Find out how you can help grow an alternative, diverse food system

written by Hedy Damari

Find out how you can help grow an alternative, diverse food system

Credit: M Nik

In Australia, food is plentiful and seems to be everywhere you turn. What with all the produce, brands and products stacked high on the shelves, you may feel rich with choice, yet if you scratched beneath the surface you would realise this is an illusion. In this article, we discuss how you can help grow an alternative, diverse food system.

It doesn’t matter which chook you buy — free range, organic or otherwise — practically all Australian meat birds are one of two hybrids. If you shop for eggs from the supermarket, chances are they came from one of four producers. Things don’t get better in the fruit bowl: of the 7500 varieties of apples, only eight are commercially available.

Diversity is disappearing in the system that delivers food from the field to your fridge; there’s rationalisation and consolidation in every link of the chain. We’re losing the genetic diversity of crops and livestock, as well as small-to-medium farms, mixed farm systems and a rich ecology of processers and retailers.

Why does diversity in food matter?

Early farmers cultivated several thousands of plant and livestock species over many more years, yet today the global food pool has dramatically narrowed. Only a few crop and livestock species are used and we’re reliant on this slim pool for our food. Within the species exist breeds and varieties with unique characteristics; this genetic variation is invaluable and is being threatened by extinction.

When growers selectively crossbreed crops they develop desired traits: for example, the ability to resist drought, disease, pests and heat, or for positive yield and growth. Similarly, genetically diverse livestock populations provide a range of options to adapt to changing environments, withstand threats of disease and meet societal needs.

If a livestock breed or crop variety disappears, so too will the ability to breed using the genetic information it once contained. And, once a genetic line has disappeared it’s gone forever. This reduces the capacity for us to combat food insecurity in the face of climate change, diverse environments and population growth.

If you shop for eggs from the supermarket, chances are they came from one of four producers. Things don’t get better in the fruit bowl: of the 7500 varieties of apples, only eight are commercially available.

As farms grow larger, production tends to specialise, monoculture crops are planted and labour is mechanised. There is a price to this, despite the rewards of economies of scale: monoculture systems are more susceptible to pests and diseases. They require increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, deplete soil organic matter and, as a result, may ultimately suffer from declining yields.

Diversity isn’t just important in the natural world — it’s vital for economic markets to function. Free economic markets should theoretically contain a variety of businesses to provide true competition, with no groups wielding undue influence over laws, regulations and social norms. Yet, over a period of time, markets reach maturation and firms consolidate control and reduce competition through partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. With considerable size, large companies can influence the price, quantity, quality and location of production. There is also the potential for the misuse of market power. Smaller enterprises can’t compete, so they disappear, with economic and social repercussions.

Finally, diversity is vital in human diets for biological reasons. The internationally lauded dietary guidelines devised by the Brazilian Ministry of Health encourage the consumption of natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, of mainly plant origin. They champion the consumption of a wide variety of foods as well as combining food plants with nutrient profiles that complement each other — for example, eating rice with beans in traditional Brazilian cuisine — to supply an adequate combination of nutrients the body requires.

Diversity is essential for human health, resilient farming and fairer business. So how do we in Australia measure up in the diversity stakes? Just how consolidated is our food system? How did it transition from variety to singularity? And what are the repercussions? Let’s take a look.

The state of food diversity

Crops & livestock

Traditionally, gardeners and farmers saved seeds from their harvest. They would plant the seeds the following year, exchange them with neighbours or sell them at local markets. In doing so, they created and improved their own varieties over many plant generations and adapted them to local conditions.

In industrialised countries, most growers buy their seeds. Yet, over the past 40 years, the commercial seed industry has transformed from a competitive sector comprising small, family-owned firms to one dominated by transnational agrochemical corporations. The companies shifted from stocking open-pollinated seeds to patented hybridised and genetically engineered varieties.

Today, the top three seed companies — Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont — account for over half of the global proprietary seed market. This consolidation has reduced seed diversity, which includes diminishing the variety and the availability of non-patented seeds. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world lost 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of its agricultural crops between 1900 and 2000.

