Hungry For Change in the Food Industry
21 August 2013 at 11:30 am
The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance has an imposing title and has taken on an equally imposing cause – calling for stronger corporate responsibility and the need to move the food economy away from business monopolies, as Nadia Boyce reports.
The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) has thrown down the gauntlet to corporate food giants with a national event spotlighting the need to move the food economy away from business monopolies.
This week is inaugural Fair Food Week, which will see over 90 events held across Australia, including markets, food swaps, food growing workshops, tours, talks and events for local government.
Organiser AFSA is a national collective consisting of individuals, community food groups, farmers, social enterprises working in food processing and distribution, food cooperatives, small food business and academics.
Nick Rose, National Coordinator of the group, said the event was about bringing the nation’s food back to the people. He hopes the event will prompt discussions around reform of the industry.
"We organised this first Fair Food Week because Australia's food economy is changing in ways that do not always benefit farmers, our food processing industry or eaters", Rose said.
"There are concerns over how food is processed, the excessive market power of supermarkets, how cheap food imports force Australian farmers off the land and Australian food processors to close, and over biosafety. Add to this the link between food advertising and the national epidemic of dietary related disease, and you can see the need for change is overwhelming."
“We think there’s a need and opportunity for those corporates who want to justify their social license to operate to be part of a more inclusive national discussion. If the sector was willing to engage on that basis, it’d be a really positive thing.”
“Food fairness is the real triple bottom line: it looks after our health and well-being, it cares for the land and water, and it generates decent jobs and conditions for producers. It’s just plain common sense, really,” Rose said.
Rose does not believe industry is by default, an adversary. Rather, he said, corporates are constrained by market pressure.
“I tend to make the positive assumption that everyone wants to do the right thing. But the way the market operates puts constraints on this, that’s part of the difficulty,” he said.
“Even if a corporate wants to be responsible, they’re under pressure to perform for shareholders.
“There needs to be a multi stakeholder alliance where everyone works for mutual benefit rather than cutthroat competition.
Yet while Rose said he appreciated that food corporations were limited by the competitive environment, he is an advocate for change on a scale that goes beyond working with the status quo.
“There needs to be a paradigm shift. It is a challenge for the corporate sector where they are so enmeshed in competition, it becomes difficult.
“It needs to be a genuinely open dialogue where corporates are prepared to be completely open to discussion. Not just along the lines of how they can keep doing what they’re doing and expand.”
The principles of Fair Food Week are based on an AFSA developed ‘People’s Food Plan’, AFSA describes the plan as “Australia’s first crowdsourced policy directions document”, borne from an exhaustive consultation process with stakeholders.
The plan is intended as a counter-point to Canberra's National Food Plan, which AFSA has criticised for prioritising corporate interests.
“It was called a National Food Plan but it seemed to be a plan for industry,” Rose said. “Large corporations have held it out as a food plan for the whole country.”
Rose does not believe corporate self-regulation could be the solution for a fairer food bowl.
“I’ve got my doubts about self-regulation. The market for sales is too strong.
“I’m reasonably critical of the practice of CSR. I personally think there needs to be some intervention on the part of government.
“I see McDonalds sponsoring Little Athletics. I’m sure they’ve got a CSR statement and it probably fulfils their CSR obligations.”
In its media release, AFSA has credited small to medium scale business, social enterprise and communities for “co-creating a better food system”.
"You can see the upsurge of interest in community and school gardens, in food social enterprises such as Food Connect, CERES Fair Food and similar schemes, and chefs cooking regional foods,” Rose said.
Yet while large corporations seem to be on the outer for now, Rose is optimistic.
Speaking at the National Sustainable Food Summit in Brisbane earlier this year, he asked an audience of corporates if anyone was or knew anyone involved in growing their own food. Nearly every hand went up.
“It was great to see that there is that connection with food across sectoral boundaries,” he said.
His faith was reaffirmed when Coles reached out to him following his presentation at the recent Symposium on Supermarket Power in Melbourne.
Robert Hadler, General Manager of Corporate Affairs at Coles, contacted Rose and presented the supermarket’s chain case.
“He sent us a document to make us aware that Coles, in their view, is providing a decent future for farmers, in a constructive way. He did however also acknowledge that Coles could do more to justify their social licence to operate,” Rose said.
He welcomed their input.
“They’ve left the door open for further discussion,” Rose said.
Dick Smith was the only example put forward by Rose as a corporate showing the leadership the Peoples’ Food Plan demanded.
“He’s a bit of a maverick now, but he reveals an understanding of the challenges and issues. He’s trying to articulate some sort of corporate leadership.”
And the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance remains hungry for more change.