agriculture, environment, sustainability

Whole Foods Market, will you please come to Australia?

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Sustainable Agriculture Service Australia

While tourists were forming queues to visit the major attractions in New York, I had unashamedly made three trips to one supermarket to read food labels, photograph displays, feel and eat my way through it and walked away with a sense of astonishment every time.

Whole Foods Market [which now belongs to Amazon] restored my faith in retail supermarkets by abiding to its ethos of selling products that are sustainably sourced and responsibly produced – or what they call, sustainable agriculture.

By this definition, this wouldn’t be a supermarket that has one dollar milk or bread deals. It isn’t a supermarket that has Tim Tams or large bags of chips on sale at every corner. Or a supermarket where you will find food that has been produced with no clear country of origin.

Whole Foods Market is the opposite of everything we have in Australia’s supermarkets – with the exception of About Life which has done an incredible job and have been rewarded with their expansion in Australia. There are many reasons why I am in love with Whole Foods Market but I will talk about my top five:

Healthy eating

Healthy eating is what drives customers to Whole Foods. We’re not talking about the price denominator approach that Australian food retailers take – “ground beef for x dollars, now that’s a bargain”. We don’t need celebrity chefs to recommend what we should make for dinner – although that friendly reminder about what is in season is useful. Whole Foods Market educates shoppers on their food choices – why eating this is good for my body and what you need to get a healthy meal going. I see posters in-store everywhere that talks about the relationship between my body and the food that I eat. It makes me more aware as a consumer about the choices I make and why they are good for me.

Educating me about food

Fruit and veg have a rating system that tells me how it has been responsibly grown. They have a Good, Better or Best rating system that makes me aware if food has been produced with minimal impact on the environment – from farming practices, the use of renewable energy, waste minimisation to welfare.

It has seafood that is Marine Stewardship Certified, wild-caught or farmed to specific standards that does not use antibiotics or has added preservatives. Meat that is antibiotic, growth hormone free and welfare rated.

Every label and standard is clearly displayed and explained simply so I know what I am putting into my body and I can vote with my wallet.

Know where your food comes from locally

Instead of seeing a label on my food where it has been centrally packed and processed, Whole Foods Market shows me where and who has grown my produce.

Beyond rewarding local producers, it extends my relationship with a producer who is a real person/community — not a central processing plant. This makes me more aware about seasons and exposes my tastebuds to unique characteristics for any local produce.

They care about their producers

Whole Foods Market works with producers to meet their sustainability requirements and runs a loans program to help them expand and grow their business. I love how they have recognised their symbiotic relationship within the supply chain and acknowledged how retailers and producers need to work hand-in-hand to feed consumers. I love how they see producers as part of their community.

Quality, not quantity

From fresh to pre-cooked food, every prepared food aisle was laden with beautiful, clean and fresh food I could put a meal together with. I could weigh and buy the exact quantity I needed. Whether it was just one piece of grilled salmon or a small cup of soup or salad, Whole Foods Market wasn’t about bulk — the heavier/bigger it is, the cheaper it becomes. This cuts back on food waste and to me, this is possibly one of the best takeaways.

If there was one thing I could wish for in 2015, it would be for Whole Foods Market to come to Australia because we desperately need you.

Postscript 8 April 2018: With Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market, we are about to lose the essence of what this business was about. Having to impose promotional and restocking costs will only drive out small scale and niche producers. Taking these niche brands out and prioritising fast moving/large brands suffocates the marketplace and reduces choices for consumers. It also places a burden on startups who can’t afford fees to get their product to markets where they appeal to niche consumers. At the same time, we need to consider the power that grocery retailers like Whole Foods Market have in educating and creating awareness amongst consumers for niche products such as organic wines. While it can be positive, moves to introduce brands that counter the ethos of Whole Foods Market such as Coca-Cola and possibly alienate loyal consumers. It would be interesting to see if Amazon decides to enter the grocery wars in Australia and what lessons it could take from the acquisition of Whole Foods Market to this country.

Sustainable agriculture service australia, digital agriculture australia

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agriculture

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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agriculture, sustainability

Food security is jail and food sovereignty is freedom

The phrase from Michael Croft lit a new perspective in my world. While I had often used ‘food security’ to discuss how communities and their ability to access food through a value chain, ‘food sovereignty’ looks at putting food systems in the hands of communities – thus the latter is more sustainable because it makes communities stewards of the environment.

A lot of thought has gone towards the recommendations that were laid out in the Agricultural Competitiveness Green Paper  which includes recommendations for financing to be more easily available to farmers and setting up a registry to track foreign agricultural land investments. Yet, we are living in an age where farming has become the least competitive, we rely heavily on seasonal workers for harvest and the value chain has brought down the profitability of farming communities.

