Conventional food systems are broken, so how do we avoid food insecurity?

Authors: Claudia Poposki, Mat Robinson, Courtney Bertharly, Kristina Prentoska and Georgia Gribble.

“It’s life or death.”

That is what Dr Joakim Eidenfalk, a security studies Lecturer at the University of Wollongong, says when asked how important food security is. It is something that so many Australians rarely think about, heading to one of the huge supermarket chains or the local fast food joints whenever they’re bored or sad or celebrating – because there is the luxury of having food for more than just survival.

Almost 795 million people go hungry every day. Dr Eidenfalk says, “It’s important, there is no doubt about that, but it is going to get increasingly important. We’ve only seen the beginning of it, that is my personal view.”

It’s a strange thought, but the food industry needs oil to survive. How else are farmers meant to go out on their tractors to get wheat so that we can have a vegemite sandwich for lunch? It’s not hard to see there is an issue with the world’s oil supply, so, closer to home, what happens when Australia’s food supply when the oil runs out and the climate changes completely?

That is the question that Liz Morgan, PhD student in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, sat down to answer when she embarked on her PhD, before breaking it down to researching the role of local government in food security in Western Sydney.

The idea seems dystopian, almost Hunger Games-esque, that in our lifetime we would be without a regular food supply. That is a problem for the year 3016. However, Elizabeth cites an incident in Lockyer Valley in 2011. The region experienced flooding, which left them with food and water shortages.

 “They were air dropping in food,” she exclaims.

It seems foreign, but the effects of climate change and tapped out resources aren’t just fears for developing nations. It is one for Australia and its agriculture industry as well. A new book published by Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) suggests that if Australia insists on trying to be ‘the world’s food bowl’ there may be some dire situations.

“We’re close to being at our optimum production. Our yields are very high, and that means we would struggle to improve our production,” said Tor Hundloe, co-editor of Australia’s Role in Feeding the World, to ABC Rural.

It is expected that in 2050, the world’s food production will need to increase by up to 70% in order to feed the estimated 9 billion people that will walk the earth. If these comments are correct and 795 million people are currently going hungry, it seems as though these figures don’t add up.

Why doesn’t everyone have enough to eat?

 “It seems crazy on the one hand that we’ve got to produce more food in order to feed the 9 billion people that are predicted by 2050, but in order to make sure that the resources for this purpose but also for future generations. I think there’s going to have to be a change in the way that food is grown and certainly in the way that it’s used,” says Karen Charlton, who is an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Wollongong in the Nutrition and Dietetics programme.

She explains that there will need to be technological advancements and that food waste is going to have to reduce completely. Associate Professor Charlton estimates that our red bin is 40% food waste, which adds up to around $8 billion worth of food thrown out every year in Australia.

 “It’s crazy because that could feed the rest of the world, that are going hungry. So the question is, this broken food system, we have to look from the paddock right through to the household to the plate, and then try and be more responsible in terms of how food is produced and used.”

 World hunger is not a new issue. In fact, it has been discussed so frequently that “solving world hunger” is a go to beauty pageant answer guaranteed to get the contestant some points with judges. In New South Wales, 1200 households were surveyed and the results indicated that $1036 worth of food is being tossed every year. This could pay for six months of electricity, assuming the average household spends $2000 a year on it. It’s estimated that each person generates 361kg of food waste annually. So, what is being done?

On a global level, the United Nations takes charge on the issue. The organisation’s current program is called Zero Hunger as they believe, “Extreme hunger and malnutrition remains a barrier to sustainable development and creates a trap from which people cannot easily escape.” Ending world hunger is one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. They put world hunger down to war, bad farming practices and wastage. The UN also estimates that it will cost an extra $267 billion a year to stop this issue by 2030. The UN thinks this issue can be simply solved, urging people to start at home, “You can make changes in your own life—at home, at work and in the community—by supporting local farmers or markets and making sustainable food choices, supporting good nutrition for all, and fighting food waste.”

 Whilst the UN encourages a distribution of wealth, Australia takes it to a new level with ambitions to be Asia’s food bowl. The government have set their sights more on improving food security in the Asia-Pacific region rather than globally. With two-thirds of the 795 million undernourished people worldwide living in the Asia-Pacific, it does make sense to focus on this region. Even though Australia only produces 0.2% of the world’s exports when it fisheries and aquaculture, an estimated 46% goes towards Asia, with Australia being the leading supplier to Japan when it comes to Bluefin fish. So how will they do it?

