Marrying health and agriculture

by Cameron Muir

IN the past three years there have been urgent calls – by organisations ranging from the United Nations to the Queensland Liberal National Party – to double food production by 2050 and feed a global population of nine billion. The corporate farm lobby, multinational food manufacturers and biotech companies the world over are using this line to support their demands for an unprecedented expansion of industrial agriculture.

There's another figure, however, that draws out one of the contradictions of the global food system that Australia champions: a third of the world's food is wasted. In developing countries the figure is lower; most of the losses there occur in the production stage due to poor facilities and drought. In wealthy countries, like Australia, the percentage is higher; about half the waste is food dumped in bins in shops and homes.

Why are we planning to grow more food when we throw half of it out?

 

IT'S EIGHT IN the morning, a week before Christmas, when I drive south until Canberra ends and the ranges loom ahead. On Westwood Farm, a property donated for the use of charities, sit the new Canberra offices of OzHarvest. I'm supposed to meet the director, Dave Burnet, before spending a day with Chris, a van driver. We will collect food from supermarkets and function centres that would otherwise go to waste, and deliver it to community organisations that distribute the food to families who need a hand.

On the walls is a patchwork of framed letters of appreciation – the Red Cross, the Big Issue, local schools – and certificates and photos announcing donations from businesses and local fundraising events that range from a few hundred dollars to ten thousand. Everything has OzHarvest's yellow branding: even the three umbrellas in a bucket by the door are yellow.

It's not long before Dave rushes into the room and starts greeting everyone, makes jokes about the OzHarvest Christmas party the night before (one of the volunteers spent the night on the office couch), shakes my hand, then sets about looking for his mobile phone, misplaced during the party. He finds it and counts the missed calls. He's tall, with greying hair and a friendly grin, and everything about him says go, go, go.

'Come into the office,' Dave says. 'Oh, wait – you want a coffee or a tea? You'd better have a tea.'

The building is three construction site offices cleaved open, gutted and joined together. Like the land here, the site offices were donated. The resulting structure has the layout of a house, with a large 'family room' complete with worn yellow couches and a TV set against the wall, and a dining table where a volunteer named Pam is doing the accounts on a laptop. There's a large kitchen that doubles as a store, with rows of metal-framed shelves stacked with tins and other non-perishables, making it look like a library of food.

'Actually,' Dave says, putting down a teacup, 'you'll have to get going with Chris soon.' He grabs a mug with a lid so I can carry it in the van.

We're about to go into his office when he says, 'Come out here first,' and we walk onto the veranda facing the ranges. We admire the view before Dave delivers staggering figures on food waste. A quarter of the food squandered in rich countries could lift all of the world's nearly one billion hungry people out of malnourishment. The smaller supermarket chains 'get it', he says, but the bigger ones don't.

I'm wondering when I'll get a chance to take the teabag out of my mug when we're on the move again. Back in the main room Dave gives a mock reprimand to a volunteer, Pete, who replies, 'Just dock my pay.' OzHarvest doesn't receive government funding. Everything runs on donated time, money and food. Even the white plastic containers used to carry wet food are empty ice-cream buckets from Boost Juice. The sense of goodwill is overpowering; it lifts you like the view of those mountains in the distance.

To get to the chairs in Dave's office we navigate a pile of Christmas hampers the team has been preparing and packing for several weeks. He tells me that when they started doing this, in 2008, the office barely had space for one desk. Dave parked the van at home. Now they have three vans, new offices and five employees. They're almost growing faster than they can manage. 'I think it's because people see the sense in it,' Dave says. 'It's so obvious. There are people going without food while good food is being thrown out.'

He moves onto statistics again – how a tenth of wealthy countries' greenhouse gas emissions come from growing food that is never eaten, and how in Australia we throw out food worth $5.2 billion every year. That's the amount of extra money needed to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or pay for the Greens' proposed dental care plan four times over.

'Today you're going to see...' Dave says. 'There are people with addictions; there are women and children escaping domestic abuse...' He pauses again. 'Well, you know, just use common sense.'

I try to take notes and get a sip of tea but Chris is waiting outside, getting edgy. The drivers have a tight schedule. It's a big logistical operation co-ordinating them to collect and deliver food across the ACT and surrounding towns. They travel as far as Yass and Binalong, nearly a hundred kilometres away. Chris is looking at the blocks of time marked off on his running sheet. We should have left by now.

I grab my camera and mug, and we head out to a yellow van. We're in Van 1, the original: 150,000 kilometres in three years. Chris has already picked up fifty-five kilograms of food from a supermarket in Manuka and delivered it to a charity in south Canberra. He is young, burly, a gridiron player, with a wild mop of hair that almost covers his eyes, and he wears thin, low-cut white sandshoes without socks that seem out of proportion.

Chris' parents are friends of Dave's and they arranged the summer job for him. 'I just liked it, so I stayed,' he says. He spent his gap year driving the yellow van.