However if 98 percent of our retail value chain is dominated by the four largest supermarkets, how can we return the balance in favour of food sovereignty? La Via Campesina as a movement returns farming to sustainability and while this has lots of positives, I feel we have gone past the irreparable damage that has been caused by many stakeholders involved in the food system. Through greed, we have destroyed the future of our agricultural industry.

Amory Starr discussed farmers markets and aritsan economics in the production of food as a way of reframing “food as a community and not as a commodity”. While this re-examines the role of consumers in creating a more sustainable outcome for food through demand, I don’t believe these nuances would have the ability to change the system. Let’s face the fact: a Saturday at Eveleigh Market or Sydney Sustainable Markets draws more lookers than buyers. Could we reverse the system and get the evening crush at a Coles or Woolworths to buy at these markets on a Saturday only? I doubt this.

I haven’t finished combing through the 116 page green paper and I am already sceptical that it would have far reaching ramifications on the future of Australia’s agricultural industry. Unless, we allow movements like La Via Campesina to flourish in Australia and let them regain power over our value chains.

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agriculture, environment, sustainability

Resetting Australia’s agricultural industry in the face of climate change

“The end game is that they are pushing Australian farmers off the land. Farmers who have contracts with them become medieval serfs. They stop investing in their businesses. More and more imported produce comes in and eventually prices go up.” – Nick Xenophon

The Monthly has produced a breath-taking piece on Supermarket Monsters which looks at the impact of the supermarket duopolies on producers and suppliers. While it looks at the growing influence of Coles and Woolworths and its domination in Australia’s retail industry, it also highlights how consumers are allowing this to happen by the power of choice.

There’s much to be said on how we vote with our wallets. Roy Morgan estimates put Coles and Woolworths’ market share to be way ahead of competitors like ALDI and IGA. The Monthly gives a sympathetic view on how aggressive pricing hurts smaller players and producers.  Farming incomes are already facing significant pressures having to drop prices down to meet contractual obligations. It is no surprise that rural debt is rising in Australia and the closure of more farms including this example in Queensland is just another example of a crisis that has far reaching implications that needs to be examined.

I think a lot about food security in the face of climate change and how Australia would feed itself as a country, if we lose more producers and have to rely on imports to feed the nation in the future. IPCC modelling has already shown that wheat and maize production will be impacted along with a range of other crops. Our food system is under threat and as a country, we are struggling with the bureaucracy and lack of foresight in addressing what is critical – which we cannot turn back once the producers exit the system.

I wrote a short summary for a thesis I’m planning to write – which was ambitiously too large – as my potential supervisor pointed out. I wanted to share this because its about resetting Australia’s agricultural industry in the face of climate change. My motivations behind the topic are:

  1. To acknowledge that present agricultural practices, consumer demand and the supplier pressures set by major supermarkets will not allow Australia to achieve food security.
  2. To acknowledge that climate change means we have transition from our current ideals of what consumers want and get producers and suppliers to acknowledge that more sustainable crops are needed to feed Australians in the future.
  3. To identify policies and attitudes within government and the industry need to be transitioned to acknowledge that financial assistance is needed to support landowners, producers to support them in the transition towards the production of more sustainable and climate hardy crops.

These questions keep me up at night and if perhaps someone else feels the same way, I would love to hear from you.

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agriculture, environment, sustainability

Changing consumer food preferences with climate change

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Quinoa: now since when did Australia produce quinoa? I was intrigued when I watched Adam Liaw’s segment on SBS where he interviewed a WA quinoa grower.

I love quinoa and while it has often been regarded by many as a ‘fad’ food (like goji berries, chia seeds we inner-city types rave about endlessly) which has crept into every conceivable salad we buy these days. But its probably not a crop the early migrants in Australia set to farm when they moved to Australia. Without doing more extensive research, my money is on the fact that quinoa never existed as a commercial crop until recently because its not something Australians are familiar with.

We’ve grown wheat, maize and back in as early as 1914, rice. These have been the staples that have fed this country for generations. If we reflect on the Australian consumer palette over the centuries, we’ve been blessed with the diversification of crops being driven by the wave of immigrant cultures that has brought something different to every plate. I think about fresh pistachios, mangosteens or even lychees. Who would have thought such produce would make it to the markets without the cultural diversity that has driven the desire for someone to farm  these delicious exotics.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of climate change on food security in Australia. We already know that dryer weather conditions means wheat production will be affected. We will need to adapt rice crop varietals to identify varietals and practices that are less water dependent.

I think about dryer weather conditions, less predictable climates and having access to less rainfall and what it means to growers.

How do we start changing consumer food preferences and getting consumers and their palettes aware that what we derive pleasure from eating, our source of nutrients may one day need to change as the cost of a crop/protein may no longer be economically sustainable for production or deliver less yields which – god forbid – means we can longer sustainably feed our population.

Then we have the untested and unknown like quinoa which we predominantly import from South America where it has the potential to expand its production in Australia. If this ABC article paints quinoa as what it could potentially bring to our table, we could recognise a potential tipping point to support an emerging crop and industry.

