The Food Revolution is Not a Big Fat Lie

The following is the speech I gave as the final speaker for the negative at a debate last week at the Lake House, ‘The Food Revolution is a Big Fat Lie’. On my team were Necia Wilden and Michael Harden – on the affirmative there were Dani Valent, Janne Appelgren and Richard Cornish. It was a rousing debate followed by a predictably delicious country-style meal put on by our host, the wonderful doyenne of the Daylesford Macedon region Alla Wolf-Tasker.

Of course we won, because of course the current food revolution is no lie, though there is a lot of work ahead…

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Comrades and colleagues, I’d like to continue the excellent work of my fellow revolutionaries here on the opposition, and tell you a bit more about this revolution that is everywhere, and that we must win lest we abandon our children’s hope for a future.

Let’s start with the children. 20 years ago, chef Alice Waters in California said: “What we are calling for is a revolution in public education – a Delicious Revolution. When the hearts and minds of our children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.”

As Necia has already mentioned, here we have Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation – and Waters’ and Alexanders’ efforts are certainly not restricted to the middle class – Waters’ program started in the disadvantaged schools of Oakland, California, and Alexanders’ took root in inner-city Collingwood, and has now spread as far as the remote communities of Bourke and Coober Pedy.

The international Via Campesina peasant movement has been around for 20 years and is still gaining momentum. Currently they’re uniting to fight against land grabbing by the World Bank and Wall Street in countries as diverse as Honduras, Mali, Italy and Indonesia.

In India, Vandana Shiva’s work over the past two decades is legion.  “I don’t want to live in a world where five giant companies control our health and our food,” said Shiva, and so she started a food revolution in India in 1993. Shiva’s foundation, Navdanya, trains farmers in seed saving and sustainable agriculture.

She cites the peasant prayer:

“Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year.”

Continue reading The Food Revolution is Not a Big Fat Lie

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

The New York Times recently ran a competition to write a 600-word essay on why it’s ethical to eat meat. Six runners up have been selected by a panel of judges (Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light), and now the public gets to vote for a winner. There are some good ones over there, and I recommend voting! I submitted the essay below, which didn’t make it into the short list…

I look forward to a rigorous debate in the comments, which I promise I’ll join in on this time (work commitments have limited my capacity to engage lately, my apologies).

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

You ask why eating meat is ethical, and I retort, ‘the real question is how can we feed 9 billion people by 2050 sustainably and ethically?’ The answer: ‘we must grow our food in an ecosystem.’ Ecosystems are complex, and animals are merely one part of the equation – there are also flora, microbiological organisms, and abiotic components – minerals, energy, water… Restricting ethical arguments to people and farm animals merely contributes to the anthropocentric problem-solving that got us into our current unsustainable, unethical mess.

It’s a bit of privileged righteousness to read Peter Singer, become vegetarian, and debate the finer moral questions of whose interests are served by the killing and consumption of animals, when humans can live without relying on meat. It’s also a damned sight easier than grappling with the complexity of ecosystems.

We’re part of a food chain, not a constellation of highly evolved autonomous links engaged in synchronised swimming. Each link consumes others in an endlessly complex cycle – remove a link, and others must disproportionately bear the weight of the world.

Industrial agriculture has dropped such a burden on us – it is being born heavily across many ecosystems and species, including our own, but the answer is not ‘stop eating meat’, because the more important question is ‘how can we participate in ecosystems without creating massive imbalances?’ The answer is to dismantle industrial agriculture, and to do so the global north must stop eating so much meat (and dairy), stop growing so much grain for too many farm animals to eat, stop growing soy and corn to insert into every industrial, processed food in existence, and eat foods farmed in biodiverse agro-ecological systems. Equally the global south must be assisted to restore their own agro-ecologies.

It’s only by exiting the anthropocentric mindset that we can understand the ethics of ecosystems – while not every component may be determined to be of equal value, each must be considered. The soil must be nourished just as human and non-human animal bodies must, water must be protected from systems of excess, and biodiversity – including crop and animal diversity- must be protected and maintained to provide natural crop protections and increase our food system’s resilience.

The ethics of ecosystems demand we eat so that we are growing our food in concert with the local environment. We would grow what fruit and vegetables are viable locally, and trade to supplement our diets with what can’t be grown locally.

Continue reading The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Last week I went along to one of the Wheeler Centre’s IQ2 debates, ‘Should Animals Be off the Menu?’ with my usual high hopes of learning something new, and in a way, I suppose I both learned something new and confirmed something old.