Well, they’ve outlined their strategy in the National Food Plan – a white paper they’ve made available online. It basically amounts to sharing some of Australia’s more advanced agricultural technologies and methods with farmers in developing countries. The main goals here are to help them produce more food and future-proof their agricultural production so that things like natural disasters or climate change won’t hit them too hard. It’s like someone showing your how to change your tyre so next time you get a flat; you’ll be able to fix it. Except here the car is a country’s means of agricultural production and the flat tyre is a hurricane.

They also briefly address food insecurity within Australia, but honestly, the National Food Plan kind of makes it seem like the government’s real focus is on cementing Australia’s place as one of Asia’s food bowls rather than fixing global food insecurity. When around 2 million people in Australia seek help with food security every year, it seems irresponsible to look anywhere else except internally. 

This move would make sense though since Australia already produces way more food than it needs and it’s in a good position to capitalise on that. We have a population of about 23 million people but make enough food to feed roughly 60 million. With predictions showing a rapidly growing population, particularly in Asia, there’s a very appealing emerging market that Australia could capitalise on. More people means higher demand for food, and as an export-focused food producer Australia could definitely take advantage of that. To do this, the government is pushing to increase agricultural production.

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A lot of the soil in Australia is old, weathered, and nutrient poor, but to produce more food you need good quality soil. Australia is also a very dry continent with sometimes unreliable access to quality water, so water usage would need to become more efficient. Finally, it’s estimated that 30-50 per cent of food produced globally is wasted. All of these are domestic food security issues that will need to be addressed if Australia wants to increase its food production.

The government also promised to continue funding international humanitarian organisations like the World Food Programme.

Another key concept in fighting world hunger is raising awareness for the issue. One popular campaign that raises both funds and awareness is the 40 Hour Famine. This year, Jesse Greig and Oscar Jefferson gave up food, sleep, and their mobile phones. The pair had been fasting for at least 12 hours when they spoke with us, and although they weren’t even half way through you could tell it had started to take a toll. This was Jesse’s second year participating in the fundraiser, but for Oscar this was his fourth go at it. Combined, the pair raised almost $1000.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance that when you’re in a first world country – sometimes you can be put into a bubble and can be unaware of what’s happening around the world,” Oscar said. “It’s always very important to have awareness campaigns such as the 40 Hour Famine to bring awareness to issues that are happening overseas.” Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that run the event for the full 40 hours, other countries run similar, shorter events.

The pair are also avid gamers, and so in addition to giving up all they have, they also ran a live stream during the 40 Hour Famine. It helped keep them distracted, but they estimate the last 10 hours would be the hardest.

“In our experience, the first 30 hours are like, kind of okay, whereas the last 10 hours really started to dig their nails in. Cause you know how close you are, to the end,” Oscar explains.

They joke that as soon as the buzzer sounds the end of the 40 hours, they’re heading straight to KFC and buying a Family Feast, but they know this is an experience that not everyone gets after going without food for so long.

“People shouldn’t have to experience this sort of like hunger, sleep deprivation [and] lack of shelter.”

What happens to your body when you lack the ability to have a sustainable diet?

“Well the obvious – I mean if you don’t have enough energy to sustain your needs you’re going to lose weight and then eventually become too slim and malnourished. If you’re a child you won’t grow so you would be stunted for your age,” Associate Professor Charlton explains.

In developing nations, she explains that poverty is the main thing impeding people being nutritious.

“People won’t have access to sufficient food because of lack of jobs, lack of infrastructure. A large proportion of the world’s population live on less than a dollar a day, so very subsistence sort of lifestyles where they might be, kind of, dependent on the food that they grow as the only source of food. So if there are natural disasters, for example, then, you know, that would impact on access to food. So definitely poverty, without a doubt.”

Why is there nothing on your plate?

When you get three warm meals a day, it may be a struggle to understand why some people do go without food. The biggest is probably climate change. Stuart Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Westminster writes for The Conversation that there are four major climate issues that affect food security; and they are drought, emerging diseases, salty soils and fertiliser dependence.

In areas that are dependent on agriculture, like Australia and parts of Asia like Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, drought is a very big issue. Dr Aurélie Delisle is an environmental social scientist and economist. She joined ANCORS in 2014 as a Research Fellow in the Fisheries Governance Programme and is currently working on Community-Based Fisheries Management Project in Kiribati.

 Before she settled down at ANCORS, Dr. Delisle spent time in the Mekong region, interviewing the community – mostly farmers – on the effect of climate change in their area. Essentially, would they stay and persevere through the difficulties, or would they move on? Her sweet French accent makes it sound fun, like she was on holiday almost, but her words are serious;“Most of the climate change impacts that they were worried about were extended droughts, that were becoming more frequent, and also flooding. [It] meant that they weren’t certain about their future. They relied on the food crop to produce and they knew, or were always afraid, that a drought is going to be there.”  

