What Aussie farmers really need is farm justice

Drought in Australia - Farmer trying to save starving sheep, NSW, Australia. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 1118697938.

Every few years Australian farmers are placed directly in the media’s spotlight: supermarket price wars, locust plagues, or the acute adversity of drought. Such media reports often portray farmers as “Aussie Battlers”, stoic against a harsh and unrelenting environment, lone rural underdogs competing with industry goliaths. As the majority of Australians are urban dwellers, this idealised notion of farmer-as-battler emerged from the heroic myths and romanticised “stories of the outback” promoted by the media and government that epitomise the values of hard work, struggle and self-sacrifice.

But these representations fail to reflect the decades-long crisis unfolding in Australian agriculture. They fail to acknowledge the inconvenient truths of the agrifood monopolies’ stranglehold on our farmers, farm workers, food workers and consumers, or the governments’ lack of investment in building agricultural resilience against shocks and stressors, and how they have crippled family farms and consumer choice. They fail to demonstrate the need for parity, the foundation for an equitable farm and food system. What is missing from these stories is a call for farm justice.

The Land of Plenty

Our food system is built for profit and responds to market demand, not to human need. As a net-exporter, Australia produces enough food to feed three times its population, yet 3.6 million Australians (15% of the population) have experienced food insecurity at least once in the past 12 months, according to Foodbank’s latest research. That includes one in every five children. People in this country go hungry because they don’t have enough money to buy food and face a higher risk of diet-related disease because they lack the means – financial or otherwise – to access nutritious and diversified food baskets. Unhealthy diets comprised of energy-dense, nutrient poor foods are a major contributor to the growing rates of poor health and obesity in Australia.

Farmers go broke not because they don’t produce enough food, but because they produce too much of it. Australia’s industrialised and highly concentrated supermarket system – coupled with the abolishment of governmental price supports and policies that favour competition amongst producers – renders the prices they receive for their products below their costs of production. To make up for falling prices, farmers cover their high fixed costs by producing more—not less—which drops prices even further. Australian farmers with less than $100,000 in annual output earn more than 90% of their income “off-farm”, while farm debt has increased by almost 75% over the past decade. All the while, supermarkets’ flexible supply arrangements and strict “quality” standards result in large quantities of perfectly edible produce going to waste.

Why are people sick and hungry in the land of plenty? And just as importantly, why are farmers going broke when they are producing so much food?

Many people say the food system is “broken,” but it’s not. It’s working exactly as an unregulated capitalist food system is supposed to: it overproduces food by overusing resources and exploiting people. It consolidates wealth and power and passes off the costs to the rest of society in the form of poverty, hunger and environmental “externalities.” At the root of our food crisis is an agrarian crisis, many years in the making.

This crisis is the result of continuous and significant change to Australia’s agricultural sector over recent decades, including the deregulation of agricultural markets, lack of government support and investment, the privatisation of infrastructure and agricultural services, rising costs for labour and energy and increasing corporate concentration across the entire food chain. These cumulative pressures have placed farmers in a cost-price squeeze that has accelerated a 40% decline in Australian family farms over the last 35 years, with equally disastrous flow-on effects to regional employment and rural communities.

Add into the mix the increasingly pervasive climate change pressures—the intensifications of droughts, floods, invasive species and bushfire conditions that restrict growing seasons or wipe out entire harvests in one fell swoop—and it becomes clear that Aussie farmers are not just “doing it tough,” they are fighting a losing battle.

We Need Farm Justice

The policy tools for dealing with overproduction and the devastating effects this has on farmers and the environment are well-known—they’re just not being implemented. Parity—the right of farmers to farm-gate prices that provide them and their farm workers with a fair, dignified livelihood—and environmentally-based supply management that limits production to what can be sustainably produced without wasting water, losing soil or provoking nutrient runoff, are the bedrock for policies that ensure farm justice.

Rather than a supermarket-driven system that drives prices “down down” and has no connection to the actual and varying costs of production, or a government-led export system that places farmers at the mercy of giant multinational food conglomerates, we need a food system in which family farmers can make a dignified living producing a diversity of nutritious food while also protecting the environment. Farm justice can show us the way.

Farm justice supports parity policies to prevent capitalist overproduction and boom-bust cycles in agriculture. Farm justice provides structural incentives for environmentally sound production and discourages large-scale mono-cropping and confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs). Farm justice promotes radical social inclusion in agriculture for women, immigrants, people of colour and young people, while producing healthy food for all. It prioritises public investment in the countryside to secure the health, education and wellbeing of rural communities. With farm justice, the land and the wealth it produces belongs to those who work it, not to the banks, financial institutions, speculators or agrifood monopolies. Farm justice is ultimately global in scope because it values, honours and respects all those who work to grow, process, cook and serve the food we depend on. Farm justice is a steadfast commitment to ending the structural conditions and power relations which prevent sovereignty for farmers of all nations, regions and people around the globe.

Instead of short-lived bouts of support like “parma for a farmer” or consumer boycotts, let’s make farm justice a household word. It’s as simple as believing in a living wage for farmers, and a just food system.

Eric Holt-Giménez is an agroecologist, political economist, lecturer and author. As the Executive Director of the “people’s think tank”, Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, Eric’s work both informs and amplifies the voices of social movements fighting for food justice and sovereignty across the globe

Eva Perroni is an Australian independent researcher and writer reporting on the frontline of food and farming issues. Her work has been published by prominent food, environmental and human rights organisations, including Civil Eats, Food First, Food Tank, Sustainable Food Trust and the United Nations Association of Australia.