New: vegans can stack the Town Hall.

Old: most people don’t actually want to learn, they just want to be right.

So allow me to take you through the ‘debate’, such that it was…

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of Animal Liberation (1975), was the first speaker for the affirmative. Singer is what I usually refer to (perhaps sloppily) as an ethical pragmatist, but I gather he is more rightly classified a secular, preference utilitarian ethicist… (Although I have some training in philosophy, it’s not actually my field, so please correct me insofar as it is useful to the discussion we will have here, but not for the pure pleasure of pedantry, if you please.)

Singer opened with the arguments I would expect from him, and ones I agree with:

  • ‘we can live a healthy life without eating animals’, and
  • ‘misuse of grain to feed animals is wasteful’.

On the first point, I agree with Singer that the majority of the global north could lead a healthy vegetarian life. I certainly did for seven years of my life. I’m not sure it would solve our environmental woes given the state of industrial monocropping, industrial-scale dairy and intensive poultry raising for the majority of the world’s eggs, but he’s right, most of us could be healthy as vegetarians. As for how healthy even we in the global north could be as vegans, there are healthy vegans around (and some less healthy), but I’d be interested in research around how many are taking supplements (especially B12…), and what sustainability would really look like if we all ate fridgeloads of processed soy products.

In many parts of the global south, strict vegetarianism or veganism is clearly less healthy given lack of availability of nutrient-dense foods, but I’ll return to that point later.

Continue reading Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Save Rare Milk

I still remember the forearm strain of carrying four four-gallon jugs of milk in from the car when mum would get home from the supermarket. When we were little, we drank what Americans called ‘Vitamin D milk’, which was full cream. A bit older and we were moved along to ‘2%’, the equivalent of something like ‘Rev’ in Australia. When I started university, I switched to ‘skim milk’, or as we’d say here, ‘skinny milk’.

There was a short period in my adolescence when Dad insisted we drink a glass of raw goat’s milk every day to help boost our immunity against poison oak. We loathed it, and I reckon I contracted poison oak intentionally to demonstrate the futility of this daily torture before he gave up.

When I gave up skinny milk, I repudiated it with the scorn of a reformed smoker. Keep that thin blue liquid with the mouthfeel of vinegar away from me, thanks. Nowadays I like my milk raw, especially after a night in the fridge so that the first pour has globules of cream to tantalise the tongue as it dances through the skim milk underneath.

It’s illegal to sell raw milk in Australia. You can buy cigarettes, eggs from chickens that never knew a day outside a cage, and as much Coca Cola as you want, but not unpasteurised milk. I understand the health risks, just as I understand them about raw eggs and undercooked meat. But I won’t give up drinking raw milk any more than I’ll stop making mayonnaise and eating burgers made from freshly ground beef cooked so they’re still red in the middle.

What I don’t drink anymore is milk from the big processors, and goddess forbid someone should offer me private label milk from Coles or Woolies. According to Australian Dairy Farmers, some 30 dairy farmers have gone out of business in Queensland since January 2011, at least some due to the duopoly’s unscrupulous milk wars. I know who needs my business most, and it’s the independent dairies, preferably organic. And I’ll continue to defiantly drink raw milk when I can.

Continue reading Save Rare Milk

Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!

Full disclosure: like the rancher, hunter and butcher in a recent story in The Atlantic, I am what some would call a ‘reformed vegetarian’, or a ‘born-again carnivore’, as this less charitable vegan would describe me. I consider myself an ethical omnivore.

My story is not unlike many who spent years as a vegetarian only to resume eating meat – I chose a vegetarian diet for ethical and environmental reasons, and returned to meat for health reasons. I had two very healthy pregnancies while vegetarian and breastfed my first two children with no issues, only to become severely anaemic early in the third pregnancy. I tried Floradix Herbal Iron Supplement, which had seen me through the final trimesters before without dropping into the anaemic range, to no avail.

As I sat in wan exhaustion at work one day in the third month, it came to me: a burger will fix this. Considering I hadn’t eaten nor craved meat for over six years (and no pork or poultry for even longer because of my particular concerns about the horrific conditions these animals face in intensive systems), this was a pretty weird thought. But moments later, I walked into a little burger joint in Smith Street, Fitzroy and ordered a burger and asked them to slather it with hot English mustard. I’ll be honest, I felt absolutely nothing except exhilaration and a sense of well being. No guilt – I think my body was thanking me, again, weird, I know, ‘cos it was a burger after all, not a scotch filet, but, hey, that iron slid into my blood cells and brought colour to my cheeks for the first time in months.

