agriculture, food, food sovereignty, sustainability

You can change the food system

Food Geographer

In the last three years over intensely analysing and theoretically dissecting the complexities within Australia’s agricultural and food industries, I’ve come to the conclusion we’ve not come really far in solving the challenges we face in feeding a growing global population.

Consumers are only concerned about getting their value for money when it comes to shopping for food. Let’s look at ALDI’s growing market share and the price war between Coles and Woolworths. With Kaufland’s stores opening in Adelaide and Melbourne, interest from Lidl to launch in Australia and the possibility of AmazonFresh entering the market, food retailing will be the new battleground. We are only at the beginning of a cycle where cheaper food is the new battleground at the expense of producers.

The reality is we don’t really think about the challenges producers need to overcome to get food on our tables. We don’t think about where it comes from or how much has gone into producing it.

In response to industry pressures on the extent of imported produce entering Australia’s food value chain, the ACCC introduced a country of origin food labelling system. The progressive introduction of this labelling has created more transparency on the extent of imported ingredients in our supermarket aisles. I hope I’m not the only person reading these labels because I would often look for a locally produced alternative over an item that is predominantly or wholly manufactured using imported ingredients.

But beyond the country of origin, is it possible to create labelling systems that covers a more holistic view such as GMO, organic, nutrient specific, ethical beliefs such as free range to food miles. We have additives, hormones or chemicals in food labels but could we go a step further to ask if it was sustainably farmed, practiced animal welfare or if workers involved in harvesting or producing the food paid a fair wage. PWC’s farm to fork paper on the traceability of food opens an interesting discussion on how we could potentially restore consumers’ faith in food systems. We already have all this technology – QR codes to smartphones – to empower consumers so we can take advantage of this!

I started my postgraduate experience with the lens that the problem was the food system but now that I’ve graduated, I’ve come to realise that the problem lies with us – the consumers.

There are so many considerations but rather than thinking I could change the world [as I thought I would be able to do with my GradCertSustAgric], here are five things we can do as individuals to make a difference today:

Food sovereignty is real: We can’t change global value chains involved in the processing and manufacturing of a final product when it reaches a retailers’ shelf. However, we can support the development of a local food system that is based on sustainable production. My visit to Pocket City Farms in Camperdown inspired me because its possible to reduce our food miles if we could grow locally.

Develop food ethics: Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act.” If we were to consider ethical sourcing, animal welfare, the environmental impacts of food production to what is a fair price for food that you buy, this simple act of being aware changes your relationship with food.

Stop food waste: Don’t buy more than you need and don’t let food go to waste. Eat with the seasons. It’s okay to buy ugly fruit and veg – no one died from eating wonky carrots. Food production creates a massive carbon footprint and you can reduce this by not wasting food. A shout out to Harris Farms for taking the lead in this.

Reconnect with producers: Visit a local farmers market, learn about how food is produced and think about what they done to harvest food that we consume and how it is inherently linked to your health and mental wellbeing.

Empower with your dollars: The pressures small scale producers and food grocers face against supermarkets are real. Buy from a local grocer, small independent retailer or head to the markets on a weekend.

 

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Marley Spoon and the War on Waste
agriculture, environment, food, sustainability

Marley Spoon and the War on Waste

Dear Marley

I’ve had three weeks of having your boxes dropped at my doorstep and I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful the experience has been. Not having to step into a supermarket, scan and bag my groceries or trying to think about what else I could have for dinner around my neighbourhood when I don’t feel like cooking. Not to mention, waiting for the pin to move on my Foodora delivery.

For three weeks, there were smells wafting out of my kitchen that would have made my mother proud. I met new neighbours I never knew who were loitering in the corridor sniffing out the source. I loved the feathery crispiness of your panko crumbed chicken schnitzel that I breaded with my bare hands. Learning I could easily crisp kale in the oven to make a wonderful salad and the moreishness of dukkah in a warm beef salad.

I loved how everything was packed in precise portions and not having to feel guilty that I’ve had to leave bits of herbs or vegetables to wither in the fridge because I couldn’t find another purpose for it. I tried to plate this in the Instagram-worthy manner you laid out in your recipe cards – some days, I conceded the dish looked more like me (a royal mess) than Marley.

I had my moments of doubts like when there was a satchel of chicken stock from the USA that contained MSG and a tin of chickpeas that were imported from Italy. Would these be small blemishes if I were to compare this to the locally sourced meat and use of seasonal produce?

