Prior to attending the National Sustainable Food Summit,, I had visions of joining in a collective group hug with a committed circle of peeps who were all working hard to deliver a localised, low-input, farmer-focussed food system. But with equal representation from heavyweights such as Heinz, Coles, McDonalds and Meat and Livestock Australia, it made for an interesting, well-rounded and sometimes tense dynamic.

The underlying sentiment from many of the keynote speakers was that we’re all heading up a very polluted creek without a paddle, and if we don’t act swiftly, we’re going to struggle to feed our growing population (set to hit 10 billion by 2050) in the face of water shortages, temperature rises, increased drought and natural disasters. All while running out of oil, which powers our industrial food system.

With food set to become our most precious commodity, it makes you wonder what wars of the future might be fought over. A few speakers noted the alarming absence of a conversation around the environmental impact of agriculture and food production in many climate change conversations. They questioned why Al Gore doesn’t mention it and why it rarely comes up in political conversations.

It was hinted that the answer potentially lies in the fact that there is a huge corporate vested interest in keeping the food system chugging along as is, hiding unthinkable and inhumane secrets from the people who are unwittingly buying into such practices – you and I.

What stood out from the conference?
The two day conference was jam-packed with content, making it impossible to summarise, but the speakers who stood out for me were:

Jeremy Rifkin, the founder and president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, spoke about some of the inequalities of the food system. In the developed world, we are overdosing on calories; calories that are effectively killing us (read heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes and cancer). Much of this has come about from artificially inflating meat production by feeding animals grain – grain which is diverted away from feeding the world’s 1 billion hungry – and raising too many of these animals on too much land that could be used for less environmentally-destructive productions, such as legumes and other vegetables.

Julian Cribb, the author of The Coming Famine, painted a solution-focussed yet sometimes uncomfortable picture of what the future of our food system might look like.

He predicts a boom in fish farming to cope with the increasing demand for protein as land becomes scarce. Farms will be housed in factories, and urban farming of the vertical variety will become a common feature of city skylines – see the proposed Plantagon Greenhouse, Sweden, to the left. Test tube hamburgers will also be a standard menu item (image below).

He also highlighted that whilst we currently eat just a few hundred varieties of plants, there are 25,000 edible plants on this planet – making all that untapped diversity a thrilling thought for chefs and foodies alike.

Another alarming statistic from Cribb was that we are the first generation in history to throw out half the food that is grown, which represents a colossal amount of waste along the entire production chain. Food waste and how inexcusable it is was a topic that came up many times throughout the two days – thank goodness for organisations like Second Bite and the Foodbank.

While the academics spoke of the future and the necessary big picture, the man who possibly stood out most wasRobert Pekin, the founder of Food Connect. He painted a very real, right-here-right-now picture of what could be done to decentralise and localise our food system.

Food Connect is a food box system that provides an outlet for farmers to supply direct to consumers. Everyone involved buys into a system of shared risk that sees the farmer return between 40-57 cents in the dollar, compared with most other commercial contracts, which is more like 12-15 cents.

“At the moment, the farmer takes all the risk and the retailers take all the profit,” said Rob.

“If a farmer’s snow peas get smashed in a hail storm, then we all [Food Connect members] pay for the snow peas. Who else will pay for them? In those cases the farmer shouldn’t have to absorb all the risk.”

He spoke of a localised system where distribution is shared, where there is no “greenwash bullshit” and where it is OK to be honest and say, “This is where we went badly wrong and this is what we are doing to change it”.

The whole model at Food Connect is about valuing the diversity of our food system. Rob said, “We put the farmers face on the food, warts and all. It’s valuing the diversity. It’s valuing the farmer who’s racist, homophobic and has a few other tendencies.”

“You bring him into the city and take him to a gay bar. Really, we’re all humans and we’re all so scared of each other, for some reason or another, and it’s just a load of bulldust.”

He went on to say that by taking that farmer to a gay bar, the farmer came to realise that they “weren’t bad blokes”. “That has changed that bloke’s life forever. It’s changed that bloke’s relationship with his wife, with the school, with his community and with friends of his who are gay.”

He then went on to talk about how they value diversity in their fruit and vegetables too. Unlike supermarkets that have regulations on how long a banana can be, or the degree of curvature it can have, Rob’s faithful followers embrace the wonderful imperfections of nature.

They have kinky carrot competitions where people dress up their unusual vegetables.

Rob’s approach is not complex. It’s a lot of fun, it connects communities and it educates in a very Australian, very down-to-earth way.

Granted, we need technology and we need science to cope with the massive environmental demands of feeding a growing population, but sometimes the simplest solutions leave the biggest imprint. The very solutions we can all connect with today. We can go out and say, “That Rob Pekin guy makes a lot of sense, I’m going to buy into that type of food system.”

It always comes back to this for me – how can we, as individuals, use our shopping dollar to vote for the type of food system we want to be a part of?

For more information on what you can do to be part of a fairer food system, click here.