Continue reading Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!

Why agroecology is essential to food security

A recurring claim in discussions of food security is that small-scale organic agriculture cannot feed the world, a claim used to support the continued centralisation of agriculture into the hands of a few mega-multinational corporations, who will save us all with GM crops. Arguments are posited around higher yield and decreased pesticide use with GM crops, totally eliding the high yields that can be obtained in organic agriculture and the complete lack of pesticides in these systems, just for a start. Such GM propaganda is utterly spurious and refuted in the literature.

The field of agroecology offers a rich body of work that makes the argument for moving to more sustainable, small-scale agriculture, whether organic or with reduced external inputs such as commercial fertilisers and pesticides. In a few recent discussions I’ve had with supporters of GM, I’ve sent them links to reports to back up the clear and demonstrable evidence that we must move to a very different way of producing food that works to preserve natural resources and regenerate landscape while supporting local communities, but I don’t believe any of them ever read the research.

So today I decided to tweet quotes and paraphrases from one piece of work, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food report: ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food‘, released on the 3rd of August 2011. I hoped that by reading the 21-page report myself and offering just the highlights, those who speak loudly on a topic they appear to know little about might be better informed. Of course I also knew it would offer plenty of good evidence for those already advocating for sustainable ag. I offer you the list of the quotes and paraphrases I tweeted here in one place for easy reference. Note that most of these are direct quotes from the report, and a couple of them are paraphrased – I have not added any of my own comments.

Another excellent resource of the latest research in agroecology is The Laboratory of Agroecology and Urban Ecosystems at Washington State University Vancouver – and you might like to follow Assistant Professor Jahi Chappell on twitter – he’s @mjahi – as he often tweets links to relevant research.

Continue reading Why agroecology is essential to food security

Happy ‘Free Range’ Holiday

I have an article up on The Hoopla today: Happy ‘Free Range’ Christmas. In it, I detail the certification standards around free-range meat in Australia, and give suggestions about which ones to trust and where to source ethically-produced poultry and pork, plus some advice and links on sustainable seafood.

There are more retailers and promoters of ethical and local produce than I had space for in the article, so I thought I’d put a few more here. Not all produce listed by these sites will necessarily be free-range meats – I’ve included local directories here, and you’ll need to do your own local homework on the details!

I’d be very interested in feedback on more sites – I’ll pop them into the following list as I’m made aware of more.

Foodo

Australian Regional Food Guide

Pigeon House 150 (Wollongong, NSW)

Transition Mt Alexander Local Food Guide (VIC)

Daylesford Macedon Produce (VIC)

Local Harvest: The Sunshine Coast Regional Food Directory (Qld)

Feast Fine Foods (Adelaide, SA)

 

Will you pay for the ‘pigness of the pig’?

Last week it was my honour to do a guest post for Milk Maid Marian (a truly excellent and thoughtful blogger on the realities of dairy farming) on what ethical farming means to consumers. There is some great discussion in the comments on Marian’s blog, and the post generated a lot of interest on the twitterz. Next thing I knew, @andrewfaith had suggested to @wendyharmer that she might like to cross post the piece on The Hoopla, which she did the very next morning. The comments there are also well worth the read.

All of this happened while I was at the inaugural Australasian Regional Food Networks and Cultures Conference in Kingscliff, and then immediately afterwards at the Annual Council Meeting of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), for whom I am no longer an office bearer as of 1 January 2012. Hence you’ll see I haven’t responded to any of the comments on the posts on Marian and Wendy’s sites, which I aim to rectify soon.

Just to finish this little update, I’ve also just been appointed Company Secretary to the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, where I look forward to using my years of higher ed advocacy and activism to step up my advocacy for sustainable and ethical farming and consumption practices.

Thank you, 2011, for the glorious life-changing opportunities, and here’s looking towards 2012 for even brighter (and bigger) horizons!

On milk, farming, and life

This was posted first on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Everyone’s crying over spilt milk, or rather the calves who are sacrificed so that we may drink milk. Dairy farmers are crying over the reputational damage to their livelihood – and it’s not exactly a cushy job commanding six-figure salaries. And it seems to me that everyone is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong, but that there is a clear way forward.

