Imagine living on an island, albeit a big one, but an island nevertheless where almost everything you need has to travel across vast oceans. You can grow food and raise livestock, but most of the country is desert, and the arable land is merely a thin coastal strip. Water is limited and the one percent of the agricultural land that is irrigated produces 25 percent of the country’s food.
Millions of people compete for the same space. They pave over the prime agricultural soil, carve out quarter-acre house lots, and build “middle-class” homes that sell for $600,000 each. Droughts and wildfires alternate with floods and typhoons while the billions of people who inhabit your far northern flank covet your land and agricultural skills with a hungry lust.
Welcome to Australia.
I was invited to Melbourne – a delightful modern metropolis with a dazzling array of eclectic architecture – to render what meager wisdom I had on the subject of promoting local food security and national food sovereignty. A public lecture sponsored by a national philanthropy, a seminar at a city university, and a workshop for the State of Victoria Health Department, were my venues. The audiences were a composite of food system activists not atypical to the United States – academics, young urban food warriors, and mid-level public service professionals. Each event had its own air of excitement, leavened perhaps by a sense of anticipation and joy that playfully marks food audiences everywhere.
My message? You have a choice between the global industrial food system and a new, emerging food system that is undergirded by a respect for locality, sustainability, and equity. The only choice you don’t have is to not choose. You can be an obedient food consumer and eat what they hand out, or you can muscle up some moxie and set the table to your own specifications. What else could a “can do” Yankee say to a country which appears to be as dominated by Big Food and the global marketplace as the U.S?
The Aussies were ready to listen. The most recent drought had been so bad that the University of Melbourne had sent out teams of mental health professionals to help psychologically distressed farmers. As if incurring the wrath of God, Australia’s unrelenting dryness was soon followed by floods that caused $800 million in agricultural damage in New South Wales alone. A just-released government report revealed that 61% of Australian adults were obese or overweight (one in four high school students were obese). Mining and energy interests, housing development, and countries as far away as Qatar were devouring Oz farmland. And if farmers weren’t taking enough hits, the nation’s duopolistic supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, were, according to numerous analyses, using “predatory practices” to drive down farm prices.
But when the Australians are ready to change they get all their oars in the water at the same time. The Labor government headed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard was working on the development of a national food plan, and the State of Victoria Health Department had announced a commitment of millions of dollars for the development of numerous local health plans that included the development of 12 local food policy councils. The latter effort was labeled by the Herald Sun, Australia’s largest daily newspaper, as a “massive, multi-million-dollar pilot project for councils (larger municipal jurisdictions) to come up with local food policies.”
The National Food Plan is, in the words of National Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, a response to the fact that Australia has “no overarching food policy framework.” If you live in Canada, the U.S. or the United Kingdom, that charge will sound familiar. Clearly we would all benefit from an “integration of the whole food supply chain from paddock to plate.”
Australia’s Green Party, though in a distinctly minority position, has vigorously stated that it wants food policies that promote “food sovereignty, sustainability, and ensure that the social conditions of the people who produce food are just and fair, and promote equal access to fresh, affordable food.” They fervently attack the country’s current policies that undermine food sovereignty by valuing short term mining and gas extraction over agricultural land and water. These policies, according to the Greens, devalue local food systems and communities, and sustain a distorted domestic food market dominated by a handful of large corps. Hmmm. Where have I heard these arguments before?
As a sign of where local food policy might be headed, I checked in with Cultivating Community, a 17-staff, not-for-profit located in Melbourne. They develop edible classrooms, start community gardens, organize composting and recycling projects, and conduct “food politics advocacy.” Their purpose is “to create a fair, secure and resilient food future.” Michael Gourlay, the recently appointed executive director, told me that since he was new to the community food field, he had already read my books (now being actively distributed in Australia) to prepare him for the job. I suspect he’ll go far.
Another organization key to Australia’s food rebellion is the Food Alliance, a kind of academic and government hybrid that was established to “analyze and advocate for evidence-informed politics and regulatory reform that enable food security and healthy eating in the [State of] Victorian Population.” While not language that makes me grab my pitchfork and storm the barricades, it does represent the kind of initiative that can build the necessary bridges between research, change agents, and government. Their strategic plan is painstakingly outlined and bulleted, and every word shows evidence of hours of deep meditation, but it does vibrate with a restrained urgency that shows promise of promoting long-term food system change.
The threats to Australia’s food security are both internal and external. The symptoms are the same as those in every other industrialized nation. And the Aussies are taking a good long look in the mirror for the answers as they cultivate their inner food rebel.