benefits to the individual, community, soil, land, environment and plants and animals, that transitioning back to this way of sustainable farming is essential for the long term health of people and the planet.

We, as consumers have the power to change things for the better in our food system. Buy local. Support small farmers where you can. Check out your farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes. Thank your farmer for growing your food.  If you can’t do it in person, can you connect electronically?   Many farmers are on social media and value the genuine connection they have with with consumers. Farming is truly a labour of love and for that we must be eternally grateful.

Note: Deep Winter wrapped up on Sunday after yoga, a session on marketing for farmers and a recap which I was unable to attend due to family commitments.

Photo credit: Joel Orchard (Future Feeders)

Book Review: ‘Food’

There is a complexity and fragility of our global food system that is hard to comprehend for most of us in the Western world. When we walk into a supermarket we are spoilt for choice. We have pretty much anything and everything available to us in a convenient location, at an affordable price, at almost any time of the day, all year round. Sure, this has many perks and I’m guilty of taking it for granted just as much as the next person. But does anyone ever stop to pause for a moment and think about how that food has ended up on our shelves, and subsequent plates? The complete disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from is where Clapp begins, in her fascinating book, Food.

Akin to its title, Food unpacks the world food economy in a simple and concise manner. Clapp takes the reader on a journey through the forces that have shaped the global food economy, highlighting the significant impact these changes have brought upon nations, farmers, consumers and the environment.

Clapp covers everything from farm and agricultural subsidies, import and export tariffs, trade liberalisation, roles that international development agencies play in the global food economy and world trade rules such as the Agreement of Agriculture. Despite the heavy nature of some of these topics, the great thing about this book is that Clapp covers them in such an accessible way.

Food is vital for nourishment and our survival, yet food has been commodified and is traded on the world market like any other resource. One of the most fascinating parts is the comprehensive historical overview of agricultural trade policies which unveils why and how our world food economy is the way it is today. I want to share with you a simple summation of Clapp’s narrative on the unintended consequences of an unbalanced system.

Over the last century we have experienced a significant shift in the way we grow, produce and consume our food. The industrialised model of agriculture (think monoculture planting, chemical inputs such as pesticides, and GMOs including hybrid seeds) was championed in developed countries. Mass production of food ensued, inadvertently resulting in surpluses, culminating in rich countries looking for ways to ‘dispose’ of this excess food. This prompted new agricultural trade (and food aid) policies, which meant surpluses could be exported to those most in need at the time. More world trade rules were set, and trade liberalisation opened many new markets for rich countries. Subsequently, developing countries food imports increased, and so too did their dependency and reliance on newly acquired foods and tastes. In some instances local production also decreased. Now throw in food price spikes and market volatility (which is linked to the finalicialisation of food, also analysed by Clapp), developing countries suddenly struggled to afford food imports due to skyrocketing prices. The social consequences that have resulted from large scale, export oriented industrial agriculture, are enormous. The food security risks for many countries in this scenario are incomprehensible. International agricultural trade and food aid policies have in many ways, been tied to rising global hunger which is inequitable and unjust.

Food outlines how government bodies, private foundations, financial actors, transnational corporations (TNCs), investors and traders, have established new rules, practices and norms which have shaped the world food economy. These big players have significant power and heed a certain amount of control in the global food system, leaving little for the farmers and consumers.

It’s not all doom and gloom, although it can certainly feel like it at times. The book finishes on a positive note and demonstrates how there has been an emergence of movements to challenge the dominant global food system. Ecological and social movements have the possibility to transform the world food economy, affirms Clapp. Additionally, producers and consumers also have a role in shaping the future of the global food economy, along with political and economic actors. Possible options for an alternative food system are explored including, Fairtrade, food justice and food sovereignty.

If you consider yourself a concerned citizen, food activist, or just someone who wants a greater understanding of their food and where it comes from, then this book is for you. I was fortunate enough to access Food through my local library – you should check out if you can too. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Serving up sustainability on a plate

Please bear with me for a moment. I’m going to throw two questions at you and I want you to take some time to think through them, if only for a few seconds.

The first question is, do you think you eat healthy?

It’s a broad question I know. And the way you answer it will depend on a number of things. Do you know what eating for health looks like? What do you believe constitutes a healthy ‘diet’? Where do you access your information on nutrition and health? Is good health something you value? Is eating healthy important to you?

If you answered no, what is stopping you? Do you aspire to eating healthier but find it hard due to various factors such as time, cost, access, availability, taste etc.? What if it was easier to do so? What if the default option was a healthy choice?

Globally, countries develop dietary guidelines and national food guides to help inform the general population on what encompasses a healthy diet. This is informed by rigorous scientific research and the latest evidence. When Australia updated their dietary guidelines in 2011 (released in 2013) it was based on a report that compiled 55,000 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature and a comprehensive food modelling system. The role of the dietary guidelines is to provide official evidence based information and advice on what to eat for good health. The guidelines then underpin interventions and policy development and ideally, should be widely disseminated to the public.