To backtrack, this Animals Australia video which depicts the short life of a ‘bobby calf’ in a manner designed to evoke the most emotion possible managed to upset consumers and farmers equally, from what I can tell. According to the dairy farmers who are commenting on thoughtful blogs such as @milkmaidmarian’s, they don’t send their calves straight to the abattoir, and are acutely conscious of the value of each life they nurture and take on their farms. They frequently make the point that it is the city-based consumers who are too often utterly unaware (and uncaring?) of the conditions under which their food is grown.

I think it’s fantastic that animal welfare groups apply pressure to the livestock industry for humane treatment during an animal’s life and at its death. As an omnivore, I’m frankly not that interested (but also not really fussed) in being told I shouldn’t eat meat – I’ve made my choices thoughtfully and I’m happy with that – but I do want my meat ethically produced.

I also think it’s fantastic that farmers like Marian speak up about their practices, which are different from those displayed in the Animals Australia video. I know the dairy farmer near us has a similar practice – he raises the bull calves to 2 years then sells them for beef (and not for a lot of money, remember, as Friesians are not considered great eating for primal cuts) and the heifers are grown to be more milkers on the farm. I applaud farmers like Marian joining in pressuring for ethical treatment of animals – people like her can help by demonstrating alternatives.

But of course the reason the video exists is because there are apparently 700,000 bobby calves going to slaughter at around five days old – they are ‘waste products’ – and their few days of life entail an existence with which most people are deeply uncomfortable, both for its apparent brutality but also its brevity. I know I’m uncomfortable with the system, and grateful to be in a position to choose organic milk from a farm whose practices I know and trust.

I’m very conscious of the sensitivities in these debates – nobody wants to be ‘that guy who abuses animals’, and ‘abuse’ is far more relative than any of us care to admit. People running intensive animal operations (or CAFOs, aka ‘factory farms’) claim that the animals in their care are ‘happy’, ‘fine’, ‘safe’, or ‘healthy’, but by my definition that’s simply impossible, because I believe in respecting the ‘pigness of the pig’, as Joel Salatin says. So for me, farm animals should be able to graze, dig, forage, scratch and wander in a manner as close to how they would if we weren’t constraining them with some fences and the like as possible. But every time a consumer is happy to buy intensively-farmed chicken (or pork, or beef…), s/he is complicit in the system, and I have been too at times.

But when consumers (or the media or government) cry out in horror over the treatment of animals, they should think long and hard about the precarious position most farmers are in. Farms are at the mercy of the elements, which in this age of climate change has seen Australian farmers cope with constant rounds of drought and floods. Add to this an ever-narrowing range of distribution and retail outlets who control farm gate prices, which have plateaued for years in the face of rising costs of production.

As my limited experience as a producer grows and my interactions with other farmers deepens, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to simply make a living producing food. And if all the farmers like us are forced out by low prices, consumers will be left with only intensive farms, the same ones where bobby calves are waste products, and pigs and chickens are raised in sheds.

So my thoughts are this: we farmers need to be transparent in our practices and let consumers judge for themselves whether they’re happy with how we treat our animals and the land. The internet is our friend – we can show pictures and tell the stories of our animals (well, slowly slowly until there’s a National Broadband Network, but that’s another post), so long as we are happy with what we’re doing. Those who won’t show us their animals certainly seem to be hiding something, though they protest they’re not. As @greenvalefarm said recently, ‘transparency is the best certification’.

And as consumers, we need to ask questions and listen to farmers. We need to value the people producing our food, both socially and economically. We need to better understand that the reason that farm gate prices may not have been immediately impacted by Coles dropping its price to $1 per litre for milk is because farmers have been getting around 50 cents per litre for over a decade anyway – any extra cash goes into the pockets of processors and retailers (that is, Coles and Woolworths, who have 80% market share in Australia).

I’m happy to pay a lot more than $1 per litre for my milk, but I want the extra to go back to farmers, not to those who would ‘value add’ to a product that I think is best straight from the cow! If you want that too, @flavourcrusader has an excellent alt.milk list on her wonderful blog.

Welcome to Jonai Farms!

As regular readers are well aware, now we are farmers. And so Jonai Farms must have its own website, of course, where I’ve decided to blog our adventures in farming.

It will be interesting learning which blog is for which post, and occasionally I will simply cross post. So for those interested in all things farming and the rural life, check out The Hedonist Life over at Jonai Farms. 🙂