On fair food & ‘sustainable intensification’

When we promote ‘fair food’, ‘ethical farming’ or even the more watered-down ‘sustainable farming’, are we ergo suggesting some systems are not fair, ethical, or sustainable? Of course we are.

Food that is produced by a farmer who cannot earn a living even though she does it full time is not fair.

The number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over family farms. (Endnote 2) In fact, there were 19,700 fewer farmers in Australia in 2011 than in 2006, a fall of 11% over five years. ABS

Food that is produced by confining animals in cages and sheds for their entire lives is not fair.



Food that is produced by routinely pouring toxic pesticides and herbicides until soils and waterways are depleted and polluted for everyone is not fair.



Food that is produced by workers who are not paid a living wage is not fair.



Food that is produced but intentionally not available to hungry people is not fair.



Food-stuffs that cause health epidemics like diabetes & heart disease are not fair.



Fair is a simple word to capture what is generally meant by ethical, but there’s a spectrum of sorts. Intensive livestock farming advocates will disagree on at least one of my definitions of what constitutes fair food. It’s important to work out for yourself what you reckon is fair and then do what you can to help there be more of that in the world.

I’ve had some on twitter ask me if because we call ours an ethical farm, does that mean that others aren’t ethical? I’m answering you clearly now – by my ethical standards, some are not operating ethically.

I’m a free-range pig & cattle farmer, and well on the record here & elsewhere advocating to raise animals on pasture, not in sheds, because I think it’s unethical to confine animals in sheds or cages. If you’re not raising pigs or poultry in sheds, odds are my view of your farming system is less certain and more open to the complexities of what an ethical system might look like.

I don’t like to call anyone ‘unethical’ in total as I can’t really imagine anyone who is wholly unethical. But I am happy to refer to certain practices such as caging animals as unethical. (For the record I also abhor pet birds in cages – what could be more spiteful than taking away any living creature’s capacity to fly?) Trying to lead an ethical life doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes make unethical choices, me included.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. There are complexities in dairy farming that I admire dairy farmers for grappling with every day. My lovely dairy-farming neighbor has worked for years to find better solutions for his bobby calves by raising a number of them as beef cattle to a year old, or selling them to locals to grow out for their own consumption. He rarely sends any off to the saleyards younger than six weeks because it bothers him knowing that they don’t transport well and therefore suffer.

He also follows most of the conventional practices of tilling, fertilizing, sowing & spraying his paddocks. While I disagree with some of his system, I certainly don’t judge him without perspective and nor would I accuse him of being unethical. What I’d love to see him do is be able to command a fair price for his milk so he could reduce his stocking levels and consequently his paddock inputs. So long as the processor continues to pay him 30-something-cents per litre that probably isn’t going to happen.

At Jonai Farms we’re in the relatively luxurious position of having set up a system outside of the traditional supply chain which means we’ve been price makers right since we started selling direct to the public. And our position improved markedly when we took on the butchering ourselves – supply chain control brought over 25% of our profit margin back to us. It means bucketloads more work, but we get paid a fair wage to do it.

Those who are trying to make a living in long supply chains like my neighbour are not in such a position, especially in Australia where market power is so unfairly concentrated in two major supermarkets. And so farmers are always being forced to look for more ‘efficiencies’, which usually means ‘produce more for less’. It seems to me that this is probably the primary reason many farmers are attracted to ‘sustainable intensification’ – they truly want to grow things in a sustainable way but are being forced to intensify their systems in order to make a living.

The notion that ‘sustainable intensification’ is going to solve the issue of food security around the world has been rigorously challenged by plenty of people far more qualified than me – hunger is predominantly a problem of governance and distribution, not inadequate production. We don’t actually need to double production by 2050 to feed a growing global population, we need to ensure we don’t waste what we grow and that we distribute it fairly. Even the UN is on the record saying that small-scale agroecological farms are the best way to feed the world. Let’s therefore shelve food security as a flawed argument for ‘sustainable intensification’.

So what’s really at stake is feeding Australian (and other) farmers and our families. That’s a worthy enough aim without clouding it with grand claims of achieving global food security. So how can farmers feed their families?

Don’t produce more for less, produce less for more.

By that I mean we must value the land, animals, and workers and ensure their health is paramount in every agricultural system and then ask eaters to pay a fair price for our efforts.

All of which is easier said from a farmer in a miniscule supply chain selling direct to eaters. The bigger challenge is for the majority who are under pressure from centralised market power and long supply chains…

What do you think? How can we address the serious structural imbalances between farmers, processors, distributors and supermarkets in Australia? How can we support all farmers to make a living growing food in the fairest ways possible?


Thanks to Lynne Strong of Clover Hill Dairies for inviting Fair Food Farmers United (FFFU) to respond to the discussion started on her blog about production systems and fair food. This will be cross-posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance’s blog & FFFU page.

While I personally am not an advocate for sustainable intensification, I am a big fan of farmers and respect everyone who is working hard to produce food fairly, even if we sometimes differ in how we think that will be achieved.

If you’re interested in fair food (which is pretty likely if you read my blog!) you should check out the many fabulous events being held all around Australia for Fair Food Week October 10-19!

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

6 thoughts on “On fair food & ‘sustainable intensification’”

  1. I think the best way is to promote ‘ethical eating’ because I think it’s all about supply and demand. If there is an increased demand for ethically produced products, it should follow…one hopes. 🙂

    A case in point is the egg thing. People hate the thought of hens suffering in cruel battery farms and the public have responded by boycotting cage eggs.

    (I just wish there were more farms likes yours, Tammi!)

  2. Thanks so much, Lee-Anne. I do agree that demand for higher welfare products has changed things in the past couple decades for the better, and dearly hope it continues! If the move by McDonald’s and Subway to stop buying caged eggs is anything to go by, the future is looking better! 🙂

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