Over the past 40 years, the commercial seed industry has transformed from a competitive sector comprising small, family-owned firms to one dominated by transnational agrochemical corporations.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is a well-known example of the risk of genetic uniformity. There were few varieties of potatoes in Europe, none of which was resistant to a fungus that struck. The fungus destroyed entire harvests for years, causing famine, resulting in death and mass emigration.

Australia’s banana industry is one that’s strikingly uniform. Although there are about 2000 varieties of cultivated banana in the world, virtually all commercially grown bananas are the Cavendish variety — and it accounts for 95 per cent of production here. This variety is susceptible to the Panama Tropical Race 4 disease that destroyed the industry in the Northern Territory in the late 1990s, and reappeared in Queensland during 2015. You would think we’d learn: before the Cavendish was globally popular, Gros Michel was the commercial breed — before it was decimated by disease.

The loss of livestock breeds mirrors the seeds loss. Small farmers and pastoralists used to breed and raise livestock, adapting genetic strains over thousands of years for disease resistance, the size of their operation, their market and the ability to thrive in harsh conditions. In industrialised countries now, a narrow selection of high-output breeds has displaced local breeds. According to the FAO, of the 8300 breeds known, 8 per cent are recorded as extinct and 22 per cent are at risk.

Just 50 years ago, there were hundreds of small breeders; yet, today, almost all companies fulfilling that need are multinational with a global market. It’s estimated that two companies supply three-quarters of the world’s broiler (meat chicken) market, three companies control the breeding of chicken layers (for eggs) and three control the majority of turkeys. One company leads both the pig and cattle market — that’s a lot of eggs in one global basket.

Breeding companies have overly selected for rapid growth and meat production. According to Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University in the US, this has resulted in livestock with excitable temperaments, lowered reproductive ability and compromised disease resistance.

Middlemen

Australia used to have hundreds of export and domestic livestock abattoirs, with many more local slaughterhouses servicing rural communities. Yet, many have since closed, with the consolidation of those that remain. Today, the two largest red-meat processors in Australia are Brazilian-owned JBS (the world’s largest meat-processing company) and Teys (a joint venture with Cargill, the transnational agribusiness producer and marketer).

Australia’s two largest meat-chicken processors, Ingham and Baiada, own over 70 per cent of the market. The chicken meat market is vertically integrated — companies own or control most of the production chain, from producing fertile eggs, hatching the eggs and growing the chickens to processing, value-adding and feed production. This is another form of consolidation. And the egg and pork sectors are similar.

Global processors are the top three suppliers to major supermarket chains here and account for 66–98 per cent of goods across nine major categories, including breakfast cereals, soft-drink and cheese. Against this competition, opportunities for smaller enterprises are severely limited.

Disappearing retailers doesn’t help matters. A generation ago, there was a plethora of milkmen, greengrocers, bakers, general stores, butchers and greengrocers who shared moat of the market. Now, Coles and Woolworths dominate, with over 70 per cent market share for packaged food and 45–50 per cent for fresh.

While it’s well known that Australia’s food retail is consolidated, not many realise just how supermarkets’ buying practices have reshaped supply chains.

Farms

During the 1990s, Coles and Woolworths moved away from wholesale markets, sourcing produce through direct contracts. More recently, they consolidated their distribution centres and suppliers — small-to-medium-sized farms are effectively excluded from the market.

There has been structural change in response. Many farmers have increased their farm size and production, or formed marketing groups. Because the cost of compliance to do business with the chains is high, farmers have undertaken large debts and are under increasing pressure to raise production to remain viable. They tend to buy more land and intensify, specialise and concentrate production.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that between 1982 and 2013 the average farm size increased 13 per cent and the overall number of farms reduced by more than a quarter. Now, only seven farms produce 85 per cent of Australia’s ware (for the table) potatoes; four growers supply 70 per cent of lettuce; one grower provides 50 per cent of carrots; and one supplies 60 per cent of Australian-grown garlic, according to agrifood consultant, David McKinna.

Diets

According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, the world’s diet is becoming increasingly similar at a rate of 36 per cent over the past 50 years. “More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” says lead author Colin Khoury, scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Diets low in variety and high in energy contribute to obesity and chronic disease.

