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National Sustainable Food Summit Talks

In Melbourne, on April 5th and 6th, was held the National Sustainable Food Summit, where key Australian food and agriculture players and academics met to discuss the challenges and possible solutions for Australia’s increasingly vulnerable food security situation. Some of the talks were quite interesting.

The first video is where Julian Cribb (Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Technology Sydney and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE)) boils some of the main issues facing us down into a short, understandable presentation. He gives a good overview of the problems — like that we’re in dire need of increasing food production right at a time where, due to our past and present activities, we’re seeing clear evidence that we’ll have to do so with less energy, less land, less water, less phosphorus and all whilst enduring an ever-more-erratic climate response. I’m not in full agreement with all of his solutions though — for example I’m not keen to start eating algae biomass grown in a tank…. But, I think that given the nature of the issues we are and will have to grapple with, I don’t blame him for coming to such conclusions. Indeed, if we don’t start implementing real, lasting solutions soon, then eating algae goop may become more attractive to me in the future than it does today…. (hence my personal sense of self-preservation leads me to expend my energies trying to promote permaculture!)

Julian Cribb: What are the future challenges to our food system?

Tim Flannery gave a big-picture talk on the earth as a system. He’s not getting into practical details, but rather just trying to get across the concept of how everything in nature — or at least everything in nature that survives — operates as an interdependent part of a greater system. Essentially, he’s talking permaculture, whether he realises it or not.

Tim Flannery: What do food systems designed to meet the
challenges of the 21st Century look like?

John Williams (Founding Member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Commissioner, NSW Natural Resources Commission) also talks about the need to increase productivity without further damaging ecosystems and thus removing the services they provide. He talks of studying "first and foremost, whole systems science. We can’t fix one problem here and create another over there. We’ve gotta learn to think as systems." Again, he’s talking permaculture, whether he realises it or not.

John Williams: What do food systems designed to meet
the challenges of the 21st century look like?

As regular readers will know, we’ve been over the problems and the solutions a million times. It’s not rocket science — it’s biology, and the cooperation inherent in it. The beauty of biology is that, whilst more complicated than we’ll ever fully understand, it’s not necessary to grasp exactly how it works to know that it does. I don’t need to understand the minutiae of photosynthesis to use it to advantage for people and place. We can imitate natural systems to create our own community-level closed loop systems. But, the true obstacles I see for implementing this society-wide (and that’s the scale we need it at), rather than just in isolated back yards as we see today, is connected more with our invisible structures — that being education and our economic and social constructs. At present, all of these favour centralisation, isolationism, social atomism and have greed as their central motivating engine. A true transformation of our food systems will never occur if our present economic system, based on a linear progression of extraction, production, consumption and disposal, remains in place. Where the folk above speak about the need to understand whole systems thinking, we must necessarily recognise that moving from just thinking about these to actually doing something tangible about it means we cannot continue to only work in our own interests, in our own corner. There needs to be a new level of cooperation for the common good, and for the commons.

The following video from Richard Hames touches on this — talking about a crisis of behaviours causing a crisis in systems, and shares how when we look at environmental resources we, through our current reductionist, linear economic perspective, tend to evaluate its ‘value’ in very limited terms. Cities and their ‘assets’ receive far greater investment than rural farming communities, which, I observe, city dwellers in skyscraper-studded boulevards tend to shun as backwards or beneath them. Largely inspirational, his talk describes how a sustainable food system needs to encourage diversity, localised resilient designs and environmental stewardship, and our social systems need to encourage greater equality, holistic education and nurturing the concept of ‘enough‘ as far as consumption goes. Richard goes on to describe the current ‘economy must grow’ paradigm as a root cause of our problems — emphasising the need to move to a no-growth, steady-state economy.

Richard Hames: What is the Transformation Story for Food and Agriculture
in Australia? (Systems-thinking, design and creating value)

I think most of us will acknowledge that our ability to live truly fulfilling, sustainable lives is made all the more difficult because we live in isolation from others who are seeking to do the same. The synergies we could be having are missing, and their absence thus limits our potential. This reality causes some to go as far as to make an escape and to try to create eco-villages, for example — to pull away from the society that makes living sustainably so difficult, and to create a new group. Whilst a fully understandable reaction, this fails to address the greater need to change society from the inside-out, and ignores the fact that it is wholly impractical (and would be environmentally disastrous) for all the world’s city residents to follow them out into their cosy forest corner.

Anyway, I’m pleased that national-level conferences are examining these issues in some kind of depth. I’ll get even more excited when we move from discussing them to actually doing something about it, and doing so with a different kind of thinking than that which got us into this mess in the first place. I’ll get truly excited when serious discussions are on the table about how to actually, rapidly transition to a system of steady-state economics, with a complete revamp of our debt-based, perpetual growth, consumer based, profit-centric monetary system whilst avoiding complete social collapse, and where incentives are in place to encourage investment of labour into holistic education, small scale biodiverse systems, natural capital and social betterment.


  1. So Craig,
    How do we promote Permaculture at a more rapid rate to avoid people pillaging our edible gardens (our land) or worse committing atrocities against humans who live simple sustainable lives?
    Hang on a minute, that’s already happening isn’t it???

  2. It was great to have a conference that brought together so many areas of expertise on food: nutrition, farmers (both conventional and those seeking an alternative), scientists, academics, CSAs, environmental groups, consumer bodies, permaculturalitsts, government. There was a very good sense of cooperation in the air even considering this diversity. Thanks for posting the clips for me to watch again!

  3. Very good cases for more and advanced permaculture – glad they are catching on, just hope it’s not to late. Thankyou for arranging these speakers and postings.

  4. Tim Flannery’s energy budget figure is wrong. (Not that it would matter much.) Earth’s radius is about 6.4 million meters, which at a solar irradiation of about 1.3 kW/m^2 gives us a total insolation of about 160 Petawatt or so.

    Incidentally, the power carried by the gulf stream is about 1% of that – round 1.3 petawatt.

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