Ignoring the Voices That Matter: Food Production and the Media in a Changing Climate

Our failure to listen is causing isolation and marginalisation with deeply tragic consequences. Ahead of the launch of her bookVoice and Participation in Global Food Politics, Alana Mann asks how we can go beyond false media narratives and truly support farmers in the midst of drought.

Image by Sebastian Pichler via Unsplash

In her book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship Turkish journalist in exile Ece Temelkuran describes how language – and its absence – is the key to power in a post-truth world. She describes how the ‘infantilisation’ of language and debate, the dismantling institutions of justice, and the silencing of some voices (and the co-optation of others) are central to gaining illegitimate power.

Just as populism and nationalism have crept into governments around the world, complacency and hubris are jeopardising our food supply and the waterways that sustain it. The corporatisation of the food regime systematically disables the voices of the genuine stewards of the land who produce our food. These voices are not presented in the media, even when the ‘worst drought in memory’ is causing incredible hardship.

Our failure to listen is causing feelings of isolation and marginalisation with deeply tragic consequences.

Frustrated by the media’s ‘ghoulish’ fascination with the disaster narrative mixed with the well-intentioned but slightly frantic ‘buy a bale’ fundraiser drives, ethical butcher Laura Dalrymple, co-founder of Feather and Bone, did her own investigation. Grass roots response to the drought, published in her blog Chew the Fat, presents stories of hard work and hope from eight NSW farmers that supply Feather and Bone with paddock to plate produce. These farmers are at the forefront of what Charles Massy calls ‘an underground insurgency’, a movement against industrial agriculture, that embraces ‘careful, compassionate, day-to-day management’ of the land.

Instead, they “choose to buck the system and work to a different rhythm, in sync with rather than against natural systems, with a long-term plan for developing intrinsic resilience and productivity”. They are “proud to be slow” in contrast to conventional production methods that aim to extract the highest yields from the land and their livestock in the shortest time possible.

These farmers are improving the resilience of land through deliberate catchment design and promoting the water-holding capacity of the soil with ground cover species diversity, rotational grazing to spell paddocks, and building up organic matter in soil. Combining “eco-literacy with lack of ego”, as Massy puts it, they are focused on agroecology, holistic grazing and other methods that respect nature as a self-organising system.

Looking after the land that looks after you is not a new idea – Aboriginal Australians have practised regenerative and sustainable land management techniques or ‘proto-agriculture’ for 60,000 years, or more, as revealed in Bruce Pascoe’s wonderful book Dark Emu: Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident. First Nations people’s careful stewardship and long-term attention to “a complex mosaic of eco-systems continent-wide” has been undone in the mismanagement of our river systems through what Stefano de Pieri calls “a devasting combination: agribusiness, political bastardry and complacency”.

Describing the Murray-Darling as a “cultural highway” for Aboriginal Australians comparable to the Appian Way, de Pieri calls out our “staggering ignorance” of our river systems. “We need more city people to understand… without healthy rivers and proper climate policies there will be no food, and that food is more important than fibre and other commodities”.

“We can’t eat cotton” protestors declared in response to horrifying images of the Menindee fish kill earlier this year. This type of ‘ruin porn’ not only makes certain people and struggles invisible but also promotes a ‘nature-and-time-will-heal’ narrative that leverages the continued exploitation of natural resources, and people, for profit.

Joining the dots between food production, corporate power and the environment is not achieved by “sending out baby reporters to rehash government press releases” as de Pieri notes. Nor are we served, as Dalrymple notes, by a “ferociously churning” media cycle that produces “deeply unsettling” and unhelpful reports of the drought that focus on animal suffering when farmers are driven to exhaustion, bankruptcy and depression in their efforts to maintain not only the health of their livestock (which they love) but the health of the soil, our ecology, their families and communities.

Our farmers have deep beliefs in the needs of rural and urban dwellers for healthy, ethically produced food, as demonstrated in their commitment to chemical free production methods, soil health and animal welfare.

Literally ‘watching grass grow’ is hardly clickbait. But when bare earth is the enemy, this is the challenge for Australian farmers in a changing climate. Accordingly, supporting farmers who are sound land managers by paying the true price for their produce and voting for sensible climate policy that promotes regenerative agriculture is our collective responsibility.

“Everyone’s drought is different”, says goat farmer Jo Stewart in Dalrymple’s report. But the consequences will be felt by all of us if we fail to listen to these farmers before it is too late.

Alana’s new book, Voice and Participation in Global Food Politics, will be launched this Friday May 17.

Food politics is where the social, the technical, the cultural, the economic and the environmental meet. But where is the democracy in our foodways? Most decisions about our food environments are left to profit-seeking companies and policy-makers who are out of touch with the lived experiences of food insecurity. In this book Alana Mann draws on her international research into social learning and movement-building to suggest how ordinary people can have voice and participate in the co-design of food environments that are fairer, tastier, and healthier. That means respecting many choices based on culture, capacity, nutritional needs, and preference in diets, and doing so within planetary boundaries that respect the non-human too.

Alana Mann is Chair of the Department of Media and Communications within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on the engagement of citizens and non-state actors in activism and policy debates to inform the creation of just and sustainable food systems. She is a lead researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute.