Food & Culture

''In the mainstream Australian food system, it's the supermarkets that hold most of the power''

In her monthly GT column, Kylie Kwong celebrates the individuals helping to grow a stronger community. Here we meet Dr Nick Rose, executive director of Sustain: The Australian Food Network and advocate for food sovereignty.

I have been directly inspired by the visionary work of Dr Nick Rose, as he motivates all of us to celebrate and raise awareness of Australia's urban agricultural movement. Nick is an excellent communicator, with an innate ability to empower those around him.
Together with South Eveleigh's Aboriginal educator and environmentalist Clarence Slockee (Cudgenburra/Bundjalung), I can't wait to help Nick spread his important message about food sovereignty within South Eveleigh and beyond. – Kylie Kwong

Dr Nick Rose on food sovereignty and fair food systems

Food sovereignty can be a tricky concept to wrap your head around. But it's important that we do, says Dr Nick Rose, executive director of Sustain: The Australian Food Network. At its most simple, he says, food sovereignty is about creating a fair food system.
"The idea of a fair food system is one that's fair for farmers – they get a fair price for their produce. It's fair for consumers – they get affordable food. And it's fair for the land – it's ethical and involves caring for country."
For too long, Dr Rose explains, Australians have taken their food system for granted, without thinking about where their food comes from, who grows it, or the impact it has on the land.
"We were left a legacy. When we came here as British colonisers, there was a food bowl here. Bruce Pascoe talks about this; there was a managed landscape that Indigenous people had been caring for, for tens of thousands of years. We've been here 240 years and we have, in many ways, devastated large swathes of the country."
His mission, through Sustain, is to design and build a fair food system and work alongside communities, councils and organisations to become empowered food citizens.
"We work with local and state governments to say we need to consciously shape our food and farming system and not just leave the dominant actors – the supermarkets in particular – to make all these decisions. They are making them with obvious interests at stake, responding to their shareholders. Those interests don't correspond to the health and welfare of Australians, nor to the long-term sustainability of the Australian country … That's what food sovereignty is all about. It's about feeding people well and caring for the country."
And why is that so important? Because food and diet is at the heart of good health, for a start. "The biggest burden on population health is diet now; it's overtaken tobacco and alcohol as the biggest risk factor for chronic disease and early death. That's a really, really big challenge," says Dr Rose.
Food sovereignty is also critical in the fight against food poverty and ensuring future food security.
"The issues facing farmers have been decades in the making. We talk about farmers being price takers instead of price makers, which means that in the mainstream Australian food system, it's the supermarkets that hold most of the power in terms of price setting and contractual arrangements.
"It's a problem for the country in terms of food security because if all the farmers are getting older and all the young people aren't farming, who's going to grow our food in the future?"
And then, of course, there is climate change, which is making farming less viable and accelerating unsustainable forms of land management.
"These are really big, entrenched problems in the way that we relate to the country and manage the land. There's a really big shift that has to happen, not just with Australian farmers but with the whole country. We need to understand this continent in a more profound way and engage in a process of dialogue and truth-telling with our First Nations peoples and understand what it is to live here and live here sustainably. Managing the land and caring for country and creating habitat for all the diverse creatures that make our life possible. Agriculture is such a big driver of land use change in Australia so this really comes back to the food system."
But while the challenges are big, they are not insurmountable, says Dr Rose. And there is every reason to feel hopeful and optimistic about the future.
"The work I have been involved in over the past decade, I have seen a lot of things change. A lot more people have been involved – at a policy level, a lot of local governments are now getting involved. COVID was a bit of a wake-up call for a lot of people; a moment of rupture which is going to push things forward positively.
"It may be the case that the darkest hour is before the dawn. There are plenty of reasons to feel depressed and pessimistic but I choose to believe there is a lot of energy and momentum for change. The future is unwritten, it's up to us to write it."
Australia's first national Urban Agriculture Month will take place from April 1, featuring a range of events, workshops, tours and open gardens. To learn more, visit uaf.org.au
Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Joanna Hunkin.