Food is big business. From paddock to plate and everything in between, Dr Alana Mann discusses the mega industry that is food and how it isn’t free from politics in the latest episode of Open for Discussion.
From supermarkets, to farms, to our own home gardens and kitchens, we all participate in the mega industry that is food. But what do we know about this global network and how can we sustain it long into the future?
Dr Alana Mann joins our host Dr Chris Neff in the latest episode of Open for Discussion.
Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Dr Alana Mann
Producers: Annika Dean and Verity Leatherdale
Editor: Caitlin Gibson
Dr Alana Mann's tips for being supermarket savvy:
As individuals we can gain some control over how we engage with the food sector by avoiding the major supermarket chains and their concentrated power.
With almost 70 percent of Australian groceries bought at the “big two” – Coles and Woolworths – one of the best ways to engage with food and those who make it is to shop at local farmers markets and co-ops.
The layout of a supermarket is designed to confuse you, force you to walk through the aisles and encourage impulse purchases.
To avoid this, shop around the edges where you will generally find all the fresh and healthy foods.
Don’t be enticed by specials that encourage you to buy more than you need, such as two-for-one offers or those that encourage you to buy bigger for cheaper.
These deals are generally applied to the unhealthy products, making us believe they are the cheapest and therefore best.
This only encourages us to devalue healthy food and leads us towards more empty calories.
Chris Neff: From supermarkets to farms, to our own home gardens and kitchens, we all participate in the mega industry that is food every day. But what do we know about this global network? With the threat of climate change and increasing commercialisation of farming, how can we sustain our current system so we have access to fresh and healthy food long into the future?
To help us answer that, I’m joined today on Open for Discussion by Dr Alana Mann, Chair of the Department of Media and Communications and co-convenor of the Sydney Environment Institute’s Food, People and the Planet research node. After a professional career in the media and the non-profit sector, Alana turned her attention to research where she now looks at how every day citizens can get their voice heard on big problems such as food security and climate change.
Thanks so much for joining us Dr Alana Mann.
Dr Alana Mann: It’s a pleasure. Hi Chris.
Chris Neff: So, can I begin by asking how you came to research food policy and global food security?
Dr Alana Mann: Well it does seem an odd leap for some people to understand why a media and communications researcher would study food systems but to me it’s quite a logical connection because food is a very political issue in the world today and the importance of it grows with the threat of problems like climate change. So, I’ve always been very interested in how we get important issues into the media and the role of media in a democratic food system.
Chris Neff: Is that…is the food system the way food goes from agriculture to commercial to our table? Is that essentially what it is?
Dr Alana Mann: That’s exactly right and one of the challenges is that the food system is so big, from production to consumption but as consumers or eaters as I’d prefer to say, we really only see the end of the food chain. We see the consumption and the waste end so we tend to focus on that. But all the way from pre to post harvest, transporting, distribution, there are issues that we need to address across the food chain to ensure we have more resilient food systems to cope with threats.
Chris Neff: Now you’re part of a really exciting project, the Sydney Policy Lab. And this will be a new multi-disciplinary initiative that will bring together researchers from across the university with government agencies, community groups, NGOS and industry to explore Sydney City food policy. Could you tell us a little bit about what the grant is, what the project is and what you’re going to do?
Dr Alana Mann: Of course. This is such an exciting opportunity. The group of researchers who’ve collaborated with me include people from government and international relations, agriculture, gender and cultural studies and public health. And issues such as the food system, they have multiple causes some of these problems and obviously great complexity of actors involved and the solutions need to come from all areas of knowledge.
And policy is essential because it’s all very well to talk about these issues but until we can make people aware of the issues in the public sphere and then translate public opinion into legislation to address them, we’re really limited in our power to affect real change.
Chris Neff: Can I ask what you are doing in Sydney City? What’s the project in Sydney?
Dr Alana Mann: Well it’s very interesting to talk about food insecurity in an apparently affluent context like Sydney but the City of Sydney has produced data that indicates that up to 7% of Sydney siders are actually food insecure which means they haven’t been able to feed their family within the last year. Now another very surprising statistic for a lot of people is the fact that the food bank report tells us that half a million Australians actually visit a food bank once a month.
