Agroecology & ‘other innovations’ – Australia on the wrong side of history

[Note: this was first posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) website]

In April, AFSA attended a seminar hosted by the CSIRO in Canberra, giving the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) a chance to share their current work on Agroecology and Other Innovations for Sustainable Food Systems with the Australian public and policymakers. The HLPE is an expert panel created within the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to facilitate policy debates and inform policy making with independent research.

The seminar was not particularly well advertised amongst farmers and their representative bodies, and I believe AFSA was the only representative organisation for farmers who attended. In fact, I learned about the seminar from activists and FAO staff in Rome – not through any local channels. Conversely, Bayer was there – the world’s largest supplier of seed and agri-chemicals after last year’s merger with Monsanto – they now control about 25% of the seed & pesticide market globally.

The event started out promisingly enough, with assertions that it used to be ‘agriculture versus the environment’ but that ‘that time is over,’ and repeated assurances that we are beyond the time for business-as-usual approaches given the urgency of the need for radically different agricultural practices in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

The Chair of the HLPE Steering Committee Patrick Caron gave an insightful overview of the context of the report on agroecology and ‘other innovations’, in which he pointed out that ‘when people talk about agroecology, sustainable intensification, precision agriculture – they have very different things in mind…’. Caron explained that this report’s role is to understand disagreements and to shape the international agenda.

He was followed by Fergus Lloyd Sinclair of the Agroforestry Institute in Nairobi, the HLPE Project Team Leader, who presented a very encouraging update on their work on the report to date. He first candidly shared what a ‘schizophrenic terms of reference’ the HLPE was given by the CFS, pointing out that ‘agroecology’ and ‘other innovations’ can be distinguished on the basis of principles. Sinclair asserted that ‘agroecology is a dynamic space, with many actors… not prescribed… locally defined in different ways by the people who are practicing it…’ and that there is a ‘strong connection between indigenous knowledge, traditional agriculture systems, and science.’

He went on to explain that agroecology as an innovation is easily distinguished from other approaches such as ‘sustainable intensification’ (and ‘climate smart agriculture’, ‘nutrient sensitive agriculture’, because agroecology (which may broadly include aspects of organic agriculture, agroforestry, silvopastoralism, and permaculture) is labour intensive rather than capital intensive. It relies on the humans in its system for knowledge and labour rather than capital intensive technological innovations that seek to largely replace human labour and often even knowledge.

Sinclair also explained the HLPE’s pitch to include ‘agency’ as a fifth pillar of food security – a concept already fundamental to food sovereignty, which asserts everyone’s right to collectively participate in food and agriculture systems.

After this rousing start, we watched as the CSIRO took to the podium. After thanking her colleagues from the HLPE and agreeing that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ approaches, the Acting Deputy Director of Food and Agriculture gave a 20-minute presentation on business as usual. She started with some stats:

  • Australia is 6th largest land size country in world and 55th largest population
  • Major exports: wheat, beef, wool, dairy, wine – mostly to China, USA, and Japan
  • Farmers are 2.5% of total workforce
  • 90% of our population lives on .2% of our land
  • Australian ag workforce: 82% live in regional areas, 73% work full time, 32% female (more likely to try non business as usual approaches, more likely to earn off farm income), 1% indigenous
  • Change areas for Australian ag: increasing competition, Asia’s growth, evolving consumer, biosecurity & provenance, resource scarcity, climate change, digital ag, energy disruption

She then asserted that ongoing innovations are needed to protect our natural resources as well as agriculture, requiring new forms of surveillance. Wait, what? Next, regarding upcoming innovations, she said, ‘I aspire for a future where Australian ag is a price-setter in the global market.’ Okay, but what about agroecology?

Here’s a list of some of the non-business-as-usual innovations cited by the CSIRO at this seminar on agroeocology and other innovations:

  • yield maps
  • canola yield based on average rainfall
  • nitrogen application impact
  • virtual fencing (‘quite happy cows with their lovely collars on’)
  • genetic engineering for broad-spectrum disease resistance, novel oils, nitrogen fixing plants, fixing heterosis through apomixes, pest-resistant legumes, boosting photosynthesis, and biofortified foods
  • New grains for human health – engineering health outcomes into food people eat such as barley and wheat. High amylose wheat, BARLEYmax, novel fibre wheat, gluten-free cereals, thick aleurone cereals
  • Leaf oils – ‘game changer for global oil production’ – a seed output as well as a leaf output

I guess the CSIRO is more in the ‘other innovations’ camp. (In fact when a like-minded colleague asked the CSIRO speaker between sessions why she didn’t speak about agroecology, she responded that she was ‘instructed not to.’ Let that sink in for a minute.)

