[This was originally posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) blog]
I’ve been home five days from my three-week Epic Fair Food Tour of America and my mind has only just stopped spinning long enough to let the pieces fall into place. The trip spanned coast-to-coast – eight states in three weeks – and included daily conversations with some of America’s leading thinkers and daily creators of alternative food systems.
I was delighted to spend time with farmers such as the irascible Joel Salatin of Polyface, the fiery and generous Mike Callicrate of Ranch Foods Direct, the irreverent and determined Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms, the earnest and warm Guido Frosini of True Grass Farms, the focused and incisive Marina of Circle B Ranch, and the fierce and friendly Julia Smith of Urban Digs Farm.
I was also privileged to break bread and talk food ethics with many of those I think of as the connectors in our food system – the butchers, providores, and chefs – such as Kate & Josh at Western Daughters butcher shop in Denver, Rachael of Brooklyn Bouillon, Jake of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, Ryan of Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York (whose book The Third Plate is a must read).
And of course I was also fortunate to spend time and learn from others who write, speak, teach, and lobby to transform the system, including John Moody of Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky, Temple Grandin, Jahi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Michael Pollan, and Neil Thapar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.
So after spending time with that line up, surely I’ve got all the answers now, right? No, but I do have a clearer picture of where the food sovereignty movement is up to in the States, some ideas about how best to focus our efforts together, and what seem to me some of the weaknesses and gaps in the current movement.
What remains clear is that we must support the farmers who are building an alternative food system.
And we must also support the connectors who help them get their produce to market in a way that doesn’t simply build a new system that looks exactly like the old one. But I’ll return to that dilemma in a moment.
As for the farmers building the new system like those listed above and across Australia and the rest of the world – we need these fair food farms to be ready as the old system crumbles.
The combined pressures of climate change and epidemics sweeping through intensive animal agriculture such as H5N2 avian flu and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) are growing challenges for industrial agriculture, and workers organizing to demand fair pay and conditions combined with increasing consumer pressure for greater transparency and better treatment of land, animals, and workers are having an effect.
Promising signs include popular American fast food chain Chipotle’s animal welfare sourcing policy and recent announcement that it would no longer use GMO ingredients in its products, while McDonalds announced the closure of hundreds of its outlets amidst major drops in profits.
In less promising news, Chinese giant Shuanghui purchased America’s biggest pork producer Smithfield in 2013, narrowing control of the global meat industry even further. (For more on the meat industry, see my earlier post on my time at Slow Meat in Denver.)
And so as the Polyfaces, White Oaks, Gunthorps, Jonai, Buena Vistas, and Old Mill farms of the world toil to grow food deeply embedded in our local communities and imbued with their values of respect for people and animals and care for the land, we must support them/us, just as we must find ways to help others get onto the land to grow more food in small-scale agroecological systems.
As we say at Jonai Farms, we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply.
One of the most obvious issues the movement must grapple with is the question of scale. What’s the right size to be viable, and when is big too big? There are no easy answers to these questions, but viability must always be considered holistically – as well as being financially viable, are we maintaining viable soils, viable animals grown in healthy systems resilient to disease without constant application of antibiotics?
On size and sovereignty, I would argue that it’s a question of connectedness. Scale typically decreases the connectedness of the producer to the eater. Polyface challenged my thinking on scale as I saw that Joel has fostered the growth of new farmers in his area by taking them on as sub-contractors while mentoring them on their journey. Ultimately most move onto their own independent farms, which can be a tricky model for the Salatins as they must regularly train up new farmers to maintain their production, but Joel is committed to it. He says he never intended to grow to the size they are now, ‘it just happened’, but he’s unapologetic about it, and I could see why. What I witnessed was a healthy example of a bigger scale, employing dozens of people in a thriving regenerative system.
But if the Salatins, like the Tysons before them, opted to continue to scale and to buy up every feed operation, every hatchery, and every slaughterhouse their profits enabled them to, we’d be back to what we’re trying to end. None of today’s fair food farmers would seek to reproduce the horrendous production model of intensive poultry that Tyson introduced back in the 1930s. But vertical integration is increasingly common in this movement – Polyface, Gunthorp, and we Jonai are all working to control more of the supply chain to ensure our own viability as well as control and connectedness.
And we must be vigilant against our own cultural impulse to grow grow grow simply because we can, and because there’s demand for our product. We must know when to stop and hand over surplus demand to our comrades on the farms multiplying all around us. If we command (and pay our workers) a fair price to start with, we need not continue to grow. We can grow less for more rather than more for less, which will grow more farmers.
So that’s production sorted.
What about the connectors? How do we ensure they do their important work to process and package primary produce and get it to market in the many instances where it still won’t be suitable or possible for the farmers to do that work themselves without re-creating the old system where the middleman takes all (or too much anyway)? And in a way where they are paid fairly as well – think of abattoir workers, food manufacturing workers, and all the other workers in the food chain. (And then think of the companies who own abattoirs, and companies like Kraft or Coles or Woolworths and what their shareholders and executives earn…)
What’s the right organizational structure for these connectors? Surely the many independent butchers I spent time with overseas and that many Australians frequent here are a good example of a fair business model, as are the small, independent grocers (who are pretty rare these days as the supermarkets drive them out), though many struggle to remain viable in a world where food’s cheapness is valued well above its fairness. And those sorts of businesses that have direct relationships with their producers are clearly going to be better for the eaters as they serve as a kind of conduit between the two, rather than a brick wall like the current system (I’m looking at you, ColesWorths).