How vulnerable is Australia’s food to climate change? Well, you know when you’re coming close to your weekly grocery run and your cupboard and fridge are naked of anything that resembles a nutritious meal. There’s a packet of instant noodles, maybe some marshmallows from a movie night with friends, but that’s it. If Australia was hit with a disaster, that is what it would be like after 30 days. According to the Climate Council’s 2015 report, titled, Feeding a Hungry Nation: Climate Change, Food and Farming in Australia, our country is extremely vulnerable. We only have a 30-day supply of non-perishables and a five day supply of perishables in the production line at any one time. Now, you can sit there and pretend that won’t happen. We’re pretty lucky. We really only experience droughts and bushfires, and we’ve survived some catastrophic ones. However, the 2011 Queensland floods mean we don’t have to picture it. As mentioned before, Lockyer Valley had to get supplies airdropped to them, but places like Brisbane were a day away of having absolutely no bread in the region. A major capital city almost had no bread. Bread is a staple, and it was almost all gone. It seems like an exaggeration, but it is what happened.

In addition to the risk of drought, Australia’s capacity for food production is also at risk due to the degradation of soil over time. Soil condition directly affects the amount of food that can be produced and the quality of that food. So in order to increase agricultural production in Australia we need to have soil that is improving in quality, or at least we don’t want our soil getting any worse. Unfortunately for us Australia’s soil is old, weathered, and nutrient poor and it doesn’t look to be improving any time soon.

Soil takes a very long time to form and regenerate, but it can degrade surprisingly fast. Because of this, it’s seen by many as a non-renewable resource.

So just what is wrong with our soil? Well it’s getting saltier for starters. As the water table rises it brings natural salts to the surface. This increases the salinity of the soil which can be toxic to a lot of plants if there’s enough of it. If you thought that this was a problem for future generations to worry about, you should know that this is already affecting large areas of Australia and more than 100 other countries around the world.

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“Poor quality soil? That’s easy to fix,” you might say, “Just use more fertiliser!” Well our dependence on fertiliser has also been causing us some nasty problems. A key component of fertiliser is ammonia, which is made using the Haber-Bosch process. This process combines hydrogen and nitrogen to make ammonia. This process also requires the use of large factories and creates a lot of carbon emissions that heavily contribute to global warming. Over-use of fertilisers can also cause destructive algal blooms.

Leone Hay of Timbali Farm Fresh Meats jokes that a lot of farmers consider themselves soil farmers, “Soil is the most important thing. Lots of farmers call themselves grass farmers or soil farmers because without healthy soil and healthy growing pasture you don’t have healthy stock. If your stock isn’t healthy and they’re not feeding properly, that is where inputs do come in, cause they will be more susceptible to worms and diseases.”

Climate change is so often discussed in terms of what happens on land, Dr Delisle jokes that the ocean is always 20 years behind – particularly in terms of food security. She explains that areas like Kiribati, a low income country in the middle of Pacific Ocean so small if you blinked you would miss it, have to rely on fisheries as they can’t afford much imported food and their soil is too poor to grow anything themselves.

 She explains that there are many issues that just continue to snowball, “One of the problems that they face is climate change. Kiribati is kind of the poster child of climate change problem. They face immediate [danger]  from climate change [and] coastal erosion, so [they’re] losing some of their land. They are also facing an increasing population.”

When you have an increasing population, you have pressure on industries; there is a higher demand. So, what happens to the fish they need for protein? The fish disappear, their industries decline. 

“That’s the main issue,” Dr Delisle explains. “If they’re basically having fisheries that decline, what the government needs to then do is provide the replacement.  That is, where do you find that protein when you don’t have cattle? That means you need to import, so you can see that then you’ve got an increase in government expenditure, and that’s a big issue for countries like that.”

 Fisheries and aquaculture equated to around $2.5 billion between 2013 and 2014, according to the Australian Fisheries and Aquaculture Statistics 2014 Report released by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences. This is only 0.2% of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture industry, so it is relatively small. However, the fisheries industry is on the rise. In the 1960’s people only consumed 10kgs of fish but in 2012 that has risen to 19kg of fish. The report attributes this to, “rising incomes, urbanisation, expansion of aquaculture production and increased efficiency of distribution channels.”