Our mates from Bayer were the first question off the rank after the opening speakers, revisiting a point Sinclair made about an ‘increasing moralisation around food.’ The Bayer rep asked Sinclair how he believes the ‘moralisation of food’ impacts on equity. It is a tried and true rhetorical trick from industrial ag proponents, who often seek to establish their own moral position with appeals to equal access and the role of (presumed but not always proven) cheap technologies (that they own) to ‘feed the masses.’ They may as well exclaim, ‘Let them eat cake!’ and be done with it. Whether posed as a question or an assertion, this device always willfully ignores earlier expert points that hunger is not caused by scarcity of food, but rather by failures in governance and distribution.

During the break I was introduced to another CSIRO senior staffer as the president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. His response was to raise his eyebrows and yelp, ‘Food sovereignty? That raises alarm bells with policy people!’ To which I calmly responded, ‘Really? Policymakers are alarmed by peoples’ right to democratically participate in the food and agriculture system?’ ‘Yes!’ he intoned, ‘Internationally it impedes trade!’

I think that rather than bore you with the rest of what we heard from the CSIRO at the seminar, all of which is in line with what’s cited above and demonstrates their slavish devotion to free trade in capitalist global markets to the detriment of most farmers and eaters everywhere, I’ll leave you with some more interesting input from the HLPE.

Caron gave a summation of the status of the current report on agroecology and ‘other innovations’, which has passed Version 0 and a period of public consultation, with draft Version 1 due to be released soon.

Part one of the report asks: What has changed in past 20 years regarding food security & nutrition (FSN)?

  1. Acknowledgement through different definitions of FSN of the right to food. FSN until creation of FAO in 1945 was a national issue, became a global issue in second half of the century. Increasingly realised that sufficient supply doesn’t ensure FSN.
  2. In 80s and 90s we were talking about starvation, and now we talk about 800mil suffering hunger & starvation – mostly rural poor.
  3. We are mainly focusing on yield improvement when we are wasting a third of production.
  4. Hunger is not decreasing quickly enough and overweight & obesity are increasing rapidly – well beyond infectious diseases – and are the number one problem in public health.

Part two of the report examines the ways in which food systems are changing, and reminds us that the question is not how to feed 9 billion people, it’s how to feed them in a sustainable way while providing decent livelihoods for producers. We can use the food system as a lever to address all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ‘We thought that improving supply and access to markets would help everyone but we were wrong.’

The third part of the draft report has the much-anticipated draft recommendations – what’s needed to make food systems sustainable? The answers warm a food sovereignty activist’s heart. How to improve food supply? It could be through investing in knowledge and technology, reducing food waste, internalizing externalities – they’re all possibilities. It must be through strengthening resilience – investing in small-scale ag, securing land and tenure rights, securing social equity and responsibility with social protection systems, supporting women and youth, creating decent jobs in agriculture, through investing in education for all.

The HLPE reminds us we can’t forget the need to change consumption habits, and that to do so we need to change the food environment – advertisements, subsidies, and banning some types of food like we have with alcohol and tobacco. The CFS is supposed to draft voluntary guidelines to be agreed in 2020.

Caron insists that we must improve governance of food systems and the capacity of stakeholders to participate. He says that the changes will be knowledge intensive and we have to invest in knowledge – the answers are not the ones already on the shelves. We must design new governance of food systems at all levels – including national levels.

Before closing we had a final opportunity for questions or comments, so I took the opportunity to express concern at the CSIRO’s focus over the course of the day on exports, growth, and increasing yield in spite of the obvious environmental degradation witnessed up Australia’s eastern coast over the past two years due to extreme levels of drought in a changing climate, and also in spite of the expert position presented here and for decades now that we don’t need to grow more food, we need to make food systems more democratic. The response from the CSIRO was, ‘we’re an independent science research body – we can’t take sides.’

Well AFSA can, and we choose a habitable planet for generations to come. By not joining the heavy weight of evidence showing the changes needed in our food and agriculture systems, CSIRO are taking a side too – commonly known as the wrong side of history.

Tammi Jonas

President, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

Connectivity to Collectivity

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?

The Regulation Diaries (6): Winning the Salami Wars

Just over two years ago, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon before an early flight to France and Italy to research the old traditions of charcuterie and salumi making, inspectors from the Victorian meat industry regulator PrimeSafe rolled up our driveway and destroyed all our personal salamis.