Shareholders, sales targets, and growth models should probably be eschewed in favour of cooperatives, not-for-profits, and mindfully remaining small and local. And connectedness, one would hope, will help the average eater understand better why they must value food more highly and pay its real cost.
The last pillars of food system reform I’d like to briefly address are regulation, policy, and the role of lobbying and advocacy.
Current regulatory frameworks were developed over time to protect the public from things it cannot see, as well as from visible unscrupulous or negligent practices. They regulate long, industrial supply chains in a world where a frozen pizza product can contain 35 different ingredients that have passed through 60 countries and carry the label ‘country of origin Ireland’, and a packet of mince can contain meat from 17 animals from an unknown number of farms. (See Swallow This for a detailed exploration of the global processed food industry.)
Regulation is therefore in many cases inappropriate to the scale and connectedness of small production systems, and we must seek to redress this if we are to support the growth of small farms with greater control of their supply chains. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund in America is one body doing that, initially through a focus on litigation, but increasingly on support for compliance and lobbying for legal reform. AFSA is working with the Regrarians and others to establish something similar here to support farmers working to build regenerative and fair local food economies.
The Sustainable Economies Law Centre in Oakland, California is another example of an organization committed to supporting producers, consumers and everyone in between in developing sustainable models through independent advice as well as their regular ‘Resilient Communities Legal Café’, freely available to all. As they help their clients develop new templates for innovative models of people trying to build more resilient local economies, they make them available to others to grow this movement. I love these people.
On policy, Michael Pollan collaborated with Ricardo Salvador, Olivier de Schutter, and Mark Bittman recently on a column calling for a National Food Policy in the US. I shared AFSA’s People’s Food Plan that was the genesis of our Alliance with Michael to show what can be done when the people take the lead.
Of course North America has a flourishing movement of Food Policy Councils, but these are predominantly local movements. My passionate and knowledgeable comrade Nick Rose, Secretary and National Coordinator for AFSA, is currently establishing a new body in Australia called Sustain: The Australian Food Network, which aims to do similar work to support and connect local government authorities and other food systems stakeholders across the country. He will provide more detail on Sustain’s aims and progress as it develops, with the strong support of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.
I can’t write a post about major food systems reform without addressing access to not just fair food, but all food. It’s an essential question for our society to address – how do we ensure the most basic human right of access to (safe, nutritious) food is secured for everyone, everywhere? And when people like me say we need to pay more for food to be fair to producers and chain workers and animals, what about those who can’t even afford the food when it’s not fair to the rest?
The short answer to that is that the food movement alone cannot possibly solve structural and systemic poverty, whether here or in the US or elsewhere. We can apply loads of bandaids – I’m grateful for the work of excellent bodies like Foodbank, Secondbite, Spade & Barrow, and local food rescues everywhere. And little farms like ours can offer discounts to provide better access to our community periodically. But that won’t solve poverty – egalitarian, living wages and strong social support systems will.
My excellent colleague and AFSA Communications Officer Alana Mann has addressed the problem of hunger in a recent post where she reminded us that ‘hidden hunger is a public problem for which we are all responsible.’
In the US this problem is so entrenched it’s hard to fully grasp in Australia. I know of waiters in the US earning $2.50/hour because their tips are expected to bring them up to the minimum wage (which may be as low as $7.50/hour). And in America this is legal. The cities of Los Angeles and Seattle have recently introduced $15/hour minimum wages – a major breakthrough in that country. As Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance told us at the Slow Meat symposium in Denver, the food chain sector is both the largest and the lowest paid sector of the US economy. That is a national disgrace.
The context in Australia is certainly different to that, but as the Four Corners expose on the pay and conditions for itinerant farm workers here demonstrated, we are not innocent of treating workers unfairly, and the food movement must work in solidarity to remedy these wrongs.
And yet we must also acknowledge that systemic poverty is simply much bigger than the food movement. We can be part of the solution, but we cannot solve poverty here or in the US on our own, and we cannot ask farmers to bear the brunt of the cost equation to solve this serious social problem.
An important thing I learned during my time in America is that although the movement there gained momentum earlier than it did here, we are not behind. Our smallness is a strength, and provides a capacity for more rapid meaningful change that the monolith of America can only dream of. And the movement there seems to have already progressed to levels of cooption and greenwashing that we are just beginning to get glimmers of, and once again, our smallness will serve us well in combating those who would deceive the ever-awakening public who want a fair food system.
Three weeks of bearing witness to America’s movement gave me hope, and strengthened AFSA’s links to those really making a difference for food sovereignty, the growers, connectors, eaters, teachers, and amplifiers. Together with our comrades in the US and across the globe I believe we can stand and demand our right to collectively determine our own food and agriculture systems, because you only have to look around you to see that we are legion.