Will reconnecting food producers to consumers save our food system?

Walking through the Union Square Greenmarket in New York helped me reflect on a couple of thoughts I’ve held about the food system in Australia. If you haven’t watched Fair Food produced by the Field Institute, these are a few of my key takeaways from the doco:

1. The Australian food system is broken

2. About 300 farmers exit the system each month (often driven by debt and other factors within the breaking system)

3. We need to accept and pay what is the fair price for the cost of producing food that we buy

I won’t go into detail on the first two points because this is in motion – from the undue influence of our supermarket duopoly, banks placing farmers under receivership because of their debt risk, the queue of foreign investors waiting to buy Australian agricultural land/producers/co-ops, unfairly subsidised global food value chains that extend into Australia, the challenges in upgrading Australia’s antiquated transport infrastructure to bring food from point A to B to over-regulated food safety laws.

But if for one moment, we could set aside structural, policy, governance and market inequities, I would like to ask if we could fix these problems through a consumer-led revolution.

The Fair Food doco features interviews with different small scale producers and marketplaces and one often repeated point is around how we have lost our connection with food and no one really knows/cares about where our food comes from. Walk into any major supermarket chain and think about the home brands, unidentifiable labels of country of origin or labels saying “Made with Australian and imported ingredients” (which doesn’t say which countries it comes from). I don’t think the average consumer gives much thought to this.

If you were at the Union Square Greenmarket, you will find a map that outlines exactly where the food is grown/produced from for each stall and information about how buying local supports farming communities. You can find boxes of ugly, misshapen vegetables and unwaxed fruit that you can rummage through and pick that isn’t put in plastic bags and sorted to the same sizes. I have a photo of carrots the size of my arm with boil-like blisters on them. Not exactly what you would see at the supermarket or the Eveleigh Farmers Market.

Buying local has also spurred a surrounding movement that supports eating local produce. Sweetgreen and Dig Inn are just two examples of places on the same block of my hotel selling affordable, nutritious, local and seasonal food that is healthy and delicious. I would hope we can apply the same ethos in feeding people in Australia to help us reconnect us to what local food is.

As we move into the new year, I wish we will recognise that paying a fair price for food is necessary to support and maintain Australia’s agricultural industry. At a recent event, I spoke to an agricultural postgrad student who said the enrolment in agricultural undergraduate studies has shrunk so significantly that the program is being threatened.

Are we feeding the disillusion of a future generation of would-be farmers through the choices we make as consumers? I hope we still have time to fix this.


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