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A food conversation

By Russ Grayson - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Local food advocates seem to have put a good dose of local farm dust up the nostrils of Federal Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke. But, as often with our pollies, the minister's response is too much posturing, too late.

Mr Burke spoke of a campaign in favour of local food "starting to get some legs on the other side of the world". Hello? Advocacy on behalf of local or regional food has been going on in this country for some years. Not only does it “have legs” here, it is up and running on them, as March's Feeding Our Future conference in Lismore signified. The conference was organised by Southern Cross University (SCU) and Lismore City Council, with participation of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry and Troppo, the regional organic farming organisation.

The most visible manifestation of food relocalistion, as it is known, is the burgeoning number of farmers' markets that now dot our towns and suburbs. Farmers' market organisers have promoted the “eat local” message ever since the markets started in this country, over a decade ago. But perhaps it takes that long for messages to get through to Planet Canberra. If we include the “Buy Australian” campaign, the idea of buying goods and services, including food, produced in Australia has an even longer antecedent.

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Mr Burke's statements were made at this year's ABARE Outlook conference and were reported in The Land's Farmonline website.

More than miles

The food in question is known as either “local” or “regional”. The terms are interchangeable but refer to food produced within relatively close proximity to the towns or cities where it is eaten. Eating local has always had the economic incentive of supporting local growers and food processors consequently boosting regional economies. This is one reason that people in rural towns like the idea and encourage farmers' markets.

Not all of our food can be produced locally, of course - climate prevents this - and staples such as grains are usually imported from further afield.

The argument of the food relocalisers is that food that can be produced in a region should be and substituted for imports from overseas. There are economic arguments to support this as well as a fear that overseas exporters could dump excess produce cheaply on the Australian market, disadvantaging Australian farmers.

More recently, the associated issue of the long distance transportation of food and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases has boosted the appeal of eating local. That is popularly summed up in the estimate of “food miles”. Now, the realisation that the peaking in production of the oil could increase the price of anything that uses oil in its manufacture and transportation has brought greater focus to food relocalisation.

According to peak oil commentators, it's a simple matter of demand exceeding supply impacting on agriculture and food systems that are heavy users of oil in the manufacture of agricultural inputs, farm mechanisation, food processing and transportation.

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The minister's comment about food miles indicates a lack of research and knowledge of the topic by his advisers. Mr Burke alleges that the local food campaign "can mislead consumers to believe that the distance travelled is the be all and end all".

Wrong. A look at the CERES report on food miles - Australia's first study of the topic - reveals that researchers say a simple measure of distance travelled by food is not the whole story. Moreover, advocates - like the articulate Helena Norberg-Hodge - say that the issue is around the transportation of “like foods” that could be grown in the regions into which they are imported: like importing bananas into Queensland or apples into Tasmania.

“Food miles” could be a more accurate measure

For “food miles” to become a more sophisticated measure it would have to take into account the type of transportation used to deliver the food to market and the production costs, in terms of resources and fuel consumed, in producing and transporting the packaging it comes in. In the UK, where retailers like Sainsburys', Tesco and Marks & Spencer are considering labelling their products with food miles, the focus has been on the greenhouse emissions of aircraft that freight fresh vegetables to London from places like Africa.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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