February is the month of the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne; and over 13-14 February thousands of Melbournians and visitors came to the Green Market at Birrarung Marr, as part of the Festival’s Big Weekend.
Sustain was delighted to be part of the proceedings on both days. On Saturday 13th February, Sustain Executive Director Dr Nick Rose was the MC for the Fair Food Panel, co-hosted by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and Pip Magazine, to launch its special Fair Food issue. On Sunday 14th February, Nick Rose and Sustain Chair Kelly Donati were amongst 200 invited guests to the ‘Great Local Lunch‘, a fabulous celebration of local produce and stories of innovation, creativity and inspiration from producers and community organisers from in and around Melbourne.
Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis was his usual ebullient self, keeping guests delighted and entertained for two hours.
At the bottom of this page is the text of the short introduction that Dr Rose gave to set the scene for the panel discussion.
The panellists were:
- Mariam Issa, who came to Australia as a refugee from Somalia in the late 1990s and has built an amazing local community around food in her home community garden in Brighton.
She tells her story in her autobiography, A Resilient Life, and she shared with the audience on Saturday her insights about the power of food to bring people together over food. She described how the name for her community food project, RAW (Resilient and Aspiring Women), came to her in a dream:
“I saw that RAW spelt backwards means WAR, and I realised that we have a lot of war going on inside ourselves. When I stopped that WAR, I became a Resilient and Aspiring Woman. Then I invited the community to my backyard, where I co-founded, with two other women, the RAW community garden. We have many fruit trees, including seven trees as a fence of olive trees. In the Koran, the olive tree is said to be a tree of neither the East nor the West. It’s a tree that brings people together and creates peace. We start with food, and food is interconnected to everything.”
- Miranda Sharp, Founder and Director of Melbourne Farmers Markets, which dates its history to 2002. Authentic farmers markets have been a powerhouse of the local food movement for more than a decade in Victoria and Australia. As Miranda says:
“Together we create an extraordinary atmosphere, activity level, collaboration and energy level about local food in one place. As individuals, we try our hardest to make a difference, but together, it’s an extraordinary thing. I’m incredibly proud that just this morning over 100 Victorian small businesses, mainly from regional areas, were selling autonomously, entirely on their own, as price setters, creating a fabulous neighbourly and sociable environment.”
- Guy Grossi, chef and restaurateur, proprietor of Grossi Florentino Restaurants, spoke of the importance of culture, tradition and history – especially Italian culture – in understanding the meaning and importance of food and cuisines:
“The food is a huge connection to our culture. At the moment we’re working on our second Tomato Festival, which is to celebrate a strong tradition in Italian culture: to gather the tomatoes when they’re at their best, squeeze them into bottles lovingly and caringly, and have that produce through the months when you can’t get fresh tomatoes. This is really an act of love, bringing families and communities together, and enabling them to understand where the food they’re eating has actually come from.”
- Caterina Cinnani, President of the National Union of Workers, talked about the vital role that farm and food workers play in making sure that Australians have access to food every day, and the often very harsh working conditions that they are forced to endure, which has led to the launch of the Fair Food campaign:
“Fair Food for us is about economic justice and fairness, not just for workers, but also for farmers and producers. The way it works at the moment, is that Coles and Woolworths, with 80% of the market share, put pressure downwards. You have farmers, producers and distributors all competing with each other on price and on quality. That pressure gets put down again on workers…The Fair Food campaign is about uniting all of the food supply chain, from where it’s picked, to where it gets to the table. All together, we can put pressure back on where the power lies – with Coles and Woolworths – and creating a more equal distribution of wealth.”
Caterina also spoke of efforts by the NUW to support the establishment of a worker-owned food processing co-operative at the former Ingham’s turkey factory in Aldinga, South Australia:
“We believe in alternative economic models. So when Inghams pulled out of its Aldinga operation, they left workers without jobs and producers without a market. So we’re trialling an alternative model, a worker-producer co-operative, one that isn’t about profit, to make decisions together, equally, to produce and supply food for their community in an ethical way.”