It seems as though Queensland has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to natural disasters and climate change. Not only can they affect crops, but they also alter prices. If something is harder to come by, it will cost more. In 2006, North Queensland experienced Cyclone Larry, which basically wiped out all of their banana crops and made prices rise by up to 500%. Let’s just say, there weren’t any summer fruit smoothies made for just any occasion – something big had to be happening for you to even consider going out to buy bananas.

These price rises have flow on effects. People with smaller incomes are going to be spending more of it on food, but then some choices will have to be made. Is the electricity bill going to be paid this week or will I do a grocery shop? Can I pay for my kid’s dance lessons or will I feed them nutritiously? It’s a double edge sword.

The average cost of living changes depending on what stage in your life you are. In 2012, the Australian Securities and Investment Commissions created a guide on the average spending habits of groups in Australia. For instance, a lone person under the age of 35, like most university students, spends $104 a week on food and drink, not including alcohol. However, if you fall into the category of a couple with kids, the eldest of which is between 14 and 24, you’re likely to average about $314 a week on food and drink.

“The most vulnerable are people on welfare, but single parents, the elderly, people with mental health issues and people with chronic health issues [as well as] newly arrived migrants are very vulnerable,” Liz explains.

Now, this food insecurity may not be constant. Liz tells the story of a man in his 30’s who arrived at a Food Bank for a week with his wife.

“You arriving at a Food Bank for food is only an indicator of the other strife that you’re in. And in this young man’s instance, he ran a small garden maintenance and landscaping business where he employed 14 people. He couldn’t bear the thought of having to lay off any of his workers, so he and his wife went to the food bank for a week to juggle and readjust. There is a lot of that happening,” she explains.

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Climate and poverty aren’t the only reasons for food insecurity. War and conflict zones also damage the supply and access of food. When asked if lack of food resources were the cause of conflict or if conflict caused food shortages, Liz simply replied, ‘Both.’

Dr Eidenfalk explains that food shortages are already affecting people around the world, “As a conflict enabler as it were, it is already starting. You can see that in parts of Africa and certainly in some conflicts people are moving because of lack of food for the drought and so forth, so that is already happening. People are already on the move because they can’t sustain their families.”

He believes that it has a higher potential for future conflict, however, mixed with a combination of factors such as climate change, migration and health.

What is the link between all these factors? Well, according to Dr Eidenfalk, if you have a large portion of your population going hungry, and you have no way of feeding them, then they’re going to move on. He uses the Central African Republic as an example saying, “In any case, you’re going to be getting migration, which can affect Europe and America a lot, but you’re also going to get less people in that country that can pay taxes.”

 When you have no money, how can you grow food?

Together all of these things can have a negative effect on your food security. “That is the linkage to conflict, because if you’re a weak state, and you’re lacking people and people moving, you get social conflict. That is happening. It’s starting. At the moment we’re focusing on other causes for those conflicts, and rightfully so most times,” he says.

Some believe that the next world war will be fought over food. The Arab Spring demonstrated how much damage the hungry can do. The Middle East relies heavily on imported food. So, when the Global Financial Crisis hit, so did what Liz dubbed the Global Food Crisis; the twin GFCs. This shot food prices sky high and even triggered bread riots. In a similar style to the French Revolution, people were starving and they decided this was unacceptable. Of course, there were several underlying tensions. A report released by the Center for American Progress, the Center for Climate and Security and the Stimson Center stated, “The Arab Spring would likely have come one way or another, but the context in which it did is not inconsequential. Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier.”

Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said to Voice Of America that the 2011 food price spike no doubt played a role in the uprisings.

“Food price hikes will come more often, and more frequent. So this is the first lesson we learned. Second, food prices obviously will remain very high,” Fan explained.

In a book titled, Food Insecurity and Violent Conflict: Causes, Consequences and Addressing the Challenges, the connection between food and conflict is discussed. It states, “[f]ood insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting, and communal conflict.” However, Mark Notaras writes for Our World that food insecurity isn’t the only reason for conflict, it is just a contributing factor, “Like all cause and effect relationships, the link between the two forces is context-specific and varies according to a country’s level of development and the strength of its political institutions and social safety nets.”

Although the rising price of food has been a tense issue around the world, causing civil unrest and regime changes as in the Arab Spring, food prices in Australia have remained fairly stable for. Mick Keogh from the Australian Farm Institute writes that this is mostly because of fairly static food prices and a strong Australian dollar.

