Story by Dr Nick Rose[1] , April 2014

logo-wuf7This paper – and the video presentation – was prepared for delegates to the 7th World Urban Forum, taking place in Medellin in Colombia, from 5th to 11th April, 2014.  

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and the Food Alliance were successfully in securing a 2-hour workshop on 9th April, in a very crowded program catering for an estimated 20,000 delegates, to share with up to 100 people from all around the world the work underway here to build Fair Food Systems and Networks.

Facilitating the workshop will be Liz Ryan and Julia of RMIT’s Global Cities Institute and the UN Global Compact Cities programme.

We are excited to have this opportunity to share what we have been up to with colleagues from other countries, and very keen to hear from Liz and Julia on their return to Australia next week.

Nick Rose addressing attendees to the ‘Fair Food Systems and Networks in Australia’ workshop on 9th April at the 7th World Urban Forum being held in Medellin, Colombia, from 5th – 11th April, via pre-recorded video.

Footage courtesy of Rasha Tayeh, creator of the Growing Food project 

History and context

According to some estimates, Australia has been continually inhabited for more than 50,000 years. Over that timeframe, it has sustained thousands of generations of people, cumulatively numbering in the tens or even hundreds of millions.  This was by any meaningful definition a ‘sustainable food system’, or rather, multiplicity of systems, made possible by a deep knowledge of the land and its ecosystems amongst Australia’s indigenous peoples, expressed in the cosmology of ‘Connection to Country’.

In the 216 years since European occupation and colonization of Australia, huge changes have been wrought upon the landscape, many of them driven by an agriculture that has largely been oriented towards production of commodities – wheat, sheep, beef, dairy, sugar – for export. In retrospect agriculture in Australia was always going to be challenging and problematic, given the country’s relative lack of good, deep soils, together with its harsh climate and propensity for drought and floods.

These underlying challenges have been overlaid through a series of changes in the 20th century, continuing to the present day:

  • The industrialization of agriculture, resulting in the excessive irrigation of critical waterways to produce commodity crops such as cotton, sugar and rice: this has led to widespread ecological damage of key river systems as well as the salinization of millions of hectares of productive farmland
  • The emergence of a supermarket duopoly in the 1970s which now controls 70-80% of the Australian retail food market, so that many producers are locked into a ‘price-taker’ relationship
  • The rising costs of inputs – agro-chemicals, seeds, fuel – as well as the need to service rising levels of farm debt: combined with the downwards pressure on prices many farmers find themselves in a ‘cost-price’ squeeze
  • The push to liberalise trade in agriculture which has exposed many Australian producers and food manufacturers to much cheaper imported products, forcing many out of business
  • The exponential growth of the fast and junk food industries which has produced a pandemic of obesity across the country
  • The emergence of climate change and critical constraints on fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources as key limiting factors for the expansion or even maintenance of existing large-scale food production systems in Australia
  • The loss of good farmland due to urban sprawl and mining industries 

This combination of factors and trends means that the food system in Australia is at a critical juncture. Yet the policy response at the Federal and State level has simply been ‘more of the same’: ramp up production volumes, push the land harder, push the farmers harder, and treat food and farming as a sector like any other where the highest priority is profit and capital accumulation.

Fair Food emerges as a movement

Yet food is not a sector like any other: it is fundamental to our health and well-being as individuals; to who we are as a culture; and ultimately to our very survival as a species. Recognising the lack of vision and leadership on these profound questions, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance was formed in 2010, consciously linking Australia to the global movement for food sovereignty, with the aim of promoting a different, values-based national conversation on the future of our food and farming systems.

Like most countries, Australia has a long tradition of backyard food growing, yet this dwindled significantly with the rise of the supermarkets and fast food in the post-war era. Now backyard food growing is returning strongly, with recent surveys suggesting over 50% of adults are involved. Many are also involved in community food production, especially community gardens and school kitchen gardens, which have expanded rapidly since the 1990s. The permaculture movement, which began in the late 1970s, has also been influential in the growth of community and backyard gardening, as well as small-scale bio-diverse agriculture. The farmers markets movement in Australia is also experiencing rapid growth, from a very low base in 1999 to over 150 today.

Peoples Food Plan, Fair Food Week, ‘Fair Food’ documentary

In its short life, AFSA has undertaken a series of strategically significant initiatives that are beginning to articulate a coherent ‘fair food movement’ in Australia, based on food sovereignty principles. These include:

  • the Peoples Food Plan, Australia’s first ‘crowd-sourced’ food policy text, which involved over 600 people participating in 40 public forums throughout the country from September to December 2012.
  • Australia’s first Fair Food Week [12] (19-25 August 2013, involving 112 events in every state and territory with an estimated 15,000 people participating
  • Australia’s first food politics documentary, ‘Fair Food’, a joint project with the Locavore Edition in Melbourne
  • The launch of Fair Food Farmers United, a farmer-to-farmer knowledge-and experience-sharing project to promote understanding of food sovereignty principles and practices amongst Australian producers
  • A campaign for a Local Food Act, drawing on the inspiration of the Ontario Local Food Act and $30 mn Local Food Fund (Nov 2013)

Urban and Regional Food Network & Charter

Since September 2013 the Food Alliance (Deakin University) has begun the process of establishing Australia’s first Urban and Regional Food Network, bringing together 20 local governments as well as a wide and expanding cohort of researchers, food businesses, health professionals, planners, community gardeners, not-for-profit organisations, Transition groups, permaculturalists and others. This Network has collaboratively developed as a key strategic priority the development and implementation of an Urban and Regional Food Charter for Victoria, as a systemic and integrated text to drive forward legislative and policy change and shape practice across the state. This will be a model to be replicated in other Australian states and territories and will provide a substantial boost to the movement for urban agriculture and fair food in Australia.


[button_link url=”” target=”blank” style=”” title=”” class=”” id=”” onclick=””] Visit Fair Food Week’s website[/button_link] [button_link url=”” target=”blank” style=”” title=”” class=”” id=”” onclick=””]Visit Food Alliance website[/button_link]



[1] National Coordinator, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance; Project Coordinator for Food Systems, Food Alliance, Deakin University.