But my biggest concerns has been the amount of plastic, paper and cardboard that comes with each delivery. Yes, you can recycle this but placing it in the bin to recycle isn’t easy when I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint.

Watching the War on Waste, I could identify with the amount of food waste we experience in Australia but are meal prep services like Marley Spoon or HelloFresh the solution?

Sustainable consumption needs to be addressed from different dimensions. I admit that I feel time poor and overwhelmed when I go food shopping. Combing through nutrition labels, picking fresh produce that is in season, hunting down meat that is organic/grass fed, getting just the right portion and thinking how can I put this altogether? If someone could do all of this, I would have a bit more time to squeeze in a glass of wine.

I’ll probably have to scale down on my Instagram-worthy meal ambitions and lean back on my basics. Or I could scale up on my Keto and solve this problem with a little satchel.

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agriculture, agtech, food

Digital farming and its place in Australia

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Credit: Lima Pix

Agtech hardly made headline news in Australia a few years ago. We were too busy selling off farms, food manufacturers and processors to global investors who saw the potential of food security through Australian soils.

But agtech, digital farming or digital agriculture Australia is interesting for a number of reasons. Farmers are under pressure to keep their businesses running and not ready to put further investments into changing their operations. Australia is highly reliant on seasonal workers for harvesting. Instead of thinking about technologies to replace manual labour, we are obsessed with looking for more seasonal workers on working holiday visas or our neighbouring Pacific Islands. Makoto Koike’s story on how he automated the sorting of cucumbers using machine learning for his farm in Japan shows how technology reduces our need for farm work and addresses this important issue of food aesthetics in the retail food industry.

We need to be bold and invest in digital agriculture Australia. Projects like Sense-T gives me hope that a cross-disciplinary approach towards addressing agricultural issues would yield confidence from producers to take digital farming seriously. This is especially when agriculture has the potential to be Australia’s next $100 billion industry but yet remains underinvested as investors have a short-term view on agricultural investments and hence, digital farming in Australia has yet to realise its full potential.

While Australia’s agricultural GDP is small compared to the rest of the world, we have lots of global investors who want a slice of our food production, processing and manufacturing to export to the world. We are already seeing an increase in interest in farm sales coming from institutional and offshore investors.

At an Agtech meetup organised by SproutX, one of the themes that came through was how agtech had the potential to succeed in Australia if an idea demonstrated the potential to scale. I was really impressed by the story of The Yield who received significant Series A funding for their remote sensing solution – an Australian solution with a global potential to scale that we will hear much more about.

The launch of the Food Agility CRC is another positive step towards acknowledging that digital transformation can occur through the food value chain. Whether its using technology to help producers understand pricing conditions to reducing food waste through IoT, it is promising to see we are now wearing the commercialisation lens of research over the scientific lens of genetics/climate.

For agtech to go further, we need to close the gaps from increasing government in agriculture. Making our mobile and internet infrastructure more reliable in regional Australia is another priority to support remote sensing, access to data and cloud-driven technologies. Getting a younger generation interested in seeing farming as a career guarantees our talent base. Finally, helping farmers receive a fair price on produce would make agtech a more attractive investment proposition.

We’re just about to embark on an impressive journey to showcase Australia’s digital farm and its going to lead us somewhere finally.

Postscript 8 April 2018: I’m really impressed with the list of new projects with SproutX’s incubation. Technology led – mobile, IoT, data, remote sensing – all the wonderful things related to digital farming. Projects driven by Agrifutures Australia such as the Farmer Exchange for online collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking between producers could potentially be a driving force for digital farming to flourish.

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agriculture, environment, food

Fixing the food system with [better] alternatives

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Eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act.

– Wendell Berry, 1990

Recently, I set aside all the messy issues in my head over the state of Australia’s food system and why things were hard to fix. Instead I asked if we…..

If we could change the way consumers ate and bought food, would this would force a change in the way food was sold, produced, processed in our value chains or its ownership.

If we could tackle industrialised agriculture with small-scale production, eat less meat and change our protein preferences; rethink sustainable aquaculture and eat less seafood or reduce food waste through shorter and more direct supply chains.

Instead of telling consumers what they ate was bad or wrong, what if we could create a product that was right in the intersection of solving hunger, is healthy and sustainable? This would certainly solve the challenges we have over implementing a country of origin labelling for food. Or from having to turn to Soylent because we’ve bled our food producers dry. Better yet, to avoid the need to commercialise laboratory-grown meat.

