Like the now all too frequent droughts, floods and fires in this country have shown, COVID-19 has again demonstrated that Australia’s food system teeters like a house of cards waiting to collapse.
The National Farmers Federation informed us last week that despite producing enough food in Australia to feed 75 million people, we only have three days worth of domestic food supplies available at any one time due the complex, just-in-time distribution system designed by the major supermarkets.
For most of us, we often pay little thought to the hard work that goes into growing, processing and distributing our food. Those with more of an inkling of what it takes can attest that it is complex, costly, with little margin for profit or error. It’s a hyper-competitive industry that is highly dependent on access to cheap labour, cheap energy and farmgate prices that are often below the cost of production. It also creates a huge amount of waste, while many go hungry every day - even in a wealthy country like Australia.
COVID-19 has brought these contradictions into stark relief - while supermarket shelves have sat empty, stockpiles of fresh produce languish on the floors of our major wholesale markets because tourism and hospitality industries have ground to a halt. Time and again - whether it’s climate shocks or panic buying, the system has failed to calibrate in time to ensure everyone has equal access to the basics when they need it most.
This twisted irony is not lost on advocates for a reformed food system in Australia. Just as in other times of crisis such as the 2011 Brisbane Floods, place-based, re-localised food distribution operations have once again proved their ability to deliver the goods, ensuring no-one misses out - including on toilet paper!
One such example is Food Connect - a small social enterprise in Brisbane. Food Connect has been feeding customers for 15 years, while at the same time paying growers the true cost of production and building a secure supply of locally sourced food and goods. Started by ex-dairy farmer Robert Pekin, the business is built on the concept of community supported agriculture, where a reciprocal relationship between the growers, makers and the eaters goes beyond a simple online transaction. Customers are provided with information about the people who grow and make their food, and pricing is transparent. Growers are supported through a stable price - the last price increase was three years ago before the drought - and so they’re not subject to the vagaries of the market. They grow just enough to service Food Connect and their own direct markets, and have the ability to ramp up and ramp down as the situation dictates.
When COVID-19 forced us off the streets and onto our computers to hunt and gather online, Food Connect’s orders quadrupled in a matter of days. Similar stories are being told by local food initiatives all over the world, and farmers themselves are even starting their own online deliveries using an innovative platform called Open Food Network. Like an underground insurgency, communities are finding ways to cooperatively grow, source and distribute good food.
Bringing food back to a relationship-based system is not just a feel good exercise. It’s economically and structurally efficient and equitable - valuing all actors along the supply chain, and decentralising the control and access to good food. Not only that, it reduces the carbon footprint of the huge logistical operations of our current food system, and can encourage farming practices that build healthier soils and regenerate land and water systems.
Our domestic food system requires a more nuanced, regionally relevant solution to withstand future instabilities. There are a range of options to explore, but it starts with one question: What would it look like if there were regional food initiatives like Food Connect located in communities all over Australia, including in remote communities like those north of Alice Springs who are currently going without during pandemics or climate shocks? A regenerative and localised food system can give us that much needed resilience.