Local food advocates seem to have put a good dose of local farm dust up the nostrils of Federal Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke. But, as often with our pollies, the minister’s response is too much posturing, too late.

Mr Burke spoke of a campaign in favour of local food “starting to get some legs on the other side of the world”. Hello? Advocacy on behalf of local or regional food has been going on in this country for some years. Not only does it “have legs” here, it is up and running on them, as March’s Feeding Our Future conference in Lismore signified. The conference was organised by Southern Cross University (SCU) and Lismore City Council, with participation of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry and Troppo, the regional organic farming organisation.

The most visible manifestation of food relocalistion, as it is known, is the burgeoning number of farmers’ markets that now dot our towns and suburbs. Farmers’ market organisers have promoted the “eat local” message ever since the markets started in this country, over a decade ago. But perhaps it takes that long for messages to get through to Planet Canberra. If we include the “Buy Australian” campaign, the idea of buying goods and services, including food, produced in Australia has an even longer antecedent.

Mr Burke’s statements were made at this year’s ABARE Outlook conference and were reported in The Land’s Farmonline website.

More than miles

The food in question is known as either “local” or “regional”. The terms are interchangeable but refer to food produced within relatively close proximity to the towns or cities where it is eaten. Eating local has always had the economic incentive of supporting local growers and food processors consequently boosting regional economies. This is one reason that people in rural towns like the idea and encourage farmers’ markets.

Not all of our food can be produced locally, of course – climate prevents this – and staples such as grains are usually imported from further afield.

The argument of the food relocalisers is that food that can be produced in a region should be and substituted for imports from overseas. There are economic arguments to support this as well as a fear that overseas exporters could dump excess produce cheaply on the Australian market, disadvantaging Australian farmers.

More recently, the associated issue of the long distance transportation of food and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases has boosted the appeal of eating local. That is popularly summed up in the estimate of “food miles”. Now, the realisation that the peaking in production of the oil could increase the price of anything that uses oil in its manufacture and transportation has brought greater focus to food relocalisation.

According to peak oil commentators, it’s a simple matter of demand exceeding supply impacting on agriculture and food systems that are heavy users of oil in the manufacture of agricultural inputs, farm mechanisation, food processing and transportation.

The minister’s comment about food miles indicates a lack of research and knowledge of the topic by his advisers. Mr Burke alleges that the local food campaign “can mislead consumers to believe that the distance travelled is the be all and end all”.

Wrong. A look at the CERES report on food miles – Australia’s first study of the topic – reveals that researchers say a simple measure of distance travelled by food is not the whole story. Moreover, advocates – like the articulate Helena Norberg-Hodge – say that the issue is around the transportation of “like foods” that could be grown in the regions into which they are imported: like importing bananas into Queensland or apples into Tasmania.

“Food miles” could be a more accurate measure

For “food miles” to become a more sophisticated measure it would have to take into account the type of transportation used to deliver the food to market and the production costs, in terms of resources and fuel consumed, in producing and transporting the packaging it comes in. In the UK, where retailers like Sainsburys’, Tesco and Marks & Spencer are considering labelling their products with food miles, the focus has been on the greenhouse emissions of aircraft that freight fresh vegetables to London from places like Africa.

The idea is picking up support. The UK’s Telegraph newspaper has reported that research at the University of Essex and City University “revealed that buying locally produced food would save the UK £2.1 billion in environmental and congestion costs. The report’s authors, Professor Jules Pretty and Professor Tim Lang, have also called for supermarkets to put food miles on product labels, so customers can make informed choices”.

The great bulk of internationally traded food is moved by sea, however, and sea transport has escaped the local food advocate’s eyes … until now. A February 13 report in The Guardian claimed that “The true scale of climate change emissions from shipping is almost three times higher than previously believed, according to a leaked UN study seen by The Guardian. It calculates that annual emissions from the world’s merchant fleet have already reached 1.12 billion tonnes of CO2², or nearly 4.5 per cent of all global emissions of the main greenhouse gas.”

Most internationally traded food, of course, moves in the holds of diesel powered ships, however an estimate of the emissions per tonne would shed a brighter light on comparisons with air freight. Emissions from shipping are set to rise by a further 30 per cent by 2020.

Against food relocalisation

The local versus imported food conversation is becoming more nuanced.

International development interests in the UK have pointed out that any curtailment in the air freight of African-grown fresh foods to British markets would impact severely on African growers. The issue was raised at the Feeding Our Future conference in Lismore where one commentator suggested those African farmers could instead produce for their local market.

Then there’s the argument over how foods are grown within the region in which they are eaten. It has been asked whether there is less energy embodied in tomatoes that are farm-grown in Spain and shipped to the UK than in tomatoes grown for the national market in heated greenhouses within the UK.

It is unfortunate that the Agriculture Minister resorted to the equivalent of emotional name-calling in his speech. He accused local food advocates of “a campaign deliberately designed to deceive” and called upon delegates to take “every opportunity” to make his message clear so that “consumers are not conned”. This is like saying that local food advocates are liars. That is something politicians, especially, should be very careful of alleging. No evidence was produced to back up the minister’s statement, leaving it at best hyperbole and at worst a poor attempt to reframe the local food issue to move it away from the global warming, human nutrition and Australian farming elements that lie at its core.

He went on to accuse local food advocates of good, old fashioned “protectionism”, as if they are working for some secret cabal of Australian farmers, then enlarged his diatribe to include consumers as a whole in creating “a consumer-driven barrier to trade”. If local food advocates are conning everyone, and consumers as a whole are involved in setting up trade barriers, then who is he suggesting is left to con? Our politicians, perhaps? Nothing like blaming everyone.

Here’s the reality. For farmers within reasonably close proximity to towns and cities, the growing preference for local food represents new markets and farm viability, especially for the smaller farmer and especially for the organic farmer whose sector is the fastest growing. This is true for the Sydney region market gardeners who supply the city with 90 per cent of its fresh vegetables and almost 100 per cent of its Asian vegetables and who, with the associated marketing and distribution sectors of the local food industry, generate an estimated $4.5 billion annually (Sydney Basin Industry Details, Gillespie, P, Mason, David NSW Agriculture, Orange 2003).

That is supported by the growing viability of farmers’ markets as well as by the markets’ popularity as purchasing venues with consumers whom the minister seems to believe are involved in some dark, anti-trade pact.

Beyond the farmers’ markets, the specialist outlets and the comparatively few restaurants serving local fare, regionally or locally produced food remains difficult to find. In part, this is because there is no logo to offer buyers the assurance that the food really is local, in the same way that organic food certifying agencies make their logos available to approved farmers. This should not be surprising, however, as the food relocalisation idea is in its infancy.

The issues of local food and food importation are complex and deserve a more mature and sophisticated approach than that offered by the minister. Let’s hope for a future dialogue free of undignified and sweeping ministerial allegations and emotional name calling.

About Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands. …

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