I don’t believe quinoa is an unknown variable in the Australian diet. Chances are you would have seen or eaten it in a salad, grazed on a breakfast meal or even cooked this at home. Quinoa is also a superfood which is high in protein and a good source of fibre.

If we think about the obesity challenge we face in Australia, it would probably be a win/win if we could change consumer food preferences to get them liking quinoa as a substitute to wheat, rice… a healthier population + local market demand + sustainable production.

Which brings me back to my current obsession with food security. How can we recognise that one day all the affordable imported food that we’ve been privileged to have and the abundant amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that grace our supermarkets may no longer exist or become unaffordable to many.

How do we bite the bullet now and agitate agricultural reform: recognising what is sustainable or emerging with potential, continuing to provide support to producers through industry assistance and looking at increasing its demand through consumer education. Or how do we recognise crops that are not sustainable in the face of climate change and help producers transition now into growing what would be financially viable that feeds the future generations?

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agriculture, environment, NGO, sustainability

Why Goodman Fielder should not be sold to Wilmar

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Source: UNCTAD, April 2014

Is this a conspiracy theory or sheer coincidence?

Oxfam Australia calls out Westpac, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank and NAB for its lending to companies associated with land grabs, my Twitter feed picks up UNCTAD’s report on The Practice of Responsible Investment Principles in Larger Scale Agricultural Investments and the day after, we have Wilmar (who has been linked to NAB) making a bid for Goodman Fielder. The same Goodman Fielder who uses palm oil in products and intends to source “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) for its supply chain from 2014”. And the same Wilmar that Oxfam cites as:

With Wilmar being one of the largest players in the palm oil industry, the sheer number of conflicts and controversies surrounding its operations and those of its many subsidiaries are virtually impossible to document. For example, since 2007, five complaints have been submitted to either the International Finance Corporation’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) against Wilmar’s operations in Indonesia or the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) regarding Wilmar’s operations in both Indonesia and Africa. The most recent and unresolved complaint was filed in 2013 with the RSPO against a Wilmar subsidiary operating in Indonesia. This complaint alleged the company failed to comply with all relevant local, national and ratified international laws and regulations, did not mitigate the environmental impacts of the development, encroached into areas classified as High Conservation Value Forests and breached parts of the RSPO Code of Conduct.

Now that is certainly a deal I would not like to see go through.

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agriculture, environment, politics, sustainability

Australia: what is the price to pay for a land of opportunity ?

ImageSource: Social Progress Index

Many people say and believe that Australia is a land of opportunity and the Social Progress Index reinforces this by ranking us #3 using a mesh of indices to determine our place in the world when it comes to personal rights, freedom of choice, tolerance and inclusion and access to advance education.

But when it comes to measuring the foundation of our wellbeing that looks at access to basic knowledge, information communications, health and wellness and ecosystem sustainability, we come in at #18. On the whole, Australia doesn’t do too badly as we are ranked the 10th most socially progressive country globally.

However, being a socially progressive country comes at a price to the environment where Australia is ranked #52 for the sustainability of our ecosystem which measures greenhouse gas emissions, water withdrawals as a percentage of resources and biodiversity. Living in one of the driest continents in the world, water feeds Australia’s agricultural industry and according to the ABS, it accounts for 38 percent of use.

While there are underground sources of water, we are still reliant on rain and the impact of climate change could mean rainfall would be less predictable or available. As we watch quietly the debates over who owns the rights of and the trading of water, I would love the opportunity for us to throw this debate out to the community to discuss who rightfully owns water in Australia (not just the Murray-Darling basin alone but also groundwater), how it can be rightfully protected from pollution, assigned to support agricultural needs and financially supporting buybacks for an entitlement that belongs to our communities.

 

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agriculture, sustainability

There are a number of interlinked issues that play in my mind when I think about the future of Australia’s agricultural industry. The negatives being: climate change that impacts on crop production, more dry spells/unpredictable weather, high labour costs and an ageing/shrinking workforce, urbanisation and its pressure on farming land, shrinking regional populations, rising fresh food prices, the availability of cheaper food imports, the supermarket duopoly and their influence on food prices and consumer desires for “perfect looking” fruit and veg.

With every downside, I see the upsides too — like the awareness and desire for small scale producers driven by our gourmet palettes, the growing interest in the number of produce markets, changing consumer palettes (my favourite example of this is seeing premium grass or grain fed beef sold along regular beef) and reality television programs like My Kitchen Rules who are inspiring a new generation of cook-at-home-chefs wanting “quality” produce.

But is this enough to change the balance?

Many months ago, I made a donation to support the GV Food Co-op having read about their plight to keep a growers region alive. It was that moment that sunk into my mind deeply that everyone had a role in helping to address

Consumer choices drive agricultural sustainability

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