Things are about to change though. Food prices in Australia may increase pretty soon thanks to rising demand for Australian products overseas, lack of supply and our now fairly devalued dollar. Keogh says this will benefit farmers but will probably make consumers unhappy. “It will be interesting to see how major food retailers and politicians respond to what will almost certainly be a period of more strident complaints about high Australian food prices,” he writes.

With prices set to rise both here and abroad, maybe it’s time to rethink the way we produce our food.

How do we keeping making food?

“Conventional food systems are broken. We just can’t do food the way we have been doing it for the last century, and I think that is pretty widely acknowledged now through sustainability, climate change type thing, what they call wicked problems that are facing the world.”

That is what Liz Morgan says when explaining the motivation for her research.

I am half tempted to ask her, well, how do we fix it? How do we keep producing food without exacerbating already massive climate problems? The figures are daunting. As of August this year, there were 7.4 billion people on this earth. Almost 795 million currently don’t have a stable access to food, according to United Nations’ World Food Programme. There is supposed to be 9.7 billion people in 2050, with food production needing to increase by up to 70% to cater to this figure.

How are we going to do this when we can’t even feed the current global population?

“There is basically enough food in Australia and in the world to feed everybody equitably if we could. The volume of food is not the dilemma; it’s the social, economic and political [aspects],” Liz argues.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that food production should be changed. What happens when the oil runs out? A study conducted by the Swedish agricultural department looked at what would happen to their food production if Libya became worse than what was happening in 2011 and all the oil dried up.

 “Well, first of all, you’d get higher petrol, higher energy prices.  That is the first step. If it goes past six months, suddenly there is no petrol, which means that they can’t use their tractors and all their machinery on the farms and grow that food. It would be fine for the first 6-12 months, we can survive that through imports and stuff, but after 12 months, we would not be able to sustain ourselves.”

In an urbanised world, few people know how to grow produce, even if they had the opportunity.

“If you gave them a piece of land and said hey grow some food, how many people do you think could actually do that – and not just potatoes and tomatoes, but actually nutritious food. This is not just developing countries; the problem is going to affect both and links to everything else,” explains Dr Eidenfalk.

A lack of resources seems to be the go-to explanation of why we have issues with food insecurity. Leone Hay has been working as a farmer for almost eight years, leaving her life behind in Sydney with her partner Paul to start a new life. They’ve had two properties over the years – they had to move from the first because it was just too big to maintain. It was also too dry to keep livestock healthy and they missed their loved ones.

 When I meet with them, it’s been a long day of driving. They’re on a meat run, delivering to everyone who has shown an interest in their grass-fed pasture raised produce. They’re tired, but Leone would never miss out on an opportunity to gush about her goats.

“That is always our first priority. That’s why we don’t have nice clothes and my hair is not done properly. Whatever, it just doesn’t happen. It’s all about them.”

 df532c_7edbcb08bbe84434851305f1ef063354~mv2_d_3861_2594_s_4_2Paul and Leone hold one of their baby goats.

Being a small enterprise, Timbali only sells what it has available, “The way we work, we wouldn’t run down to the sale yards to buy a cow, or a steer, to satisfy our orders. If it doesn’t come off our farm, we don’t get it.” This is all that many farmers can hope for, however, that does not mean that there is frustration at squandered resources.

“I think that there isn’t enough forward planning about that. Where we were before, out west – they’re big farms. They’re broad acre farms, thousands of acres, we were only small fry out there, those areas are where lots of our produce comes from, but a lot of the time those areas are the ones that struggle the most with climate change.”

Leone explains that where she and Paul have moved to now, there are a lot of “hobby farms.”

 “So instead of running the animals or crops they can, they only having a couple of pets. So we are losing productive land to non-agricultural people or owners and pursuits,” Leone continues.

df532c_3d80c6ff4c0b453b9d30688246982537~mv2_d_4320_3240_s_4_2Timbali Farm Fresh Meats.

 With constant competition for land, we might not be able to use the same methods for producing food as we have been for generations. Thus, we must turn to alternative food sources.

But I’m hungry.

With a chasm of inequality and overconsumption in play, what can Australians do to ensure that all food consumed and that equality is further met?

We explored many of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and Food Fairness Illawarra’s recommendations for sustainable living. This included community gardens, farmers markets and home gardening. However, we also looked into more alternative ways like small farms and dumpster diving.

Dapto Community Farm has around 60 members, with some plots for commercial use and other that can be hired out by people who may not have access to a garden, maybe because they live in a block of units. A big part of their process is educating people who may not quite understand how to grow vegetables. Rod Logan is the Secretary of the farm, and when asked about how important small scale productions like the Dapto Community Farm are to sustainability and food production, he explained, “It’s about growing quality food. And in terms of quantity of food, we then get into issues around food waste. And you know, in terms of food not being acceptable because it’s slightly misshapen or it’s not the right colour and so on. To being not acceptable to food that ends up in the fridge and then gets chucked out. We could probably grow half as much food as we need to if we managed our food waste a lot better.”