Based on this, a healthy diet is one that is high in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain cereals, has moderate amounts of reduced fat milk and dairy products and meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes/beans and nuts and seeds and minimal amounts of processed foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar.

And here’s the second question, do you think you eat sustainably?

Once again, the way you answer will depend on various things. What is your understanding of a sustainable diet? How important is it to you that what you eat has minimal impact on the environment? If you knew the answers to these questions, would you prioritise the environment over things like taste, convenience and cost?

A sustainable diet is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “[t]hose diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources”.

In short, we know that there are some foods or farming practices that use a lot of energy, water and land, have a high ecological impact and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy carry a high environmental footprint, processed foods are resource heavy, and a red flag is also being waved for many fish stocks.

Are you still with me? I’m sure for some of you making choices about what you eat for environmental reasons may be a new concept and not one you’re really ready to consider.

What if I told you that a healthy diet actually aligns with a sustainable diet? The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) created the food and environment double pyramid which demonstrates what a nutritionally sound diet is alongside one that has minimal environmental impact. You can check out the double pyramid here. The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) is also doing a great deal of work in this area and outlines characteristics of a diet that is good for health and the planet. What these both show, is that health promoting foods are also the ones that have little impact on the environment.

It’s clear that the evidence is mounting on what a healthy and sustainable diet is, yet government action is slow. Some countries have started incorporating sustainability into their food based dietary guidelines as a way of informing people about what a sustainable diet looks like. Sweden, Brazil, Qatar and Germany are trail blazing with forward thinking governments, highlighting integrated dietary approaches that align healthy diets with those that have less environmental impact. You can check out a good summary of their recommendations here.

Both Australia and the United States tried to integrate sustainability messages into the most recent update of their national dietary guidelines. There were quite a lot of similarities across both countries so I’m going to briefly surmise the process and outcome.  Both appointed an official group of experts to lead the process. Both compiled the latest evidence available and released extensive reports. Both acknowledged the links between health and the environment and sustainability recommendations were included in the draft report.  A consultation process with the public then ensued. There was considerable backlash from many groups, notably industry, and both countries removed sustainability from their dietary guidelines (note: it is mentioned in the Appendix of Australia’s final report).  A clear message emerged. Sustainability was outside the scope of dietary guidance and the focus should remain on nutrition and health.

I am well aware that aligning health and environmental objectives presents many challenges and here are some of them:

  1. Australian’s on average, eat a lot of meat. The OECD figures tell us that as a whole, the average Australian consumed 93 kilograms of meat in 2013 (interestingly ranked higher than the United States). This is a lot of meat. It could be reasonable to say that as a nation, we have a deep seeded history and culture with eating meat. The good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement.
  2. In 2015 Australia’s number one agricultural export was beef.  As incomes rise in developing countries, these emerging economies are adopting Western-style diets and increasingly consuming more meat and dairy Therefore, a huge market is opening up for countries like Australia who have a thriving livestock industry. This presents us with enormous economic implications at a national level if (when?) consumers embrace more plant based diets.
  3. We know that information alone doesn’t change behaviour. There is so much information (and misinformation) out there about healthy eating, and yet diet-related diseases are on the rise, particularly overweight and obesity. Would including sustainability in our national food guide change people’s behaviour? Probably not. But what it does say is that our government takes the issue seriously and is committed to doing something about it. And as I highlighted earlier, dietary guidelines underpin program and policy development which has far reaching implications for our food system.
  4. The food industry are powerful players and we know they hold a lot of sway when it comes to influencing governmental decisions that potentially affect their profit margins.
  5. Lastly, while I sit here and advocate for change, I’m mindful of the farmers who make a living from farming cattle. Including sustainability messages in dietary guidelines, will inevitably, have a knock on effect for them. We need to be coming up with solutions to these potential social and economic issues, because maintaining our production and consumption patterns is undeniably, unsustainable.

The challenges are great, but the risks are greater. Once again, I want you to take a few moments to ponder this.

What if we approached things a little differently? What if instead of trying to change knowledge, attitudes and beliefs around sustainability, we made it easier for people to make the necessary changes? What if we built a structure that enabled everyone to live a healthy and sustainable life? This is where food policy change is integral in creating environments that promote and support individual and ecological health. This would mean radical changes – but isn’t that what we need?

One thing we know for certain is that the planet’s resources are finite. Yet we live and consume in a way that takes little regard for them. It’s time to deliver integrated guidance and embed health and sustainability goals. It’s time to nurture an essential shift in what, and how we eat. It’s time our government committed to a healthy, sustainable and fair future. It’s time for shared policy frameworks that address health, the environment, social and economic objectives together. It’s time for an overarching body that looks at the entire food and farming system as a whole, and not just in silos. Whose with me on this?

