It’s been a huge start to 2016 with a lot going on in the food sovereignty movement, keeping all us farmers and eaters very busy indeed!

A common thread in our activities is governance – good governance, bad governance, and the perverse outcomes of ignorant governance. Let me explain with a few examples…

Definition of ‘intensive agriculture’ in planning schemes

In Victoria, a farm is deemed ‘intensive’ if it imports more than 50% of the nutritional requirements for its animals. So technically all pig and poultry farms, most dairies, and many farms suffering from this awful drought should have permits to run ‘intensive’ production models. (Interestingly, horses are exempt as they aren’t considered farm animals, but I digress.)

The scheme was obviously designed to capture feedlots and actual intensive pig and poultry sheds, and even perhaps so-called industrial ‘free-range’ farms where stocking densities may be as high as 10,000 birds per hectare. Great, that seems like a pretty good thing.

But wait, the scheme says that my farm, with around 110 pigs on 23 acres at any given time is also ‘intensive’ because we collect spent brewers’ grain from the local brewery and supplement it with a GMO-free grain pellet and seconds from agriculture in our region. And it says that Jo Stritch’s Happy Valley Free Range farm in the Yarra Ranges, with similar stocking densities and excellent use of green ‘waste’ from her region is intensive too. In Jo’s case, intensive agriculture is banned as she is in a Green Wedge Zone.

And so Jo is selling her farm and moving her family and all her animals to a shire that will let her raise her pigs on the open paddocks.

Jo was Livestock Farmer of the Year in 2015.

AFSA put in a submission  to the Animal Industries Advisory Committee’s Discussion Paper, and attended a hearing in Bendigo to further canvass our concerns about the deeply problematic definition of ‘intensive’, and were delighted that our evidence and arguments were well received by the Committee. We’re now awaiting the Committee’s recommendations, which we hope include a more appropriate means of assessing whether a farm is in fact ‘intensive’, as well as support for communities who are fighting everywhere to stop inappropriate development of actual intensive pig and poultry sheds with all of their attendant environmental, animal welfare, and social costs.

Impact of Regulation on Small Farms

AFSA also put in a submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the impact of regulatory burden in Australian agriculture.

In our submission, we gave evidence of many examples of overly burdensome regulation stifling innovation and the very viability of small-scale farms. One such example is the terrible impact of lack of due process for Elgaar Dairy in Tasmania, who were shut down after 20 years of traditional production of organic milk when the food safety authority decided they needed a new pasteurizer and various upgrades to what they determine are more ‘modern’ standards. Elgaar has no history of food safety issues, and have now been without a license for over a year and a half, during which they crowdfunded over $250,000 to buy a new pasteurizer and meet the new requirements. The Tasmanian authority has yet to grant them another license in spite of the upgrades and enormous amount of work done in good faith. AFSA condemns such draconian measures and unwillingness by government to support small businesses towards compliance.

Our submission also cites egregious examples from Victoria’s meat regulator PrimeSafe, the huge impact of knee-jerk changes to regulation of raw milk on small-scale dairy farms (many of whom have now gone out of business), and the complicated business of ensuring appropriate labeling of GMO and imported ingredients while not creating an extra burden for small-scale producers who sell directly to the public.

Asia Pacific Regional Conference (APRC) of the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN)

In the second week of March I had the honour of attending the 33rd APRC of the FAO in Puttrajaya, Malaysia, along with 54 other members of civil society organization (CSOs) from across the region. We started with two days of sharing issues – everything from loss of mangroves and destruction of ecosystems and viability of small-scale fishing in Indonesia and Malaysia due to large-scale aquaculture and trawling, to loss of access to the necessary infrastructure to process livestock and mill rice in Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Australia.

The FAO has major themes currently running on the importance of agroecology to a sustainable future for soils and the people who grow our food, and another on the importance of control of value chains by small-scale farmers to maintain or increase viability. There is also strong work being done to acknowledge the importance of situating work on nutrition within the broader scope of food systems. While the Asia Pacific region has halved hunger in the past 20 years, there are still 490 million hungry here, the highest proportion in the world, while there is conversely a significant rise of overweight and obesity as countries industrialise.

The Australian government’s contributions to this forum were, quite frankly, embarrassing and totally at odds with the good work being done by the FAO. The Australian delegate from the Department of Agriculture Matt Worrell told those assembled that we should ‘focus on large holdings that are better capitalised and better educated’, ‘aggregate smaller farms to achieve efficiencies’, and that ‘smallholders’ positions can be improved by free trade – by connecting them to international markets’, concluding that free trade can solve food security issues in the region. Ours was the only country in the region that I heard to be openly dismissive of smallholders – every other speaker stressed the importance of small-scale production for food security and rural prosperity.

I will write a longer report on the APRC and share it on the AFSA website soon.

Loss of abattoirs in Australia

We are facing a crisis as one after another small, regional abattoir shuts its doors in the face of increased compliance costs and inability to compete with large-scale multinational abattoirs who are buying up our infrastructure and increasingly shutting out small-scale producers as we’re perceived to be a nuisance in their large, industrial, export-focused models.

AFSA is working to gather information about the increasingly centralized control of abattoirs, and we are heartened by the work being done up in the Mary Valley in Queensland by a group of small-scale livestock farmers to investigate their options for re-establishing an abattoir after the loss of their closest in Eumundi last year. See Phil Stringer’s excellent report for more detail elsewhere in this newsletter.

In my own region in the central highlands of Victoria, a group of us are also working together to investigate the option of an on-farm mobile slaughter unit, and in Bega, NSW, smallholders already took control of their abattoir when it threatened to close in 2013, and formed a cooperative to keep it open.

Community Supported Agriculture on the rise!

There is plenty of good news amongst all of these tales of bad governance negatively impacting on food sovereignty across Australia and indeed the world… and it lays with you, the people, who are continuing to find ways to support farmers directly, whether by frequenting farmers’ markets, buying online directly from farmers, or joining the increasing number of farms who run CSAs.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one of the pillars of food sovereignty – a solidarity economy that ensures the viability and accountability of farmers, while providing delicious, nutritious food produced in ecologically-sound and ethical ways. Have a chat with some of your farmers about whether it might work for them, and what you can do to help. Also have a look at Transition Farm’s excellent model, and read more about CSA and other great food sovereignty initiatives in the latest special Fair Food issue of Pip Magazine!

Those who control the means of production control the world. Ask yourself who you want that to be – faceless multinationals who frankly don’t care whether your family gets sick from the rubbish they sell you, or the farmer whose kids might go to school with yours? Wendell Berry famously said that ‘eating is an agricultural act’, and Michael Pollan extended the claim to point out that it is also a political act. Let’s show the politicians what we want with every bite we take – it’s up to all of us to build a fair food future!

Published On: 4 April, 2016Categories: Committee Reports