Rod has been working in areas surrounding sustainable food for quite some time, and he thinks that part of the issue we currently face is a disconnect between humans and the environment.

“I spend a fair bit of time in Sydney and I see these large blocks of housing of units being built and there’s space around them, potentially thousands of people living there. So to me, the broader issue [is] how they connect to nature and the earth, because that’s part of who we are at a deeper level. Part of that can be just getting out into a park. But seeing the people who come here, being driven by the passion to want to grow their food and be more connected with how food is grown…whether they can develop relationships with farmers either in the city or out of a city or to come to somewhere like here and grow food for themselves,” Rod explains.

Community gardens aren’t the only way for people to connect with the earth. Farmer’s Markets are a way for the consumer to get their produce directly from the grower. Kiama Farmer’s Markets runs every Wednesday, with times varying depending on the time of year. It’s a warm spring day when we make the journey down, the sun burning over the enticing call of the deep blue ocean. It’s only been open for 15 minutes, but the park where the markets are located are buzzing with life. The local primary school has just finished for the day, and so all the kids have rushed down for ice cream. Music can almost barely be heard over the chatter of customers and vendors shouting about fresh strawberries and apples from Orange.

Gary Akers from Shoalhaven Gourmet Mushrooms has been growing and selling mushrooms for over nine years, with eight of those being spent selling at farmer’s markets. He sells to the two biggest markets in the country, Epic and Southside both located in Canberra. He explains the benefits of sourcing food in this way, “Basically, it is people getting fresh produce, that is the bottom end. And quality as well, like we are number one grow. We’ve won lots of awards around the country in last 12 months…these people who come here know exactly what they are getting.”

df532c_17c962b65afd45bdb7990320d59c5d96~mv2Gary proudly shows off produce from Shoalhaven Gourmet Mushrooms.

Gary continues to explain that a big benefit of farmer’s markets is direct contact with the grower, so you know exactly what goes into growing your food.

One large factor that contributes to food waste is the blemishes that some food may obtain during the transport process. So, sometimes an apple or two won’t make it on the shelf if it’s been damaged or crushed by on the trip from the farm to the storage facility. This isn’t so much the case with farmer’s markets, as it’s a direct path from the farm to the market. It can even be seen in the bunch of gerberas that I bought myself as a treat. Never have I bought flowers from the mainstream retailers that have two flower heads on one stem or petals trying to break through the middle of the flower. There is nothing wrong with the bunch at all, they’re gorgeous. These differences add character, but they still serve their function incredibly well.

df532c_cbe4823f473a4f3d8cf4833f689dec9a~mv2Billboard at Kiama Farmer’s Markets, “Support your farmers”.

study conducted by the Rural Industries’ Research and Development Corporation found that the other benefit of farmer’s markets is for participants to get immediate feedback on what does and doesn’t work. “The farmers’ markets not only provide an economically viable distribution option but also a platform for farmers and value added food businesses to grow their business, test their products with consumers and improve other aspects of their business, such as management approaches,” it states. The study, conducted by Vicki Woodburn also found that farmer’s markets may not suit all communities, but it is far from the only way of sourcing food alternatively.

When researching, a key component was the need to find out whether alternative food lifestyles had an impact on food security or if they were actually nutritionally sustainable. We asked Associate Professor Charlton about this, and she said; “Well it’s well known that red meat is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions because cows give off methane gas and there have been suggestions that if people eat less red meat that could be better for the planet and it’s more sustainable if you eat more vegetable foods, then the crops haven’t had to be grown to feed the animals then, you know, the energy efficiency is much less by the time it gets up to the human food chain.”

She explains that from the point of the planet, these diets are great, but certain fad diets are not nutritionally balanced.

 “Some try and avoid grains, they exclude dairy foods, so it’s actually very difficult to get a nutritionally balanced diet. They’re pretty high in saturated fat. All of these things are not good for health, any extreme diets are probably not going to be balanced,” the Associate Professor argues.

Her overall conclusion is that there is a bit of a one or the other in terms of sustainability of nutrition or for the environment, “So certainly if we all ate a little bit less meat or used alternative sources of protein such as soy beans or legumes then that’s probably more sustainable. But if you have a look at a meat-based diet or animal protein diet that’s very high quality protein, so you only need a little bit in order to get lots of essential nutrients. So it’s a bit of a trade-off.”

