2nd National Sustainable Food Summit: an overview

By Alice Richard
Thursday, 05 April, 2012


The 2nd National Sustainable Food Summit took place over 3 and 4 April at Dockside in Sydney. The two days were packed full of stimulating discussion and exciting ideas for changing the way we look at food - from research to production to consumption. Discussion ranged from climate change to synthetic meat to social responsibility - even human waste got a mention. A broad range of backgrounds were represented, from farmers to government representatives to scientists and charitable organisations. We look at some of the buzzwords and key themes of the summit.

Our current system is failing

This was a view widely held by those at the summit. Many criticisms of our current food system were made and seemed to revolve around three key areas: environmental, social and financial.

Here are a few of the issues discussed at the summit:

We produce more food than we need, yet millions starve each day. We rely heavily on fossil fuels to grow, transport, store and dispose of our foods, but fossil fuels are only going to become rapidly more expensive and scarce. Most consumers have little or no contact with the source of their food, with most associating milk with the plastic bottle or fridge and meat with polystyrene trays. Our farmers receive little remuneration for their produce, yet their costs continue to rise and they face challenges produced by climate change. Our population is increasing, with global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050; we will need to feed our growing population, but our current system will not provide for such numbers.

The urban-rural disconnect

Most consumers - and particularly those in urban areas - are fundamentally disconnected from the source of their food. As a result, we accept as normal food that is mass-produced and so is lacking in taste and nutrients (when was the last time you ate a tomato that didn’t taste like nothing?). We also place little value on our food. We have so very much of it that we take it for granted and either overindulge in or waste it - often we do both. A solution that was frequently offered at the summit was to put people back in touch with their food. Once people reconnect with their food - either by growing it themselves or knowing where their food comes from - they begin to respect and value it.

Fossil fuels won’t last forever

As fuel prices rise and oil becomes scarce, it will become increasingly more expensive to transport and store food. Food miles will become a significant issue. Many at the summit spoke about needing to reconfigure our current food distribution models, offering a number of possible solutions. Relocating food hubs was one: food that is grown within a particular region is distributed within that region. This will decrease food miles, decrease refrigeration costs and improve freshness - which may result in less wastage. Another suggestion put forward was the increased use of periurban and urban space to grow food. Since the largest demand for food comes from the cities, it makes sense that food be grown closer to cities - this will reduce reliance on transport and also reconnect people with the source of their food.

Harnessing technology

The internet and social media are ideal vehicles for communicating, marketing and sharing knowledge. They can also help connect consumers more directly with producers and empower producers by reducing the scope of their relationships with supermarkets. What’s more, social media is free. Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation of Economic Trends, claimed that we are experiencing a third industrial revolution based around the internet that will have a significant impact on how we communicate about food.

Create stories

This concept links, in part, back to the urban-rural disconnect. The thought process is thus: if consumers personally know the people who grow their food, or if they grow it themselves, they begin to understand the effort that goes into producing what they eat. This gives them a greater respect for their food and means they will place a higher value on it. This, in turn, may reduce food waste.

The concept of stories or narratives also relates to the changes in our food system. In order to effect change to make our system more sustainable, we need to firstly begin to describe the change we want to see. It’s difficult to change the system if we can’t first articulate what the new system ought to be. As Richard Hames, Founding Director of the Asian Foresight Institute, said, “We need to create stories of what it is we intend to become.”

Waste

According to the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), Australians waste 7.5 million tonnes of food each year. Up to 60% of this food waste could be avoided. Kathy Giunta, of the EPA’s Love Food Hate Waste program, told the summit that we produce enough food to feed Australia three times over - yet 60,000 Australian families are food-insecure and 1 million children miss out on dinner or breakfast. In NSW alone, $848 million of fresh food is thrown out each year.

Aside from this being a terrible shame, food waste also has environmental implications. Not only does decomposing food produce methane, but the energy expended to produce packaging, and transport and refrigerate the food also goes to waste.

Possibilities for reducing waste include relaxing specifications for fresh produce so they include non-standard shapes, sizes and colours; having smaller distribution networks so produce is fresher when it reaches the consumer; educating consumers so they know how to prepare and store food properly and have methods for re-using leftovers; reconnecting with farmers and growing food at home so consumers value food more; and decreasing serving sizes so there’s less left over.

The future of food

While our current food system may be failing, events like the 2nd National Sustainable Food Summit can be fantastic for developing new ideas and identifying where changes need to be made. “‘You can’t change the system with the thinking which caused the problem in the first place,’" tweeted Bucky Box. “(R)evolution anyone?”

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