Food Security and Cities

Wildwon has deep connections to food issues and a group called the Youth Food Movement (YFM). We also run YFM events meaning they’re also one of our major clients and partners.

Part of what makes YFM so special is it gives members the opportunity to have a voice on food issues as well as allowing us to develop ourselves personally and professionally. I was given the opportunity to do this last week when I spoke on the panel at City Talks: ‘How food is changing the cultural and community life of cities’ [video].

With eight panellists, it was always going to be a stretch to get everything I wanted to say across, so below I've shared the key ideas from all the thinking I did on the topic.

The City Talks panel including Joost Bakker, Justin Hemmes, Clover Moore, Simon Marnie, David McWilliams, Ronni Khan and Jill Dupleix

1. We speak of a looming food crisis, when in fact we are already in one.

We have a grossly dysfunctional food system that is causing massive environmental degradation, climate change, extreme animal cruelty and economic exploitation. At its worst people are starved, and at its best, people are overfed but undernourished to the point of chronic disease and obesity.

2. Feeding people is a problem of distribution, not production.

The world grows 6000 calories per person per day - enough to feed everyone three times over. This 'paradox of plenty' shows us that our problem lies not in the amount of food we produce but what happens to it between paddock and plate. So what does happen to it?

It is wasted. On the field, in factories, on supermarket shelves, in our fridge, in our bins. It is moved. From poor countries to rich. From farms to cities. For Australians, the food on our plate travels an average journey of 1500 kms. it is processed, beyond recognition, into puffs and food-like substances. It is fed not to humans, but to animals, and to engines.

To solve the problem, we need to shorten the physical, emotional and cognitive distance between where food comes from and the where food is consumed.

3. Ramping up the existing unsustainable food system is not the answer.

'When you find yourself you're in a hole, stop digging' - Denis Healey.

So much of the discussion around the future of food focuses on the scenario of 9 or 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 and the question: how are we going to produce enough food to feed everyone? Next we're talking about scaling up food production by any means necessary. But wait a second.. if we accept that our food system is not a sustainable or desirable one, and that we already produce more than enough food - why are we seeking to solve this problem by ramping up the existing model?

We need a local and real food revolution, of a scale to rival the one which created this system. A paradigm shift is needed where we cease to measure only economic gain, and instead put the health of communities, of people and of the planet at the centre of this system.

4. Believe it or not, food security is a huge issue for Australia.

The quote of the night from David McWilliams was from 'respected economist' Mike Tyson: 'Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face'. The volatility of our system means a 'punch in the face' could come at any moment. Let's not forget that in 2008, when oil reached $1.68 a barrel, there were food riots in 14 countries. And importantly, Australia is not immune.

Because of our globalised food system we are subject to fluctuating commodity prices, because of the distance food travels to us we're vulnerable to spikes in the price of oil - but to add to this climate change is affecting our capacity to farm food for ourselves, and our ageing population of farmers (the average age of an Australian farmer is 58) means that there is no succession plan and the skills and people for future food production don't exist. To top it all off, control of the food system rests with just a few companies in a concentrated, centralised system which is squeezing suppliers out of work. In short we are not doing a good job of planning. 

See the report 'Resilience in the Australian food supply chain' for details on my assertion that in a crisis, Sydney has 3-5 days before running out of fresh food.

5. Diverse systems are resilient systems, so the solution is local food production.

The good news is that the solution to food insecurity is also the solution to climate change (40% of global carbon emissions are caused by growing and transporting food), peak oil (less reliance on intensive farming and shorter distance for food to travel means reduced demand for fossil fertiliser an fuels), which is also the solution to unemployment and poverty, and is also the solution to crises in public health in both poor and wealthy areas of the world.

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