Connecting the dots on a joined up food policy

There have been many calls to action in the past few months for integrated food policy. Harvard has just released a Blueprint for National Food Strategy, which provides a plan for action for creating a national food strategy in the US. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems are undertaking a three year process of research, reflection and citizen engagement to determine what a Common Food Policy looks like in the EU.

So what is a joined up food policy? Why do I care about it? And why should we have one? You see the thing with food policy is that it affects us all. Our survival depends on food and for this reason it’s integral that we have policies in place that preserve that survival. The challenge is that food policy is not solely concerned with ensuring we all have safe and adequate food available to us at an affordable price. If it was, then the food policies we have currently are sufficiently doing their job because most of us in Australia are food secure and have access to plentiful food which is reasonably priced. (Note: while the majority of Australian’s may experience a high level of food security, one in twenty adults reported they had gone without food in the previous 12 months at the time of the last national health survey, and one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced food insecurity in 2012-13).

Yet consumption is only one piece of the pie. As you can see above, the food system comprises every process from “paddock to plate” or “farm to fork”. Therefore food policy is concerned with policies that affect production, processing, transport, trade, consumption and waste.

One of the great challenges is that the government departments who are responsible for policies to do with food sit in silos independently of each other and have their own policy priorities. The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources develops and implements policies that foster competitive, profitable and sustainable agricultural, food, fishing and forestry industries. Its policy priorities include facilitating agricultural productivity alongside increasing trade and market access, while ensuring sustainable resource management. The Department of Environment and Energy develops and implements policies to protect and conserve the environment, water and heritage and promote climate action. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for providing advice on trade, foreign and development policy to government. One of their trade priorities is to pursue further trade liberalisation. The Department of Health is responsible for health policies that promote good nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease.

I have merely provided a snapshot of some of the many government departments who have policies in place that affect who eats what, when, how and with what consequences (Lang et al, 2009). However, it’s clear that priorities are widespread and diverse. From environmental and economic, to health and social – is one more important that the other? Should some priorities take precedence over others?

Currently it is fair to say that a macroeconomic lens frames the development of a lot of food policy in Australia. The National Food Plan which was developed in 2013 (and was subsequently archived when the Liberal National Party took over the seat of power), was Australia’s most recent attempt at a joined up food policy. It had four policy priorities and boosting agricultural productivity and expanding exports globally were paramount to the plan. For a fantastic overview of the history, development and key priorities of Australia’s Food Plan, I recommended checking out pages 79-82 in the Blueprint for a National Food Strategy.

It’s important to acknowledge that the image presented above is an extremely simplistic representation of a complex process. Food policy is often referred to as contested space and is as much about the actions of governments as it is the inactions (Harper et al, 2009). The interactions that take place between state, supply chain and civil society actors set the stage for the production of food policy. Just like actors on the big screen, they all play their own part, some of whom receive more of the limelight and accolades than others. These actors play a key role in food governance and their level of power and influence in contributing to the policy direction varies considerably dependent on a number of factors. It’s been highlighted elsewhere that supply chain actors possess a lot of power in the policy making process (Carey et al, 2015) and greatly influence how policy is formed beyond the state (Cullerton et al, 2016).

As you can see, food policy is multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary which makes coordination complex. Yet this fragmented approach often results in dealing with issues in isolation without looking at the bigger picture. While agriculture provides food, it is also a major contributor to greenhouse gases, agrochemical pollution, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. Despite the presence of a safe and abundant food supply in Australia, approximately 31 per cent of the burden of disease is largely attributed to preventable diet related diseases that cost in excess of $27 billion, 36 per cent of the national budget expended on health. Climate change presents a significant challenge for Australia’s food supply. Many are concerned that climate change will negatively impact agricultural production, thus future export growth, resulting in economic implications nationally, highlighting the externalised costs of food policy.

The need for a joined up food policy is emphasised by the necessity to control and reduce the incidence of diet related diseases, alongside delivering an environmentally sustainable food system that fosters social inclusion; while at the same time retaining a viable industry which includes trade, production, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing. One way of doing this is to establish a lead agency that coordinates the development of national food policy. This was attempted for the National Food Plan; however, representation was grossly inadequate and limited to 13 members. The Blueprint for a National Food Strategy highlights the need for a principal agency to manage engagement and action, and coordinate the enormous task of integrating environmental, health, social and economic goals. I believe that if a national food advisory council was established it could frame policy options in a more integrated fashion to contribute to a healthy, equitable, economically viable and resilient food system . Certainly it’s time that we connected the dots.

What do you think would work?  Let me know in the comments below.