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, 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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sustainability

The goose that laid the golden eggs

“If we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.” – Aesop’s Fable

The Canada Goose emblem was spotted on the jackets of many people in Canada. This emblem means different things to many people – the pride of a Canadian brand that still manufactures its jackets in Canada, a luxury fashion brand that sees itself in the ranks of Prada/Gucci for winterwear or a jacket that has a long history of being designed to withstand the bitter arctic cold conditions.

On my trip, I asked my cousins why Canada Goose jackets were so popular and it ended up in a discussion over the ethical concerns some consumers had with the product. While people had generally felt that the down wasn’t really an issue, it was the use of coyote fur for the jacket hoods that faced the greatest objections – from animal rights activists to animal lovers.

If you did a search on Google, you will find a number of sites that have highlight the less than ethical practices used to trap coyotes. I walked across a store in Yaletown that sold Canada Goose which had a notice on its window telling picketers to have a conversation with the store owner because all this yelling and screaming wasn’t going to stop them from selling the product because the demand has been growing. He is right – Canada Goose has recently expanded its manufacturing facility to cope with the growth in retail demand.

There is very little on their website that outlines how they are producing an ethical product. There is a short video that outlines its position on the use of coyote fur which Canada Goose claims helps support the hunting community in the North. It even has a short interview with a university academic that talks about how coyote fur keeps your face warm and it ends with a tagline “ethically with authenticity”.

I like this article about an 11 year old girl who tries to meet the company’s CEO to talk about alternatives to fur. The deathly silence from Canada Goose on its position – even the removal of information it had previously posted on its website speaks volumes on its stance on the issue.

Fur was relevant years ago when there were few or no synthetic alternatives. But with technological advancements, there are now countless synthetic substitutes that you could wear for ski and arctic trips that don’t involve the death of animals to keep us warm.

Disclaimer: I wore a rented Canada Goose jacket for three days in Yellowknife as the weather was brutal. While the coyote fur was warm and dry, I couldn’t help but feel the warmth coming from its breath was keeping me alive.

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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, 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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environment, politics, sustainability

The end of the world as we know it, is near

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. – Limits to Growth, DH Meadows, 1972

Elizabeth Kolbert painted a bleak picture on the future the biodiversity in the face of climate change and development at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In We Are the Asteroid, Kolbert talks about how we are heading into the Sixth Extinction by the end of the century with biodiversity increasingly being reduced through the impact of carbon emissions on the natural environment, the acidification of oceans and its impact on coral reefs and how the transportation of non-native species through ballast water has impacted on natives in their natural environment.

Supporting Kolbert’s theory, Dr Graham Turner’s recent publication looks at the remodelled data on scenarios such as population growth, food security, resource usage and peak oil constraints identified in the Limits to Growth (a study which is as old as I am). Both Kolbert and Turner coincidentally point to how climate change is accelerating, its impact on the environment and how population growth is rapidly depleting our resources. Turner adds it appear[s] that the global economy and population is on the cusp of collapse.

I’m still sleepless from the raw nerve that Kolbert had struck on the global issues that mirror the issues that are dividing Australia at the moment. Whether its mining to coal seam gas extraction and its impact on native species to the warming and [inevitable] destruction of the Great Barrier Reef through the acidification of the oceans.

There are many debates in Australia that have no win/win solutions: creating jobs in ‘dirty’ industries to support the economy, preserving the natural environment against the expansion of extractive industries to the political dilution that could wind down Australia’s renewables industry.

A lot of emotion goes into these debates around our rights and the environment. In any attempt to ‘rationalise’ things, we need to remember that the environment does not belong to us and when we take away from it, we need to put a price on this so we have the means to leave it for the future generations.

EDIT – A must watch mashup of a video on the Rise and Fall of Humans that is a collective narrative of authoritative voices over the years made by Munir Kotadia.

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environment, sustainability

Will food 3D printers spell the end of grocery shopping?

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Source: Natural Machines

I might have missed the memo on how the 3D printing of food has started to evolve.

Someone I spoke to this week mentioned that the 3D printing of food could help solve world hunger in impoverished countries. Imagine how we would be able to feed large populations an appropriate nutrient with 3D printable food that is transported in bulk, with no spoilage, very little prospect for waste and designed with cultural and religious needs in consideration. Or if communities that no longer had access to arable land and water but needed food independence, had 3D printing stations that were solar powered to create food with any added nutrients to feed themselves.

Companies like Nestle have started research into customised nutritional meals for individuals that are 3D printed. While we might be years away from a commercially available solution, I love the thought of how we could potentially create meals right at our home, from a small 3D printer with only having to reorder a customised nutrition program instead of visiting a supermarket. If we were entertaining, the ability to order an allergen or diet specific meal for vegans, nut allergies etc. for our guests. This would have alleviated the panic attack I experienced cooking an allergen specific dinner for a guest this week and left me with more time for a glass of wine. The 3D printing of food could spell the end of grocery shopping lists, supermarket checkouts and any food waste. Sounds like a win/win for me all around. 3D food printing could be the answer to failed marriages and keeping harmony in families.

A lot has been said about 3D printing and how it supports a circular economy – not having to source and transport materials over long distances, eliminating waste, minimising the supply chain and reducing the carbon footprint from production. If we could apply the same system in food, it may solve the challenges we face in feeding populations in the future.

Here are some links to my favourite 3D printed food projects:

Pizza

Cake

Fruit

Burger

If we could commercially 3D print food now, what would you like for dinner tonight?

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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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