Dear Reader, I don't think they get it yet. I don't think the Prime Minister gets it. I don't think the farmers and their organisations get it. And it has become patently obvious that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Tony Burke, certainly doesn't get it.
What don't they get? They do not understand, do not comprehend the interest ordinary, everyday Australians are taking in their food - its nutrition value, the way it is grown, who are the people who grow it, the impact of climate change upon it, and the impact of major domestic and international corporations on it.
It seems to me that the Australian government sees only major corporate entities: the farmers, their organisations; food distributors and manufacturers and their organisations; agribusiness and its organisations. Then there is that strange entity called "the consumer".
Now "the consumer" does not hold weighty conferences attended by all those listed in the previous paragraph plus agricultural researchers and economists. But, last time I looked, the consumer still had a brain, was still a sentient being, and is capable of making reasonable and clear decisions.
We see farmers organisations and their supporters drumming up the so-called "city/country divide". What is not recognised is the large numbers of Australians - who qualify only for the title of consumer - who have moved to the country to establish their own small holdings; who have built relationships with farmers - particularly through Farmers Markets; who are concerned with ethical eating and who are so supportive of the agricultural enterprise that they support drought appeals and angst together with rural residents over the mental health of the farming community.
Australia, with its mild climate across most of the continent, has always been home to keen growers of edible gardens. And most of these gardeners are trying to be organic. Many of them are keen students of permaculture and biodynamics. Lots of them could imagine putting Monsanto and Dupont on trial for agricultural and economic terrorism but instead support seed savers groups and heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. They are learning not to damage Australia's fragile soils with excessive tilling and their no-dig gardens are multiplying day by day. Primary Schools are teaching children about food from seed to souffle in their own kitchens and kitchen gardens - often aided and abetted by celebrity chefs.
The Minister seems to be entirely ignorant of this movement that votes with its green and dirty thumbs. Why else would he have come out with these statements? (Please take time to read the comments!)
ABARE Outlook 2008 has been on in Canberra. The Minister made his views clear in a doorstop interview there:
[Inaudible] campaigns against food miles, etc. Are you going to invest in advertising or is this something that you’re making comment about?
Certainly, with respect to the animal welfare campaigns, there’s been ongoing investment – and I referred to some of it today – in trying to make sure that we are not just at world’s best practice, but leading world’s best practice in overseas abattoirs and the destination points of some of our live exports.
With respect to food miles, I think we have to take, as I’ve said today, every opportunity to let people know and to let the consumers, both in Australia and internationally know – and I took the advantage today when we had international press here – to make it clear that food miles is a system deliberately designed to deceive. It does not provide quality consumer information and preys on the fact that a lot of consumers – and good on them – want to make sure that they’re doing their bit in trying to reduce carbon emissions.
The problem with food miles is that it takes one tiny [inaudible] of an equation and that’s their entire answer.
So clearly the Minister has a limited understanding of the concept of "food miles": of being near enough to your food to shake hands with the farmer; of caring about freshness and nutrition and value-for-money goodness; and of cruelty free animal lives.
Miss Eagle's solution to these sort of things is - organise. After all, that is what the major corporations and their hangers-on have done. But Miss Eagle looks around and sees organisation: the organisations devoted to permaculture and biodynamics and organics; the increase in retail outlets distributing these types of food products; the countless books, blogs, journals and websites promoting the good, simple, healthy and sustainable life.
Such a mind-set takes one beyond the suburban picket fence mentality and the four walls of a boxy apartment. It takes one into a wider world where nature is valued, treasured, and studied with a view to greater understanding.
Perhaps one day this understanding will reach as far as the board table in the Cabinet Room of Federal Parliament (who will water a Prime Minister's and Minister's edible garden?) and find a forum at ABARE.
The Hon Tony Burke MP Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Canberra ACT 2600
Tel: (02) 6277 7520 Fax: (02) 6273 4120