We’re taking small steps and while not all of you would agree with the examples below, I’m using them to represent an intersect product or brands that can feed us in a healthier way and is/can be more sustainable (less food waste, shorter supply chain).

From permaculture to local: When alternative food systems marry local producers, the playground is about to get serious. Milkwood who run great courses on urban and small-scale farming is promoting Ooooby to its members. While you wait for your first harvest, a couple of locally sourced boxes of fruit and veg could inspire you to take food production in-house.

Eat with your neighbours: Not technically but almost. Neighbour Flavour, is touting itself to be the Airbnb of home cooked meals. Cooked a bit too much and not wanting it to go to waste? Put it on the marketplace and out with the hassle of shopping, food prep, washing and cooking. I love the ‘community’ value proposition and it would be amazing to see the birth of a movement of locally prepared meals to reconnect you with your neighbours.

Chia Pots: As Americans and Australians ditch cereal for breakfast, the ready to eat chia pots will likely climb into our time poor diets as a on-the-go option. What’s there not to love about chia pots? It dairy and gluten free and probably requires a smaller carbon footprint to grow and process compared to cereal. Enter The Chia Co. with their refrigerated Chia Pod verses Woolworths with their refrigeration free Macro Chia Pot.

 

 

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agriculture, food, food sovereignty, politics

Australian food trends in 2016

Heirloom Tomatoes

As we approach World Food Day on October 16, I reflect on the headlines that have dominated my news stream in Australia over the last 10 months.

From the rising dominance of supermarkets that are now being subject to scrutiny under the ACCC Grocery Code of Conduct, farmers who are increasingly under pressure from banks to foreclose, the growth in foreign investment in Australia’s agricultural industry to the continued demand for Australia to step up its role as a food exporter.

But the battle between demand and supply in the industry is quietly fuelling what will hopefully drive five food trends in Australia as we move into 2016.

The rise of alternative food systems: From farmers markets to food distribution hubs, consumers will be drawn to searching for better produce and buying local. Organisations like Food Connect and Ooooby who will draw new supporters as consumers start to think about their connection with producers even more. Will community supported agriculture be the new black in 2016?

Healthier food options: We’ve scrutinised paleo or looked at raw food in 2015. But without a doubt, more Australians will gravitate towards healthier food options. Having spent quite a few weekends at About Life, I’m seeing more grocery baskets with produce shift along with the growing appetite for prepared meals from bain maries using organic produce. Thr1ve will find good company as our love for food bowls and healthy eating on the go continues to grow.

Ugly food: If Harris Farms has its way, we will be seeing more Imperfect Picks in baskets. Australians will finally get over buying cosmetically non-conforming fruit and veg and growers will now be able to reduce the amount of food waste because the large retail supermarkets won’t take it. Along with ugly fruit and vegetables, cheap cuts of meat will be the new staple as we face yet another year of rising food costs.

Reducing food waste, feeding the hungry: Foodbank, SecondBite and OzHarvest will play an increasingly important role as Australia becomes less food secure and we have more mouths to feed in tough times. I would love to see a TV network turn this into a reality television program so we can educate consumers on this silent crisis we are facing.

Our National Food Plan: When we stop debating about the impact of TPP and ChAFTA on our agricultural industry, 2016 could be the year when we will revive our discussion on the need for a National Food Plan that looks at making food more affordable, accessible and fair for our communities.

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agriculture, food, value chains

Who are the winners in the supermarket wars between Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and Lidl?

We like to romanticise our relationship with our produce, but our actions betray us as a nation that rewards size and doesn’t choose so much as follow. If we can’t go to a shopping centre without being hauled in by the duopoly….. then that is the power we have given these two companies.
– Malcolm Knox, The Monthly (Aug 2014)

Duffy’s, a small independent supermarket that I shop in close to my apartment for the last eight years finally called it the day when they posted a notice to say they were leaving the building after 20 years.

There was a stream on my social media news feeds as the new tenant was purportedly ALDI which everyone knows offers a wider selection of products at more affordable prices. I felt a tinge of sadness as Duffy’s closing was yet another tragedy that marks how large supermarkets are increasingly dominating Australia’s retail basket at the expense of smaller, independent operators.

In Malcolm Knox’s book on Supermarket Monsters, he points out that 70 cents of every dollar spent in Australia’s supermarkets goes to Coles and Woolworths. Not forgetting, more flows towards the liquor, hardware, merchandise and petrol interests they have under their conglomerates.