Associate Professor Charlton has also written about initiatives like dumpster diving. Around the world, it’s been nicknamed ‘freeganism’, but with Aussies throwing out up to 20% of the food they purchase at the supermarket, it could definitely be a way to limit this wastage. Those who endeavour on this path of securing dinner often have to do so in the shadows, with Tabitha Laffernis telling Oxfam Australia that, “Dressed like a ninja in lavender Nikes and armed with an arsenal of plastic bags and dishwashing gloves, I was waiting for nightfall.” Codenames were even discussed amongst her and her friends. Most people weren’t too keen to speak to us on camera or even be identified and that is because the issue of legality around dumpster diving is still contentious in Australia. Nat Kassel writes for The Huffington Post that dumpster diving should be legal. He argues how much food goes to waste in Australia and this is an excellent way to limit that waste. However, he also tells the story of a woman named Elsie Parker who was fined $350 in 2012 for taking materials that she would use for art supplies. When so many people are going hungry, how can businesses, the police and the courts be opposed to these freegans? Bins are locked, people are fined, all while more people go hungry.

Nat finished his article with, “Dumpster diving may not be completely legal in Australia but in the face of global hunger, climate change and the strain on natural resources, it seems ridiculous to punish people for utilising what would otherwise go to waste. In an ideal world, the big supermarkets would donate their excess stock to those who need it, but every dumpster diver knows that this is simply not happening. Until then, people like me will continue to dumpster dive, despite the legal risks.”

Associate Professor Charlton also believes that reducing food waste starts in your own home. Jess Muscat, a student at the University of Wollongong, says her family grows as many veggies as they can, depending on the season. “We grow anything from corn, to garlic and spring onion, to cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. Around the backyard we have a lemon, a lime, an apple, a pear and a mulberry tree as well.”

She jokes that as soon as they moved into a house with a big enough backyard, they all knew what her mother was planning to do, “My mum has always been into gardening so as soon as we moved to a place that had a bit of land, she knew that filling it up with things like fruit trees and a veggie patch was the only thing to do.”

Veganism, Farmer’s Markets and Community gardens – would you source your food this way?

Liz Morgan explains that landfills are filling up quick and so we need to reconsider how we dispose of waste. “Nothing goes out in my house,” she says proudly. “I eat like a horse, and so does my partner. We have a dog that will eat anything, three hens that eat what we don’t eat and the worms will eat what the hens won’t eat. Everyone gets well fed, no one goes hungry and nothing goes to waste, no green waste anyway.

More than anything else, she explains that it’s a deeply satisfying way to live when nothing goes to waste. “It gives me so much pleasure. With a bowl of cauliflower curry yesterday, I was sat at my office looking out my window at the very vegetable patch where I had pulled that food from 20 minutes earlier.”

Associate Professor Charlton explains, “So certainly, growing things that are seasonal helps because you can grow what you need, but not everybody has access to a garden, and not everybody has access, or the time, or resources to grow their own.”

But I like going to the supermarket!

How do we reduce our waste and inequality? Well, more than a third of food wasted in Australia is fruit and vegetables. According to Seven News Sydney, researchers at Curtin University have found a way to make these perishables have a longer shelf life. Essentially, they manipulate a hormone called ethylene, which affects over ripening and spoiling. Doctor Alan Payne, an organic chemist at the university, explains it as, “putting a blind fold on the fruit so it can no longer sense ethylene.”

The results show it can triple the life of fruit and vegetables.

Professor Zora Singh, horticultural researcher on the project, said, “If we reduce these losses, it will reduce global warming due to reduced use of land, water sources and other natural resources.”

This research definitely has potential, but they still need funding to get it off the ground.

While efforts like this are good steps towards reducing food waste, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to encourage shoppers to buy only what they need and avoid over-purchasing. One of the biggest things stopping people from securing food is poverty and inequality. Whilst aid programs do close this gap marginally, it doesn’t close it the whole way. There is currently enough food produced to feed the world’s population, but due to inequality and lack of access so many still go hungry. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world and poverty won’t disappear overnight and so we must have solutions like this ‘long life’ fruit and veggies.

Liz Morgan believes that it is the role of local councils to solve the problem of food security. She said whilst the Federal and State governments create legislation surrounding food security, it is the role of local government to enforce it. This could be through creating green spaces, for example. 

