Born in 2010 with its request to participate in the federal government’s proposed national policy on food, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) tapped into a largely hidden but emerging uneasiness over the nation’s food future.
This we discovered on circulating our letter, inviting endorsement of our request to participate in the national food policy, to food advocacy organisations. This we intended to send to the federal minister for agriculture.
The origins of AFSA, however, lie in the time immediately before this discovery…
We got the idea of requesting participation in what we believed would be a big-agribusiness-dominated federal advisory panel on food only two weeks before the federal election. It was during the election campaign that Labor announced that it would formulate a national policy.
We wanted a voice for the small farmer, the market gardener who feeds our cities, the small food business people who specialise in supporting Australian agriculture, the growing number of community-based social enterprise supplying the type of food their members want at an affordable price, the families and individuals who vote with their dollars to support our nation’s farmers and regional food economies and that fast-growing number who support food grown, processed and distributed sustainably and justly.
We quickly realised that, together, this broad assemblage of food interests represented a social movement around one of our most basic needs – food – how and where it is produced, how and where it is processed and is eaten.
What the few busy coordinating the endorsement request for participation in formulating the national policy asked themselves was this: what if all of these people, and all those we must have accidentally overlooked, could be brought together to advocate for a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable food system that would feed the nation with high quality produce that was available to all? Food, we realised, is more than a tradable commodity… it is a basic need underlying the individual’s capacity to do all else in life. Logic suggests that access to a continual, sufficient quantity of food should be the right of all.
Who to send the endorsement letter to? A rapid exchange of emails and Skype calls identified that those most likely to support the idea would be Australia’s small but growing number of food advocacy organisations. Those who formed the core organising group of AFSA at this time had watched this number slowly grow over the preceding five years and these, we they, would be fertile intellectual and political ground for our move to bring citizen participation to what could well be a big business and big lobby-dominated policy formulation process.
We had just sent out the first emails requesting endorsement when something unexpected happened, something unanticipated. What we thought would be endorsement by a small number of specialist agencies rapidly became something of a deluge of support from small food businesses and community groups, farmers, academics, advocates and individuals concerned about our common food future. The letter requesting endorsement was the right thing at the right time. It had gone viral. The response offered practical, hard evidence of the efficiacy of networks, of how digital communications has transformed the world and how, as the song goes, from little things big things grow. This is something we will not forget.
As the letter seeking endorsement travelled from network to network, we had accidentally tapped into a growing sentiment for doing something. People who encountered the letter emailed us: who are you? where’s your website? There was a simple answer to that: we hadn’t had the time to make one. So, one weekend, Fiona Campbell sat at her keyboard and created one.
Within two weeks of the election, and without mounting a campaign and using only online media, we gained more than 100 signatures of endorsenemnt for our letter to the federal agriculture minister. We were surprised at the scale of this sentiment. The letter was sent.
We had a focus, we had a website, we had an email distribution list where people could communiate, but we didn’t have an organisation. This, we knew, was the round-about way of doing things but we were satisfied that it was the proper way given the extremely limited time between starting and the election… a whole fortnight.
Now, AFSA is establishing itself an an entity, as an advocate and as an educator on our nation’s food future. We believe this food future to be too important to be left to politicians whose role can be all-too-ephemeral, or to be left to big agribusiness and big retail, whose role is primarily creating shareholder value rather than securing a sustainable, socially just national food system that has the health of all Australians and the economic viability of our country’s smaller producers, processors and retailers as its primary values.
We are not saying that big food business and big farms have no role. What we are saying that the ideas of fairness and democracy stipulate that big business not use its economic power and industry dominance to stifle small and medium size enterprise, even inadvertently. We are saying that, in a market economy, our freedom of choice must be an authentic freedom that extends to the free choice of the foods we eat… and that this be available in a diverse marketplace that caters for food choices based upon how and where our food is produced, how and where it is processed and to how and via whom it gets to us, the eater.
We are already an alliance of diverse entities gathered around food. Ideas like sustainability – ecological, social and economic – are real terms to us, not the feel-good, throw-away lines they are all too often used as. We seek collaboration with other advocates, with educators, politicians, farmers and businesses small and large to achieve common goals.
In AFSA, we have read the research that shows that our food choices strongly influence the amount of energy and water we consume and the volume of food wastes that we discard. We also know that those choices influence the sort of businesses we support and whether we support Australian farmers and our regional food economies. It is because of this that AFSA chooses to work where it counts and to work with those who want to learn. We believe that doing this creates a community culture that values the economic security of regions and the livelihoods of those whose work sustains them. We believe doing this creates regional cultures that are opportunity-rich and resilient.
AFSA seeks your support in reaching these goals. We seek to build a democratic and diverse constituency of citizens interested in the food future of themselves and their families, of the farmers who produce our food, fibre and fuel, of the smaller food businesses, of food advocates and educators, of the social enterprise already providing people with their food choices, of supportive media traditional and new and of imaginative and creative individuals and groups everywhere.
Our food future is our common future. The food systems we create shape our health, our economies, our culture and our Australia. Let’s make this a good and socially prosperous future. Let’s make it now.