A few weeks ago, I managed to take a whole day off (!) to attend the Growers and Eaters Forum in Brunswick, looking at our current food systems and ways these systems can face the challenges climate change, peak oil and financial collapse that we are seeing unfold at the moment.
As you would expect there was particular focus on local food production and organic agriculture, aswell as community gardens, food box schemes, farmers markets, and social enterprises.
Its taken me a few weeks, but below are my notes from each of the sessions I attended, aswell as from conversations with some of participants and speakers. Please excuse errors in grammar, spelling and plain laziness!
SESSION 1 – The Ultimate Resource: sorting out local food for a sustainable future
The first speaker, John Whitelegg from England was policy researcher advising different levels of government on reorganizing their transport systems to deal with climate change and peak oil (see www.postcarbon.org/).
However, as he explained, the more he analysed transport problems, the issue of food security kept appearing as the key.
Synopsis: Currently we eat oil. We use it to grow food, move food around the world, process food and go to the supermarket to buy food. In an oil contrained world struggling with climate change and seeking to switch land to feed cards and note people, this is not very intelligent. The presentation will explore the issue and build a practical sustainable alternative based on international experience in celerbrating and facilitating high quality local food.
John used extensive government research and policy papers to point out the inefficiencies and huge wastage of water and fossil fuels tied up in current food production and transport systems. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but something like it takes seven calories of energy to produce one calorie of food energy in the current system. When we lived in agrarian societies, it was a one to one relationship – the reliance on large mono-crop farms, centralized production, and reliance on cheap fuel source to transport food from place to place has allowed push this ratio such without continued cheap fuel, the system would not operate.
To deal with the twin challenge of climate change (which conveniently comes with the same solutions as peak oil), John and a team of researchers presented a possible means of reducing the carbon footprint of the average Londoner by 60%. This included:
10% organic component of diet
92% food to be sourced within 100 miles
100% less meat in diet (this caused a backlash!)
30% more vegetables, and 50% more cheese (surprising)
20% reduction in overall consumption.
Important to note this was not presented as THE solution, just ONE solution. You could play with the percentages and still come up with 60%.
Johns research looked at a concept of FOOD DESERTS, highlighting towns and regions that do not have easy access to locally produced food and transport options, and a heavy reliance on convenience stores, expensive supermarkets and taxi or car for transport.
Similar research was underway in Australia, highlighting some of the new areas of Melbourne which have been marketed by land developers as “affordable housing”, yet vulnerable to future food security challenges.
Research compared the carbon impact of supermarkets versus local shops. In a program called Wise Moves, it showed local shops had a significant less carbon impact than supermarkets – produce is sourced locally, customers more likely walk or ride to shops, more of the profit stays in local area, less business inputs are imported.
Numerous models were presented, most were from Scandanavia (why is it always from there?).
A group called FARMERS OWN, aggregates local producers from a local area and creates business owned by the producers to supply and market to, retailers in the area.
John worked with previous mayor of London, to get approval for a HUB in London dedicated to local producers, similar to the Swedish Farmers Own. It organizes the transport, marketing, invoicing for growers and producers, and only required $3m to get started.
In Germany, VON HIER (“From Here”) is a private company specializing in local organic produce, dealing direct with local growers. It sets up a regional food distribution unit for each region is works in, specific to the needs of each region. This model has reduced the carbon transport component by 60%.
Johns presentation was full of examples already in operation in Europe, and expanded into other areas such as ecovillages, regional currencies and the financial crisis.
His presentation finished with a somewhat dire warning that without urgent action, the food and transport systems we have relied for most of the past 100 years will collapse by 2012.
A copy of his presentation to Vic Health can be found here. I noticed he has removed the slide that warns of collapse for this audience!
SESSION 2 – Making the existing food distribution system obsolete
Miranda Sharp, from Victorian Farmers Market Association, discussed the success and benefits of the Farmers Market model that has taken hold in Melbourne especially over the past ten years.
I didn’t take too many notes during this talk. The main points were that the number of markets in Melbourne were continuing to grow, but the number around regional area were not. The association was looking to bring in a certification process in the next twelve months so that no farmers market stall could operate unless it was the farmer themselves operating the stall.
The reference to Farmers Markets in subsequent talks and private discussions was surprising and interesting. There wasn’t the support for Farmers Markets that I would have expected.
Many of the growers I spoke to complained that they don’t have the time to visit every market. A day at a market is a day off the farm, so it really has to pay well, and many market operators treat it as a “day out”, and don’t properly consider the growers. Many farmers just don’t like standing behind a stall and would rather someone do it for them.
Participants from the social enterprises whose concern was food security for disadvantaged people, were also critical of farmers markets.
The next speaker was the pick of the day for me; Robert Pekin from Food Connect told his story as a dairy farmer that had to reinvent himself after his farm failed. For anyone who has seen The Real Dirt on Farmer John, their stories paralleled.
They operate from Brisbane, distributing 850 food boxes per week. Their produce is sourced direct from growers, with a focus on “small” and “local” growers rather than organic (although about 85% is organic). None of it is certified organic – they use a less onerous and more affordable certification scheme based on trust and relationships between the grower and eater. This is one that is recognized internationally and allows smaller growers to be labeled organic for the purpose of serving a local market. It currently operates in many third world countries and is promoted by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture.
They will take produce from home gardeners, kids selling on road side, small growers, anyone that fits their framework and they feel affiliated with. The result is organic produce that is less than cost of conventional (chemical) produce from supermarkets.
The boxes are not home delivered, but sent to a network of “City Cousins” dotted throughout Brisbane – essentially customers who have opened their house to be a place where others can pick up their food box from. IN exchange they get 50% off their food box.
The farmer gets paid in advance, meaning they have the capital to invest in seedlings etc. Food Connect require a minimum 4 week subscription from their customers, which allows them the cashflow to pay the farmers.
They handle all the marketing, invoicing, ordering, distribution and transport for the farmer, and can make a commitment to the farmer for how much of the crop they will take on. In many cases, they are able to take the whole crop.
The business itself was structured as “For Surplus” company, meaning no individual can profit, and the business can never be sold.
Robert made some other observations that ruffled a few feathers but contained welcome honesty, for example, farmers markets eliminate huge proportion of population by focussing on gourmet, the most effective sequester of carbon is soil, not trees; carbon offsets based on large plantations of trees is a joke, and will do nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.
Looking at the Food Connect model really got me excited – it contained nearly all the components I’ve been dreaming about for the Food Garden, and will be looking to implement over the coming years. Some of these are already underway, but its too early to give details. But they all focus on encouraging more food to be grown by small organic growers, in our local regions and providing the market and means to trade their produce.
The rest of the day included talks covered a range of topics including; a regional food hub being proposed by Brotherhood St Laurence; food waste with Second Bite that recovers tones of food from markets and special events for disadvantaged people in Melbourne (a story of Sacred Heart Mission residents feasting on untouched salmon and imported Austrian chocolate cakes left over from the Emirates tent on Melbourne Cup day); a look at Community Garden schemes run by organization Cultivating Community.