Fair Food: a growing movement
Author | Eleonore Bridier, CERES
At an event organised by The Wheeler Centre last year, panellists were asked to debate whether our food fetish has gone too far.
On the affirmative side, speakers pointed to examples of our growing obsession with gourmet, artisanal and truly good tucker. Food for thought indeed, but in Europe the notion of knowing where your food comes from, who made it, and under what circumstances, is a venerable tradition – resulting not least in higher food prices and significant agricultural subsidies.
Being a densely populated region of the world with a long history of social unrest, Europeans have a collective memory of what it is to go without life’s basics. Did you know that France, during the Napoleonic Wars, had to create a reliable sugar supply from locally-grown sugar beets almost overnight because England blockaded their trade routes with the Caribbean?
In the here-and-now, taking steps to protect our local food systems can seem less critical in a more globalised, interconnected and arguably safer world. While we can certainly point the finger upwards, perhaps Australian farmers have been walking away from their land in droves because we have (somewhere deep in there) come to love the stack it high, sell it cheap mentality pedalled by the supermarket duopoly – which masks the true social and environmental costs of the discount culture threatening our food sovereignty. The industrial food complex has so transformed our relationship with food, divorcing us from its origins, we often fail to see the most duplicitous part of an increasingly unjust food system – that many foods have actually been increasing in price faster than farm gate prices in the last four decades (Michael Cebon, founder Global Trade Watch). We’re paying more, but the people growing our food are certainly not benefiting.
Anecdotally, Aussie farmers can receive as little as $0.20c for a fancy lettuce that retails in the supermarket for $2.50, meaning the retailer has inflated the price over 1000 percent, sharing only 8% of the sale with the farmer. It may seem provocative, but there has not in fact been any investigation, no report, or any widely recognised authoritative studies to affirm what share of our grocery shopping dollars get to farmers. If the situation in Australia is anything like in the United Kingdom, then we can expect that farmers receive an average share of between 25 and 30 percent. But we just don’t know for sure because contracts are commercial-in-confidence.
And while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has declared open season on Coles and Woolworths, if the Grocery Inquiry of 2008 is anything to go by, proving their conduct towards farmers has been unconscionable in legal terms remains a very tough nut to crack.
Though these may be marginal issues for many Australians, there is strong evidence of considerable push-back. For some, making fair food choices is a question of social justice, and an opportunity to reconnect with and support the people who grow our food. For others, going organic is the primary concern, as it is on average more nutritional than conventional produce, while being sustainably grown. For others still, there’s a desire to support rural economies and small family-run businesses, while reducing the energy intensity of what we eat by buying locally. In short, there is a growing movement of consumers looking to buy and eat food produced in accordance with their values.
While people are voting with their wallets, they are also increasingly voting with their ploughs. Fair foodsters from all over are supporting community agriculture projects – food box schemes, co-operatives and farmers markets. They’re also increasingly growing their own produce, at home and in community gardens, reappropriating public land for community food forests, and getting involved in food foraging and food swap activities.
It is an exciting time to be part of the fair food movement. We’re getting on with it; giving farmers a fairer deal and providing them with new ways of getting their produce to market. Open Food Web is one such organisation, collaborating on all levels to pilot Eaterprises, an open source, online ordering system. Similarly, social enterprises like CERES Fair Food (that’s us), and our Brisbane and Sydney counterparts Food Connect, exist to provide local farmers with more reliable incomes and a much fairer 50-60% share in sales. So while our culinary awakening could be cynically interpreted as more status-driven than ethical, our food fetish is certainly as much about promoting the social values of equality and fairness, as it is about notions of the good life.