One of the best ways to understand another society or culture is through the ways it produces and consumes food. It offers us a first glimpse into ritual, values and custom. In one way it is a mirror of what has been and what might be. This insight or reflection is as true for us as any one else. So when we think about how we produce, sell and consume food; do we like what we see in the mirror?
Shrimp on the barbie or fast food couch potatoes?
For many of us the current images are disturbing. Producers seem to struggle to realise decent returns for their efforts, food processors are giving up on rural Australia and moving off shore, the sales process both internally and internationally is in the control of a powerful few and our consumer waistlines have expanded to unhealthy proportions. All of this has been built on a system that relied on cheap oil (except it isn’t anymore), seemingly endless fresh water (now limited), and fertile soils (predicted to largely disappear globally by 2060!).
If all of this is true, then its time to change and the change must be substantive, especially given the rising demand for food in the next few decades. Simply tinkering at the margins will not be sufficient nor will reliance on ‘business as usual.’ This scale of the change required cannot be determined just by letting the market decide as the oligarchies (rule by the few) that dominate our current system have no intention of acting in any way other than their own self interest. Nor should we expect them to. The failure of the current green paper for a National Food Plan in my view fails to even begin to address the scope of change required.
Leaving that aside, outlined below are five points that might be worthy of debate and conversation around the kitchen table – if such rituals still exist!
Its time to move beyond trade liberalisation and the green revolution. It is clear that there are now many aspects of our current system that are near, or at, limits. For instance some suggest that if the world demand for protein continues on its current course, 2/3rds of the worlds grain will be required to feed livestock by 2020. Really!! All of this of course must be understood within the context that global grain storage is at historic lows. As food becomes more expensive most nations will naturally regard food security as a sovereign risk and will act accordingly. Just like the Doha round on free trade, the reality is that the technology based ‘green revolution’ has run out of steam and globally production has largely been static or declining in the last few years.
Restorative agriculture – production at no cost to the planet. In this future world, success and long term prosperity will come from systems (restorative agriculture) where production is achieved without heavy reliance on oil based fertilisers, overuse of water systems or continually mining of soils. Many of these systems operate on a resilience approach that requires production diversity rather than an obsession with large scale monoculture. If the humans of 2050 are to have any chance of feeding themselves then no longer can we compromise production systems at their expense. Sadly, except in a few isolated cases, Australia seems to be quite a long way behind in understanding and embracing the body of practice evident elsewhere that proves such systems do work.
Eating is an agricultural act – a consumer revolution is required. Our current food system is driving a slow form of mass suicide. Type 2 diabetes and other problems of overweight are both endemic and overwhelming. The only hope is that a new way of thinking, a new philosophy, might emerge to counteract that. This will undoubtedly contain a view that less is more, meat must be only occasional, taste is more important than visual perfection and that an addiction to salt and sugar is something to be cured. As this philosophy takes hold the entire food system that has driven it will need to be reprogrammed. The likelihood that food costs will shift from historically low cost to something approaching 40% of household budgets may well hasten that process.
A future that is diverse and distributed not centralised and mechanistic. The structures and systems that were developed in the last 100 years (large mechanistic, centralised entities), were created because the cost of managing and transferring information in any other way was simply too high. Now this is not true. Already we are seeing the emergence of distributed networks that have faster knowledge flows, lower transaction costs and more raid rates of adaptation than conventional entities. These new networks are creating new distribution systems that are not only designed from the customer backwards but they also have the ability to outperform the economies of scale systems designed on a standardised and specialised model. Think how online shopping is hollowing out traditional retailing to get the point. These new ways to market represent a real opportunity for rural communities to rebuild the community fabric that once made them strong.
Overthrowing the $1/litre for milk genie. Paradoxically as our society begins to treat food as more that just an economic good for sale and exchange, as farmers realise that there is life beyond the farm gate and that it is their business where what they produce goes, profitability and prosperity will be returned to the system. In our current model the focus on ‘unit’ cost rather than ‘whole system’ cost drives and does not count unnecessary waste and penalises those that can least afford it. It reduces the entire system to some kind of anonymous factory based process devoid of dignity and the passion that is the essence of great food. Connection will be everything and any farmer using simple applications like iherd (iherd.com.au) will if not now, then very soon, be able to track exactly where every piece of their produce ends up anywhere on the globe.
The coming food renaissance.
While the challenges are substantive, all the technologies and proven case studies that show that a better way is possible already exist. What is required is a new will and a philosophy that properly respects the food we create. If we make the right choices and as food futures become central to the agenda of every society then finally agriculture and rural communities will offer young people – and those that are young at heart – an exciting value proposition with which to engage. This is truly a time for a food renaissance. It is not a time to have a crisis of imagination or to retreat to the sidelines in the vain hope that someone else will find the way.
The above notes are based on a conversation about food futures at the 2012 Bundanon Food Festival