Chris Neff: Half a million Australians visit a food bank once a month?
Dr Alana Mann: Yeah…
Chris Neff: Wow.
Dr Alana Mann: And I think when you live in a city like Sydney where we do have a housing affordability crisis, it’s the perfect conditions for an increase in household food insecurity. But we know very little about the detail and the lived experience of food insecurity in a developed economy and the City of Sydney is really keen for us to help them to include those most affected by household food insecurity in policy making.
Chris Neff: And that’s sort of taking the wicked problem methodology and putting it into practice. Which is to say that you can’t solve the problem of food insecurity without talking to people who are food insecure and having them be part of the solution. That’s brilliant, I love that.
So Alana, Australia has a long history of agricultural production, we’re an agricultural nation. Do you see this shifting as we sort of go through the modernisation of food systems?
Dr Alana Mann: Australia has a very interesting history when it comes to food. We were a settler colony that was used for broad scale agriculture production for export really. And the rhetoric from government since settlement has grown around this almost a mythology. Australia of course has ridden on the sheep’s back, mind you, you might say we’ve been riding on coal’s back for a long time recently. This also raises a lot of issues about the fact that there are really intricate and complex Indigenous food systems that have been in some cases annihilated by settler practices.
But there’s a kind of government discourse around Australia being the food bowl of Asia. This is a quite naive perspective. It denies the fact that we are surrounded by neighbours who have some of the most appalling hunger and malnutrition statistics in the world. East Timor, one of our closest neighbours, has a rate of child stunting of over 50 per cent. So, when we talk about being the food bowl of Asia, I think we need to think more about what that means. It’s not just about growing the economy but it might be more about making sure our neighbours are more resilient, again, increasingly with the threats that are going to face the Asia Pacific region including extreme weather events and rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
And that in a sense talks to what we call extra-territorial obligations in food law and governance. Which is about making sure not only that you feed your own population and you make sure that everyone has access to healthy, affordable food at home but also making sure that your trade practices don’t negatively affect farmers and eaters in other countries.
Chris Neff: If I could pick on The United States here for just a minute, there was an example of this when The United States was pushing ethanol in its petrol and that ended up consuming an enormous amount of corn which produces ethanol and then the cascading effect of it was that it left almost a million people in Mexico, deprived them of access to food because otherwise that corn would’ve been exported and it would’ve been used in things. So, food systems and the trade practices and how you treat your neighbour and all of these things seem really connected.
Can I ask, what it means with people switching to meat free diets? What role if any, do you think meat plays in the food network?
Dr Alana Mann: I think that is sort of a western luxury to be able to think that your consumer food preferences are actually going to affect the food system as well. When I say a western luxury, that’s actually the wrong way to put it because I think a lot of pressure is put on eaters in our society, a lot of guilt about diets. When in reality we’re talking about a food system that’s broken to such the extent that your individual diet in our context is not going to change the system.
So, I think that changing our eating practices to reflect the political consumerism is good in terms of our own mindfulness about the issues to do with the system because we do know that meat takes a lot more water and grain to produce. At the same time, we need to acknowledge there’s no one size fits all with this.
When you talk about not eating meat you do also ignore the fact that if you’re in a nation in the global south where you don’t have access to a wide range of vegetables and particularly pulses and legumes and things like that, the way you get your protein is from meats. So, we can’t really in good conscience promote veganism or even vegetarianism without taking into account that the village chicken is one of the most important things keeping people alive in Africa for example and the egg is the perfect hygienic food source, packed full of protein for so many people.
And every country and every community has very specific needs and that includes culturally appropriate food too. We shouldn’t be imposing our food ways on other nations because look at how we respond when people try and do that to us?
Chris Neff: That’s a great point.
You’re listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research from a personal and critical lens. I’m your host Chris Neff, a lecturer in public policy with a particular interest in sharks and the role of emotions in policy making. Today I’m talking the politics of food with Dr Alana Mann.
Can I ask…what can we do? It seems like the story is a complicated one. There’s a little bit of progress, there are a lot of challenges. If the global food system is detached from the individual, then what can we do as individuals if anything.