In the face of all these issues, how can we conserve genetics for farmers of the future? How can small and diversified farms find a market and prosper? How do we promote dietary diversity?

How to wrestle back power & decentralise food

Growing forgotten breeds and crop varieties necessitates alternative processing and retail. Here’s how Australian enterprises are rebuilding a strong and connected alternative.

Conserving crops & livestock

Scientists are actively saving crop varieties. More than 1700 gene banks are located worldwide, collecting, storing, regenerating and distributing food crops and their wild relatives. A worldwide push to conserve rare animal genetics has also begun.

However, there is another way to conserve rare and heirloom seeds and breeds, and that is by using them. With this method, crops and livestock can be adapted to the needs and conditions of particular communities and regions. Farmers can select for good flavour, livestock temperaments and other positive factors.

Gardeners have sprouted seed-saver networks in Australia and overseas, where they learn how save open-pollinated local varieties, grow and swap them. A small number of seed companies also sell them, which small market gardeners tend to grow.

Like many farmers with registered stock, they are raising the breeds not only to save them but to produce flavoursome, tender and juicy meat.

Farmers are preserving livestock genetics. Two such people are Julia Powell and Shane Muller, free-range farmers at Backfatters in Far North Queensland, who breed heritage Berkshire and endangered Large Black pigs. Like many farmers with registered stock, they are raising the breeds not only to save them but to produce flavoursome, tender and juicy meat.

Farmers are also tapping into genetics to create something new. Purchasing eggs from Australian breeders, Michael Sommerlad of Sommerlads’ Poultry developed new hybrid meat chickens suitable for free-range pastured production. He selected the Transylvanian Naked Neck to impart foraging ability and resistance to the heat, and the Australian Game for vigour and leg strength, along with other breeds and traits.

Adding value on-farm

Over the past 100 years, farmers have been receiving a steadily decreasing proportion of the value of the final product. To regain these margins, some farmers are adding value to their existing crops or livestock — so, instead of increasing scale, they are increasing capacity.

Unfortunately for pig farmers Powell and Muller, the local abattoir closed just when they first needed it. For some time they transported their livestock to the next nearest, yet this wasn’t sustainable. So, with the help of the local community, they reopened the abattoir and now process pigs, sheep, cattle and, soon, free-range heritage poultry. The couple also built an onsite butchery and smokehouse. “We’re creating opportunities for people to do other things, and this encourages young people to stay [in the area]. Otherwise there’s only faming of sugarcane and that’s not making any money,” says Powell.

Farmers also add further crops or livestock to the farm and integrate the systems. Beef producers might add layer chickens in a planned grazing system, adding revenue with the bonus of pasture regeneration. Pig farmers may use their livestock to remove leftover crops from the paddock, along with pests and weeds. As the pigs root up the ground they fertilise it, readying it for the next season. Market gardeners can use layer chickens to clean out crops, eat bugs and fertilise the soil, with the by-product of terrific golden eggs for the market.

Some have found an opportunity in agritourism. Eliza Wood and Guy Robertson, farmers of Mount Gnomon Farm in Tasmania, free range rare Wessex Saddleback pigs and heritage cattle and sheep. They built an on-farm restaurant to showcase their produce as well as the bounty of other local producers.

Reclaiming retail

Advocates for local food are rebuilding local supply chains and distributing nutrient-dense food, with transparency between the producer and eater.

Largely run by volunteers, close to 200 farmers’ markets now operate in Australia. Stallholders value the markets as a reliable distribution channel, with 80 per cent reporting positive economic benefits, according to a Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation study.

Food hubs collate produce from multiple farms and often sell them in recurring ordering cycles. The recently launched Open Food Network is designed to support enterprises like this with an ecommerce platform.

Other encouraging examples include Transition Farm, based in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, which uses the “community supported agriculture” model to feed 100 families. Their supporters buy a share of a season’s harvest upfront and share the risks and production costs with the farmer. In return, they enjoy an array of 150 varieties of seasonal vegetables and fruit, many grown from heirloom seeds and harvested within 24 hours.

What you can do

You can help grow this alternative, diverse food system. The bonus is healthier, more flavoursome and more interesting food today, with a strong food system to withstand shocks in the future. How can you go about promoting food diversity?


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