Early this year we received a letter from PrimeSafe with a vaguely threatening instruction not to run our popular Salami Days. At least three others (that we know of) who run similar workshops received nearly the same letter, and I momentarily despaired that the vibrant and delicious skill of salami making was about to come to a sad end in Victoria.

But I never despair long, and I soon requested a meeting with PrimeSafe. And so late one morning after an abattoir run in April Stuart and I parked the aromatic stock trailer out front of the South Melbourne offices and went in to meet with two members of PrimeSafe staff. The good news is that The Inspector we’ve dealt with is apparently absent for now, and the staff we now deal with seem much more earnest at fulfilling their duties, and much less interested in standover tactics. Promising days.

I won’t use space here on the initial agenda items regarding rillettes and cryovac-ing smoked hocks except to say it went reasonably well, and as soon as our supply gets back to normal (a story I’ll write up soon…) we’ll be getting those products approved in spite of last year’s difficulties over them.

Here’s how the discussion of salami workshops went (this is of course a paraphrase as best I remembered it when I documented it after the meeting):

***

Me: So can we talk about our salami days now, please?

Officer A: Yes, Tammi, first I have to ask you, are you prepared to become an RTO [a Registered Training Organisation, e.g. a TAFE or similar]?

Me: No, that’s irrelevant. We aren’t trying to give anyone a qualification or certificate, so we don’t need to be an RTO. I was a Senior Risk Analyst for the regulator for higher education and am well aware of the role and requirements for RTOs and universities, and they don’t apply to what we do. We spend one day teaching how to transform a whole pig carcass into cured muscles and salami, we enjoy a long lunch with wine and a band, and it’s a really lovely day…

Officer B: So would you say it’s more of a festival than a workshop? Because that would be regulated by your council.

Me: Not really a festival, but sure, you can call it what you want if that helps. But we can’t be regulated by our council for matters you have an interest in as the regulator, as there’s a double jeopardy rule as you know. But we don’t believe you have jurisdiction over our salami days as we’re not processing meat for sale and none leaves the property…

Officer B: Okay, maybe it’s more of festival…

Officer A: But Tammi we still have concerns over you teaching people to make salami. What if one of them goes home and does it badly and somebody gets sick?

Me: Are you familiar with YouTube and Michael Ruhlman’s books ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’? People learn how to make salami any number of ways, just as they do cheese and other cooking skills… surely you’d prefer your licensees to teach these skills as we are knowledgeable about food safety?

Officer A: Well, we still have concerns…

Me: Officer A, I have concerns over whether you had McDonalds for lunch but I have no legislative authority over whether you choose to eat that. So if you have something in the [Meat Industry] Act of which I’m unaware about the legality of our salami days, please let me know, because if there’s nothing there to stop us teaching people to make salami, I’m frankly not interested in your concerns.

Officer A: [crickets]

Officer A: Well, I guess ultimately it’s a matter for our CEO.

Me: Oh, really? Seems to me it’s a matter for the Instrument [aka the Act]. Here’s my plan – I’m going to run our salami days same as I have for the past three years. If you have new information you need to share with us you know where we are.

***

And here we are five months later, three Jonai Salami Days and many #youcantbuywhatieat potluck protests later, one Melbourne Salami Festa approaching, and on the eve of the King Valley Salami Festa

We’re sharing this story to give hope to others who have been harassed out of running workshops that maintain these beautiful old food traditions. We called the regulator’s bluff and found that there was no ace in the hole, nothing in the legislation to stop us hosting Salami Days.

Just don’t let anyone leave with meat processed outside a licensed facility and you’re well within your rights to teach more people the delicious joys of skilful curing of whole carcasses. And make sure you know what you’re doing – that someone with experience and knowledge of safe food handling has taught you best practice. We’ve been fortunate to learn from Australian farmers and butchers, Italian saluministi, and French charcutiers, and we’re about to add the Spanish masters of jamón making to our mentors…

It’s 3 o’clock the day before we fly to Spain and Italy on another research trip to learn more about the very old arts of jamón and salami making… so we’re just going to leave this here.

…but this time we’re leaving a resident lawyer at the farm while we’re away. 😉

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Food Sovereignty asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ecologically sound and ethical ways and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems.

This year the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is fundraising to establish a Legal Defence Fund to support small-scale farmers and makers in their efforts to grow, process, and distribute food grown in ethically- and ecologically-sound ways, and eaters’ right to access this food.

We’ve currently raised over $22,000 and are looking forward to distributing some of the funds to the farmers most in need when we reach $25,000 (with an ambitious goal of $100,000 by the end of Fair Food Week 23 October!).  

If you want to protect your right to grow and eat nutritious and delicious food as you and your community see fit, join us today!