Dr Alana Mann: I think that’s a very important question that a lot of consumers or eaters, they fail to get that information. And this again is another sort of failure of the media in a way because a lot of the problems are simplified and the solutions again buy into this agency of the consumer narrative.
And that’s where the consumer can push back I think. Resist things like market concentration. Australia has the most concentrated grocery sector in the world. So, 80% of our groceries come from the big three…
Chris Neff: Wow.
Dr Alana Mann:…but particularly the big two “ColesWorths”. So, that is a real concern. So, this is where it’s very complex and it’s really challenging for people with families for example to indulge in some of these very ethically appropriate food practices like visiting the farmers market.
Chris Neff: Exactly. I mean organic food can be expensive and you know for those people who just can’t afford it for a family of five, or who can’t afford it for a family of one. And I’m wondering what would you say to people who have to use a supermarket. Is there any way to be a responsible contributor to sustainable food systems and use the supermarket?
Dr Alana Mann: Of course. I think a really good strategy is to eat around the edges of the supermarket. We’ve all heard of the Gruen effect which is all about the way that the supermarket is designed to take you through the aisles and make sure that you do a lot of impulse purchasing.
Most of the fresh food and healthy food is around the fringes if you think about it. So, focusing on that and also of course avoiding some of the obvious traps that supermarkets present to you. You know super sizing, buying the…taking the two-for-one offer when it’s a really unhealthy food product. These are the sorts of things that make us think that we have access to cheap food but it also has a negative effect because it makes us sort of forget the value of food and it also fills us up with empty calorific food.
The third thing is I don’t think growing your own food is going to feed the world because even though urban agriculture is a very trendy and quite vibrant topic at the moment, and we’re certainly looking at it in terms of the City of Sydney, you know how can you have more green spaces and grow more food in the city because you do hear these bizarre stories. You know…I read something the other day about a US report that said that kids thought that chocolate milk came from brown cows or something.
Chris Neff: Naww.
Dr Alana Mann: Now I shudder to think that Australian kids think that but it’s just another sign of the disconnection between the eater and the food producer in a developed economy that we really need to address because people aren’t getting it about the threat to our food system and the danger of having a global, industrialised food system. It’s not going to feed us in the future.
Chris Neff: Do you…what are your thoughts about the organic movement? Because just like free range chickens and being attentive to livestock, the organic movement looks at itself as one of the potential solutions. Is it? Or should we be more sceptical?
Dr Alana Mann: That’s a very good question. It’s really interesting that 80 per cent of the food that’s produced in the global south comes from small scale family farmers who are using organic methods and have been for centuries. What is a problem with organics is that it’s becoming co-opted by again the supermarkets. So, if you look at the organic ranges in supermarkets, they’re expanding. I don’t think that they’re necessarily though supporting the ethos of the organic food movement which is more about this attention on who produces food, how and for whose benefit.
It’s like our discussion in Australia about free range. I do a lot of research on food and I can stand there looking at the egg section sometimes and go, where do you even start? It’s a lot to think about and that’s where policy making is really important because governments, I believe, should be making it easier for people to eat in a sustainable, healthy, affordable way.
Chris Neff: Can I ask you to tell me a little bit more about your project and how it’s going to impact the City of Sydney?
Dr Alana Mann: Specifically, the city would like our assistance to ensure that when we do create new apartment developments for example, people in those precincts do have access to healthy, affordable food. Unfortunately, a lot of the urban and planning literature tells us that governments also expect the market to fix these sorts of issues so they say it’s kind of a, if we build it they will come attitude.
That concerns me because it’s not a deliberate policy making process and it’s not really thinking about people’s needs and it’s also supporting again a concentration of power in the grocery market. So, food insecurity is not just about having access to the food, it’s also being able to afford the food, it’s having the transport to get to somewhere where you can buy food. If you don’t live in a community where you can actually walk to the shops, that’s when you become food insecure. Especially if you’re also struggling to pay your electricity bill.
Chris Neff: Well I think that’s a really important point. Thank you so much for a really interesting and really important discussion Dr Alana Mann.
Dr Alana Mann: It’s a pleasure Chris, thanks for speaking with me.
Chris Neff: Thanks for listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast and if you’d like to know more about our research, be sure to visit our website sydney.edu.au/news.
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