Rod says with the big housing developments being built around Sydney, he’s concerned that there isn’t enough forward planning surrounding these green spaces, “I guess there’s some planning for green space and open space but whether there’s any thought for food production, you know, at a local scale, I’m not sure that’s even been considered.”

As Leone said before, a lot of the hobby farms in her area are taking up space. That is land that could be use for agriculture that is being used as a holidaying spot. She sighs about how unfair this is, “It’s frustrating to see some really productive land simply as a lifestyle farm and for someone to retire to and mow the lawn.”

There is also an initiative known as Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, A.K.A GODAN. It currently has 330 partners around the world, including governments, businesses and NGOs and they encourage and promote open-data policies regarding agriculture and nutrition information. 

Spokeswoman for GODAN, Natasha Mudhar, said; “Open data is to innovation in agriculture and nutrition, and hence promoting food security, by improving farming methods, enhancing food production and providing better information and advice.”

The woman responsible for managing the United States Government’s involvement in the plan, Jaime Adams, explains that, “We are fragmented and we do not have a global, comprehensive picture. We don’t know what is produced and where, what happens to it after it has been harvested, what food products come from those harvests etc. We do not have a complete and comprehensive picture as we do in other industries.”

Having countries openly sharing information about their agriculture and farming, it would be much easier to see what t parts of the world need extra assistance and work out exactly how to provide it. 

 However, countries also need to start looking internally. By being close to maximum production, Australia has to analyse its place in the world. “If sub-Saharan Africa does develop broad scale agriculture, [or] if Russia and Ukraine starts producing on more land, we need to look at that and try and see how Australia might fit into that equation,” Tor Hundloe writes.

df532c_b2dbdcd9e8ae405bb3efe405e9eecc3b~mv2Supplied image: a haul from a dumpster diving mission in Perth shows just how much food goes to waste.

Associate Professor Charlton cites that in countries like Australia, most of the waste occurs at the household level, “So simple things like people not buying more than they need so that food won’t go off, using scraps, reheating leftovers, composting organic food so instead of just throwing it into the red bin, using it for compost and then adding those nutrients back to the soil, and then hopefully growing more of your own vegetables. Eating foods that are grown close to source, so local foods, that can help because that reduces energy expenditure of transport, for example, flying foods in.”

In an article for Mashable, Jonathan Bloom, creator of Wasted Food, states, “Becoming more connected to your food will help you avoid waste.” He suggests there are 11 easy ways to connect with your food, things like packing leftovers and actually eating them (we are all guilty of tossing that roasted chicken sandwich in the bin in favour of buying a California sushi roll), don’t over serve and composting. 

How much food actually goes to waste?

Donating to food banks is also an excellent way to reduce your food waste and ensure that people who can’t afford to feed themselves get a decent meal. In Australia, there is an organisation called OzHarvest. These guys provide their services to Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth as well as some regional areas. They aren’t the traditional food bank though, and are the first of their kind down in Australia. They’re a “food rescue organisation”. Their website explaining themselves as, “the first perishable food rescue organisation in Australia that collects quality excess food from more than 2,000 commercial outlets and delivers it, direct and free of charge, to more than 800 charities.”

Basically, for hospitality retailers that may have excess products at the end of the day, these guys come and take it off their hands and deliver it to those in need. Before 2005, it was impossible for food donors to donate food to charitable donations without being sued, but the founder of OzHarvest, Ronni Kahn, and some pro-bono lawyers rallied the court. Their actions created the Civil Liabilities Amendment Act, which was passed in New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Queensland and ensured surplus food could be donated to charitable causes without fear of liability. 

OzHarvest runs under four pillars; rescue, engage, educate and innovate. The education pillar is key, “Educating and raising awareness about food waste, food rescue, food security and sustainability is central to our vision. Protecting and improving the environment through all our actions matters deeply to us. Promoting nutrition education is paramount. Providing hospitality training and mentoring for disadvantaged youth drives us onwards and upwards, together.”

 Is it the end?

The conventional food system is broken. Long past are the days where we were held captive by the major supermarkets. With 795 million people going hungry every day, something has to give. Whether this be new methods of sourcing food, equitable distribution or increase in international cohesion and operation about food security. Increasing population and climate change are already having affects.

What happens when we have to got to war over food insecurity; because that is where it is looking like it is heading? This combination of alternative food resources and methods to improve shelf life gives hope that when the year 2050 comes around, there won’t be a battle to the death over the last cow in existence. There are some concerns over current production methods, but by minimizing waste and putting in safe guards, we may live to eat another day.

 After all, what is life unless it’s spent creating masterpieces in the kitchen with friends?

Originally published here on November 5th 2016

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