This is the keynote I prepared for the 14th Australian Permaculture Convergence in Canberra 15-19 April 2018.
(Unfortunately I was not able to deliver it myself as I was laid low with the flu, so it was read for me instead by the handsome, passionate fruity farmer Ant Wilson.)
Our theme here at APC14 is ‘connectivity’ – and I can’t imagine you’re an audience that needs to have the importance of connectivity in the food system explained to you. This is a group of empowered people motivated to make the world better one homegrown carrot at a time, a group that seeks to ‘be the changes we wish to see in the world.’
I am one of you.
We had our first permaculture garden in Melbourne in 1995 as we attempted to move away from being simply consumers to mindful producers of our own food, growing it in a system designed on ecological principles as we had learned from David and Bill’s book (never realizing we would end up neighbours and friends of David and Su 16 years later).
Many permaculture-esque suburban gardens later, we made it to our own farm at Eganstown, outside Daylesford, in the heart of a community that cares deeply about ecology, food systems and a just world for all.
We set out to farm pigs and cattle on 69 volcanic acres because as a former vegetarian, I felt compelled to grow more pigs outdoors to offer a true alternative to the horrors of intensive livestock production. For more than two decades I’d been aware that people are only eating those pretty little plastic-wrapped trays of pork and poultry from the supermarkets because they are totally disconnected from the source. If you ever set foot in an intensive pig or poultry shed, you’d have to be either willfully forgetful or downright heartless to continue eating meat from that source.
Within a year of selling our uncommonly delicious pasture-raised meat, I took over the butchering and we started our CSA – community-supported agriculture. CSA was started in Japan in the 70s under what are called the Teikei Principles. The most basic principle of Teikei is a direct distribution system based on relationships, not mere transactions. It is also based on sharing not only the rewards of organic or agroecological farming, but also the risks.
I’ve written in Pip Magazine and on our farm blog about the ways our members have supported us through some hard times, but I want to share another farmer’s story here – Shinji Hashimoto in Japan.
At the International Network for CSA (Urgenci) conference in Beijing in 2015, Shinji shared two examples of the power of CSA. In the first, there was a tsunami in the town where his members live. Knowing they would have limited access to food, Shinji harvested as much as he could and delivered food not only to his members, but also to others in need.
The second story really drove the reciprocity home – an earthquake caused a landslide that covered Shinji’s fields. He thought he was done – without heavy equipment and already in his 60s, he was devastated to think this was the end of a long and fruitful life of farming. But within a couple of days, his members turned up with equipment and numbers, and cleared the rubble from his fields, leaving him to commence prepping his beds again, only one season lost instead of an entire future of farming.
That is connectivity.
It goes way beyond knowing your farmer to nurturing your farmer. Beyond knowing your members to nurturing your members. When your connections are this strong, you simply couldn’t in good conscience make food that makes people sick, like the rubbish peddled by the likes of Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca Cola.
So now let’s have a look at disconnection in a hyper-connected, globalized world.
I’ve just returned from UN meetings in Fiji, where we learned many things, including that 60% of Fijians are overweight or obese. This shocking statistic is due to a reduction in traditional diets based on root crops, fish, coconut, bananas, avocados, mangos and breadfruit, which are being replaced with imported sugary, highly-processed so-called food like industrial white bread, margarine, soft drinks, cereals and animal fats – more than 50% of calories consumed in Fiji are now from imports. An amputation due to diabetes is performed every 12 hours in Fiji.
Not long before I was in the Pacific, I was in South Africa at the General Assembly of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). There, we heard repeatedly from small-scale famers and fishers of how they are being forced from their traditional lands and waters by environmental degradation caused by mining – and most of the mining operations in South Africa are owned by Australian companies.
At another meeting in Rome the previous May, I sat in horror as an advocate for fisherfolk in Tanzania told us of the vultures waiting at the watering holes for the children who ‘didn’t make it’ as their mothers trekked further and further to dig for clean water in the midst of a severe drought.
No matter how well we raise our pigs or tend our tomatoes, our actions will not help the Fijians, the South Africans, the Tanzanians, nor the one in five Australians who may be food insecure at any time. We have no choice but to go beyond connectivity to collectivity – only by collectivizing, organizing, and mobilizing can we ever hope to radically transform global food systems to make them fair for everyone.
People these days openly criticize capitalism, an economic system that feeds profits over people and that has undeniably failed us all. The Fijian and South African stories are cases in point of the destructive impacts of unchecked capitalism, as is the rise of free trade agreements that are not only spreading obesity such as in Fiji, but also the spread of diseases such as the new strains of influenza coming out of the pig and poultry sheds and threatening us all with a global pandemic, what my friend and scholar Rob Wallace calls the rise of the ‘NAFTA flu’.
Those who ‘opt out’ of the system are ‘being the change we wish to see in the world’, but we have to do it collectively or ultimately very few of us will benefit. One of the most legitimate critiques of the various aspects of the food movement is that it is ultimately a movement for privileged white people. It is up to all of us to take the movement out of our own backyards and into the streets.
Apartheid didn’t end because white people suddenly decided to stop being racist dicks. It ended because the people revolted.
Joel Salatin is fond of saying that governments only regulate the things that kill us quickly, while largely ignoring those that kill us slowly. I’d add to that and say we the people aren’t very good at fighting revolutions against the things that are killing us slowly – we find it difficult to sustain the energy (and also to work out how to fight these more complicated battles).
We no longer have a choice. As Charlie Massy has urgently explained, we are in the midst of the Anthropocene, where human impact has permanently altered the Earth’s geology and sustaining systems, causing ecological destruction and extinction of species. “It is the greatest crisis the planet and humanity has ever faced,” he said, “It makes a world war look like a little storm in a teacup. And we are in denial.”
Driving to Mildura recently, I realized that Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has given me new lenses for this ancient land. Thanks to Bruce, I can not only see the clapped out paddocks that have been tilled and sprayed until there’s nothing but a toxic desert out there, I can just make out what was there before – the fields of myrnong – and so now I realise even more what a travesty our industrial agriculture systems are on this fragile landscape.
So I ask all of you, a group of people who must surely be some of the most connected to your food systems in the country, will you collectivise beyond the permaculture [insert any other aspect of the food] movement? You have passion, knowledge, and experience to build on – hell, you even have science! Now how about political will – do you have enough of that?
In two more recent must-read books, Beginning to End Hunger by Jahi Chappell, and the Foodies’ Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt Gimenéz, Jahi and Eric both make the same point – that people in the food movement typically concentrate on one or two issues rather than the system as a whole. So we focus on the right to food, urban ag, CSA, regenerative ag, animal welfare, GMOs, or pesticide contamination to name a few.
As Eric elaborates, ‘Given the severity of the problems in our food system, this is understandable, but this focus often eclipses work to build longer-term political movements that could address the root causes of those problems. What’s more, organisations often find themselves in competition for funding, making it difficult to forge diverse, cross-issue alliances dedicated to systemic change. Intrepid individuals and food entrepreneurs working on their own in specialised market niches are even less likely to address systemic issues.’
Here today I reckon none of us are just ‘stupid optimists’, we are rather what Adriana Aranha calls ‘an active optimist.’ The more we collectivise our action, the quicker we can restore everyone’s right to culturally-appropriate and nutritious food produced in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.
Viva la revolución!
If you haven’t already joined the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), what’s stopping you?