Farming for the future
I fell in love with farming in a language I barely understood. In the cool morning breeze I would walk to work repeating to myself the words I learned yesterday, ligzom, liktof, lehitorer. I would speak out loud the names of trees I’d never heard before; Jabatookaba, Pataya, Shesek, Te’ena. The words and the trees were new to me but they felt familiar, like something I already knew but had recently forgotten.
The man who taught me this dual language, of farming and Hebrew, was named Avraham. I remember the first time I met him, dark and wrinkled like the dried figs he would later offer me. He was 70 years old, an immigrant from Iraq, and I was sure the earth herself had birthed him. He would dance high among the date palms, pollinating the flowers as if he was the wind himself. Avraham showed me a world I’d never known before and it was this world I fell in love with.
So my romance with food and farming didn’t start as most food romances do. I wasn’t seduced by a table of hot dishes, the company of good friends and a cosy fireplace in the background. Instead, it was raw and pure. It happened in fruit orchards and vegetable fields. It happened with dirty hands and long days of work. It happened through simple realisations about the ‘good life’. I saw a future lifestyle that promised a more connected life, a happier life. Because that is what really matters to me: that we live happy and fulfilled lives; lives that in their very living contribute to the happiness and fulfilment of those around us – those near and far, those upstream and downstream. And this is what I hoped, and still hope, farming to be for me: a means for my happiness and a way to better the lives of those around me.
Most of my early farming memories, as memories go, are sweet and simple. At my first farming job I lived in a small makeshift hut – rock and mud walls, a few trees for shade and an old fabric sheet as a door. I’d watch the sun go down in the evenings from my bedroom. I’d scream and laugh with not much more that the trees and the animals to hear. All this was a process of de-domestication, of finding something deeper in myself, of scraping away the layers of softness that city life had wrapped me in. In no way did I reject my city upbringing, but I remember enjoying the feeling of becoming closer to the world around me, of looking forward, for the first time, to winter and the flowers it brought with its cooling weather and heavy rains. It all seems so romantic, and even when I take off the rose-coloured glasses of hindsight. There is something timeless and pure about connecting to the rhythms of something larger and more complex than ourselves. Something of which we are intimately and intrinsically a part. Something the intellect has forgotten but the heart and hands remember once we softly remind them.
The farming lifestyle that touched me so deeply in those early days is not the lifestyle or way of farming throughout most of the industrial world. The gentle way of farming with nature has been replaced by a militant ethos of farming against nature. The primary act of growing and eating food, our food culture and agriculture, should be that very thing: a culture – a collective act that brings people together as community in harmony, cohesiveness, and often, happiness. Yet the more I farm and the deeper I dig into the world of food production and consumption, the more I see the opposite. Our agricultural and food habits are not contributing to the betterment of the world, be it social justice, personal growth, environmental sustainability or most fundamentally, human health. Instead, the two holy grails of capitalism – production and consumption – have hijacked our culture and become the driving force of everything behind the food system.
I decided not to elaborate on the long list of ailments that we face as a result of the current farming and food system. In reality, I’ve never been a fan of the doomsday scenarios because I prefer to just get things done. I know my grandchildren will swim in clean waters. I know that the value of the food they eat will be based on its nutritional value and its superior taste. I know clean energy will power their houses, their phones, their cars. What I am interested in, however, is how fast can we get there? What are the most effective steps we can take to pull this bright future closer to our fingertips? Perhaps it will be my children, not my grandchildren, who will enjoy a more beautiful, peaceful world.
But what to do? A new collaborative publication by Paul Hawken, Drawdown, is one such place to look. The book outlines the 100 most substantive solutions for mitigating climate change and its consequences. Most people are unaware of the immense impact industrial agriculture and our corresponding diets are having on the natural world and climate change. Yet even more people are unaware that the agriculture sector also has the greatest greenhouse gas mitigation potential and is perhaps the cheapest of available options.
Hawken’s book outlines the most effective of these solutions, and the conclusions are quite shocking. Eight of the top 20 most effective solutions are food based. If we include the correlating topic of correct ‘land management’’ in the list, we jump to 12 solutions relating to food, agriculture and land management. The clout of such a study can be best understood when we acknowledge that these 8–12 food- and land-based solutions are deemed more ‘effective’ than more popularly considered solutions such as the adoption of wind turbines (#22), electric cars (#26), household LED lighting (#33), and creating more efficient aviation systems (#43).
In a comprehensive analysis of solutions related to energy use, food production, transportation, land use, education and more, it is quite sobering to understand that the humble act of eating food three times a day (and the practices enabling us to eat that food) has the greatest potential to bring about a better future.
So imagine if by eating that humble salad or by purchasing an iconic Australian meat pie, we were taking steps towards a brighter future? Imagine if the kind of breakfast we chose to eat could mitigate climate change? Imagine if your Tuesday night stir-fry was helping create biodiversity and habitat for wildlife? Imagine if your poached eggs and avo helped create a better animal welfare system? Well, imagine no further, it’s the reality.
The steps are known and we need to start prioritising this knowledge. We need to start actively supporting the shops, cafes, farmers, restaurants, fishermen and businesses who are producing or selling food with a positive impact. Where to start and what to do?
1. Choose vegetables and fruit grown in systems that not only tread softly on the environment, but actually contribute to regenerating our soils and environments (#11 on Hawken’s top 100). Organic, Biodynamic and Regenerative food might seem expensive at first look, but conventional food has a higher unseen cost which our ecosystem and health pay for down the track.
2. We now know that our diets are based too heavily on animal proteins, which leads to an array of health problems, animal abuse and global land mismanagement. The answer doesn’t need to be vegetarianism or veganism, but it does mean choosing a plant-based (not necessarily plant-exclusive) diet. It means moderating our meat consumption and actively buying from farmers and ranchers whose land management and animal welfare standards contribute to a more positive world – organic, rotational grazing, humane treatment, pastured raised (#4 on Hawken’s top 100).
3. Reducing our personal and national food waste came in at #3 in the top 100! It is said that up to 35% of food in high-income economies is thrown out by consumers. This statistic doesn’t even take into account the percentage wasted by industry.
The list goes on, and I encourage you to read Hawken’s book and get more involved. Our food choices can positively influence farm practices at the production level and allow better management throughout the system from farm to plate. The path is long but the direction is clear. I still hope we can bring farming back to its agricultural roots so that it can positively contribute to a better world and a brighter future. Farming brought me closer to the people around me and to a happier way of living. I hope we can work together to share food again and recreate our food culture.