I’ve loved Duffy’s for many years. It might not have been flash or offered discounted products the way large supermarket retailers could. But it had a simple, small business my community rallied around. There is calmness about shopping in Duffy’s because there are no monster trollies, large discount signs or long check out queues on our streets.

I’ve watched the ‘gentrification’ and transformation of Oxford St and Surry Hills over the last few years. Many small businesses departing as Westfield made its stronghold in the CBD and Bondi. The NSW liquor licensing laws ripping apart the bar scene and the impact of licensing laws on the small ecosystem of businesses that support its patrons.

A small bottle shop near the Burdekin Hotel is now owned by BWS (Woolworths) and its closest competitor is a Vintage Cellars at Oxford Square that is owned by Wesfarmers (Coles). If we can’t sustain the independents who feed our suburbs, we will be leaving a future generation of retailers that will be aligned to either brands or the Europeans, Aldi and Lidl who are waiting confidently by the sides.

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agriculture, food

Five trends that are driving Australia’s agricultural industry

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The Global Food Forum seeded a number of critical discussions that sets the scene for Australia’s agricultural industry. I was in serious company sitting in a table with infrastructure engineers who wanted to build an integrated supply chain using rail to move food. There were also investment advisors who were there to sound out potential investment opportunities for their global clients looking to invest in Australia. The topics discussed and questions posed covered a broad spectrum of areas but if I had to focus on five trends coming from this forum, they would be:

  1. The agricultural industry will save the Australian economy

Australia’s mining boom is well and truly over and the agricultural sector has been tipped as the saviour for our economy. It is estimated that food exports is valued at $36 billion and the food and beverage industry creates 553,000 jobs. Food is expected to be a $1.7 trillion opportunity for Australia from now to 2050. The agricultural industry has the potential to double by 2030 if we had the right investments. This will justify our push for free trade agreements, initiatives and incentives that underpin the ag industry’s growth.

  1. Brand Australia is highly regarded

Food security, wealth and the growing middle class in Asia continues to drive the demand for Australian produce. From Asia’s desire for safe and nutritious food to Chinese investors such as Harry Wang from Ningbo, who drove around to search for diary farms in Victoria to acquire, the world is increasingly hungry for Australian agricultural produce. If we took Harry’s estimate that only five percent of the Chinese market will pay the premium for an Australian product, we would be looking at potentially 70 million customers – three times the size of Australia’s population.

  1. Australian grocery buyers remain price sensitive

Australian grocery shoppers continue to be price driven and the cost of a less expensive import will be more attractive than an Australian product. John Durkan from Coles said consumers would buy tinned tomatoes that are imported at 80 cents versus $1.20 for an Australian product. If continued, this behaviour could potentially lead to ‘Australian Grown/Made’ becoming a niche product. The chatter for ‘organic’ has increased but large-scale producers are finding it difficult to scale to a size where the price can be more affordable.

  1. Food allergies and healthy food are the new growth categories

Goran Roos from Swinburne University alluded to how urbanisation generates allergens in populations and this creates opportunities for producers to sell niche or higher value products. This ties in with how the demand for chia seeds has grown according to John Foss from The Chia Co. as consumers are seeking healthier products that have greater nutrient density. 5. Infrastructure to support our expansion is lacking If there was a word cloud to depict word trends, “infrastructure” would have stood out in many conversations. From Australia being the most costly country to freight food within the country or for export, the need for better road/rail infrastructure to move goods to the infrastructure needed to make Northern Australia a viable agricultural basin. Maybe we could find a solution right at my table where all the delegates were seated. Or perhaps we are due for another round of soul searching with yet another competitiveness white or green paper that we will need to debate.

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agriculture, food, sustainability

Musing over plane food

Qantas

If you were travelling to Melbourne for the Global Food Forum like me yesterday, you were probably thinking about the origin and carbon footprint of the meal that you’ve just been served.

Are we better off being served meals in cardboard boxes or plastic trays?
Where was that tomato sauce processed in?
Which country did the olives and polenta come from?
Was that chicken raised in a welfare environment?
Were those green beans pesticide free?
How much energy was used to transport and produce these meals?
How many meals did we not consume and dispose off when the plane landed?
How much of the waste from the plastic and aluminum used on the plane could be ‘recycled’?
Could we have been served a locally produced chocolate over an imported Lindt ball?
Is it possible for airlines to create more sustainable food choices if we demanded them?
See you on Twitter @gabewong #GFF2015
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