- Tammi Jonas, co-proprietor of Jonai Farms and President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, explained first what food sovereignty – the philosophical and political foundation of the Australian Fair Food movement – meant to her:
“Food sovereignty is about the right to food and the right to collectively determine our own food and agriculture systems. An example is where the community in Castlemaine expressed their opposition to the construction of a 24-shed, 1.2 mn chicken ‘poultry farm’, but they lost, because the planning scheme allows that kind of intensive agriculture.”
Tammi also spoke of Community Supported Agriculture, and what that model of direct connection between producers and eaters offers to the Fair Food movement:
“Community Supported Agriculture started in Japan in the 1970s with something called the ‘Teikei principles. It’s a subscription-based system, a solidarity economy between farmers and eaters. At the Urgenci conference in China last November, I met farmers from 25 countries operating CSAs in all different ways, and heard amazing stories of solidarity between farmers and eaters, especially following the 2011 tsunami in Japan. This is a model we want to see expand in Australia.”
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Beyond the Supermarket – Dr Nick Rose
Last August, I had the privilege and pleasure of being on a panel investigative journalist Malcolm Knox’s, as he was launching his excellent book, Supermarket Monsters: The Price of Coles’ and Woolworths’ Dominance.
In this book, Knox charts the history of Coles and Woolworths, how they came to be as big and powerful as they are, and what the consequences of that power are for Australians. He makes the point that, ‘on average, every Australian man, woman and child spends $100 a week on food, merchandise, liquor, hardware or petrol at an outlet owned by either of these two companies; and that ‘together they take in more than 70 cents of every dollar spent in Australian supermarkets.’
The reason they have become so large and ubiquitous is because, as he puts it, ‘the modern corporation is programmed for creative destructive, and the strongest can no sooner be diverted from its destination than could the Terminator.’ Knox quotes law professor Joel Bakan, who wrote in his 2005 book The Corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power, that ‘The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.’
What are some of the destructive consequences of the dominant role the supermarkets play in the Australian food system? The proliferation of a cheap food culture; and with it, an exodus of farmers from the land, and the exploitation of farm and food system workers. The constant promotion and discounting of processed foods, leading to a huge rise in dietary-related ill-health and disease. The disappearance of economic, cultural and biodiversity in our retail environments, replaced by monotonous shopping centres and products that all look and feel the same, wherever you are in the country.
In discussing how we move our food system Beyond the Supermarket, we need to be mindful of the enormity of the challenge, due to the concentration of wealth and power that the duopoly represents. And this is not just about the food system. The supermarkets serve as a proxy for a national and global economy that is dominated by mega corporations and financial institutions. In my view, the key and defining feature of our era is extreme inequality. According to Oxfam, as of 2015, the richest 62 people on the planet now have more wealth than the poorest 3.6 bn. In Australia, the richest 1% of the population own more wealth than the poorest 60%. Globally, the richest 1% hold more wealth than everybody else combined.
When we talk and think about sustainability, we need to realise that we will never have a sustainable future with these grotesque levels of inequality. The countries that are the most unequal – especially the United States, and especially Australia – are also the most polluting and the greatest per capita contributors to climate change. There is a necessary connection between social justice and environmental justice: they are two sides of the same coin. If we don’t have a fair country, and a fair world, we won’t have a liveable one.
What we’re faced with, right now, is the challenge of the Great Work. Philosopher Thomas Berry puts it like this:
“The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”
Being present to the planet in a ‘mutually beneficial manner’ also means being present to each other – as people, as communities and as nations – in ways that are compassionate, and not exploitative. We need to move beyond the era of fear and greed, suspicion and mistrust, violence and self-interest. We need to imagine a socially just and sustainable world, hold that image in our minds and our hearts, and then find ways of calling it into being. We need to bring about a transformation, a shift of individual and collective consciousness, that opens pathways to a truly sustainable future, in which all of us can thrive and fulfil our potential.
So what transformations are needed to bring about a fairer food system for everyone? And can that fair food system help bring about the fairer and liveable world that all of us here want? That’s what we going to explore with our five panellists, each of whom, in their own spheres, is making an outstanding contribution to the development of a food system we can be proud of.