I’ve spent many hours over the last year reading food plans from different countries, trying to get a sense of how we feed ourselves, and the problems with how we do that. Earlier in the year, the Australian government put out a green paper to inform a national food plan. I’m still working through that report in detail (it’s some 200 pages long), but there’s already been quite a response to it elsewhere (here, here and here), and the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance has put together a discussion paper for a People’s Food Plan as an alternative.
The language difference between the two papers is stark. The government report, as is to be expected, I suppose, is rather dry reading. The facts are interesting, but the language is business language — and much of the criticism of this report has suggested that it’s too business focused. There’s quite a lot in the report that isn’t related to business, but I do agree that its overall focus is problematic. Business, and the economy, are only part of what’s affected by food. The People’s Food Plan discussion paper uses more emotive language, which might be criticised by business folk, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to talk that way about food. Most of us have an emotional relationship with food, in one way or another — it’s often how we socialise, and our food choices are often highly emotion, even if we’re not always aware of it.
A week or so ago, I went to the first of a series of events put on by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries (DAFF), which they’re calling AgTalks. The session I went to was discussion around the topic “Australians don’t care where their food comes from, as long as it’s cheap and looks good.” The event was chaired by Cameron Wilson, from ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program (and an edited version of the event was broadcast on that show — you can listen to the podcast here), and on the panel were representatives from across the food industry. Interestingly, the panel did not include any farmers, or at least no farmers who didn’t have a vested interest in an industry organisation. Wilson had a number of questions for the panel to consider, but he also threw to the audience and to Twitter (#agtalks) for questions.
Something that bothered me about some of the questions, and about some of the responses from the panel, was the underlying assumption that there is an easy or simple answer to any of the problems that run deep in our food system. I should note that not everyone seemed to be working on this assumption, but it was something that came up frequently. The idea that ‘everyone should just shop at farmers’ markets’ (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here — those exact words were not actually uttered) really irks me. Not everyone has access to farmers’ markets (or organic food, or even fresh food), be that because they can’t afford it, or because it actually just isn’t available anywhere near them. To offer that as a solution just shuts down discussion — very important discussion. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for farmers’ markets, all for organic and sustainably-grown food, and I certainly think the cost of that kind of food is a more accurate indication of what it actually costs to produce good food. I just think reality of supply is a little more complicated. Supply isn’t just about quantity. It’s also about distribution and access. And the more research I do into food in Australia, the more I come to see that we really must look at food as an inherently social problem, as well as seeing it as an economic and environmental problem.
Which brings me back to a quote from The People’s Food Plan discussion draft: “Being essential to life, food systems must be life-sustaining and life-enhancing.” I would add that it needs to be that for all people. I’ll be watching the development of this plan with great interest, hoping that the social issues that surround access to food are considered carefully and thoughtfully.