We pull up in the back dock of a suburban shopping complex with an Aldi supermarket. The van is refrigerated, so its engine stays running while we head through a steel door. Staff lead us into the store room, to four crates holding chest high boxes of discarded eggs, watermelons, focaccias, sliced bread. There are two trolleys in which the Aldi staff have stacked the best food. Until a few years ago this wouldn't have been possible, because of the legal risk, but the laws were changed to indemnify retailers giving food to charities. Chris and I push the trolleys through the shopping centre, out to the van.

We pull out bags of nectarines, mangoes, apricots and plums, along with punnets of raspberries and strawberries, and check and weigh them. It's a summer harvest – rich red, orange and purple, and sweet aromas. The heavier nectarines have squashed the raspberries and crimson liquid is leaking. We have to bin them. It's a contamination risk, and not fair to the agencies that would take the food or the people who would eat it.

Six and a half kilos of fruit, and six loaves of soft white bread marked down to sixty-nine cents.

 

WHEAT TAKES UP more of the world's land than any other crop. Producing one loaf of bread, from the field to shop, requires eight hundred litres of water. The industrial production of nitrogenous fertiliser requires mining for natural gas. Nitrogen in fertilisers runs off into rivers, causing toxic algal blooms, and then into oceans where estuaries can become 'dead zones'.[i] They release massive quantities of nitrous oxide, a gas with three hundred times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, as well as nitrogen oxide, which destroys ozone. According to estimates by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, up to 2.5 million tonnes of nitrogen is applied to Australian crops each year.[ii] We turned Nauru into a doughnut for its phosphate.

The fertiliser has to be transported and distributed by trucks and tractors burning diesel. The grain is harvested and transported on trucks and ships burning more diesel. Natural gas is used to fire the ovens that bake the bread. Bread also needs oil and salt, and sugar, which is probably sourced from the cane fields of Queensland, the excess fertilisers and chemicals of which run off to the coast and threaten the Great Barrier Reef.

Humankind's agricultural activities have been the primary cause of species loss, and – according the world's top biological scientists working for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – continue to be 'perhaps the single greatest threat to biodiversity'. Agriculture has played a significant role in plunging the earth into another mass extinction event, the sixth in its history.

This is more than a matter of unnecessary resource depletion and environmental destruction. The food system is breaking down. In wealthy countries we grow and consume so much excess food that it's killing us. We've become unhealthy vessels for the disposal of unwanted surpluses. Researchers Dorothy Blair and Jeffery Sobal calculated that the population of the United States is storing more than ten trillion kilocalories of body fat: a gigantic reservoir that will be released as carbon dioxide at death.[iii] Two-thirds of Australians are overweight or obese.[iv] Access Economics estimates this has a total cost to the national economy of $58.2 billion.[v] That's almost two broadband networks every year.

Perhaps what is most unsettling about the global food system is that, despite it producing such large surpluses, around two billion people suffer from lack of nutrients, and of those a billion go hungry every day. The wasted food in North America and Europe alone could feed the world's hungry three times over, according to the historian Tristram Stuart.[vi] There is a disastrous misalignment between how we grow food, what we grow it for and who we grow it for. Australian grain farmers toil for over fifty hours each week to make a $20,000 annual profit so a businessman in India can get diabetes. We dam the rivers and degrade the Murray-Darling Basin so someone in Japan can throw half her rice in the bin. We grow grain to fatten cattle for premium markets while a billion go hungry. Is this what Australian agriculture is for?

 

ALMOST SEVENTY YEARS ago an Australian fruit farmer, Frank McDougall, had a vision for aligning agriculture with the needs of public health and social justice. He took his vision to the world and almost succeeded. McDougall decided at the age of twenty-five to become a farmer and move to the new irrigation settlement of Renmark, in South Australia's Riverland. Unlike Greenwich in England, McDougall's birthplace, Renmark wasn't the global co-ordinator of time. In 1907 his chosen town wasn't even connected to a train line. Tanned scrub-cutters and fruit-pickers would cool off and bathe in the Murray River's wide meander sweeping round the edge of town, while red dust drifted silently through the townsfolk's airy huts and settled on everything.

On the eighty acres he had cleared McDougall built a two-room shack and grew apricots. At the end of the summer harvest the discarded stones of McDougall's dried apricots accumulated around his shack until the paths were paved with them. Each new stone marked the slow and quiet passing of time. Perhaps he yearned to be at the centre of things again. McDougall enlisted in the army, and served in Egypt and France with the 1st Anzac Cyclist Battalion. On his return he wasn't content just to grow fruit, and he became a member of the board of the Australian Dried Fruits Association and travelled to England to represent growers' interests. In 1923 he formed a close relationship with the conservative Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, who sought McDougall's advice on economic, agricultural and trade matters.

In 1925 McDougall published Sheltered Markets, a book that 'refined and popularised' the concept of imperial preferences, the system of reciprocal tariff reductions between British colonies and dominions designed to foster trade within the empire.[vii] The historian John B O'Brien, in one of the few essays on McDougall, described empire trade as a policy that was 'narrowly focused, restrictive, combative and essentially pandered to xenophobic nationalistic instincts and pursuits that could best be realised within the limits of a confined section of the world and to hell with the rest'.[viii]

The liberal economic policies influential at the time were a hangover from the nineteenth century. They were founded on a belief that the producers in society were the most noble and virtuous, and contributed most to the generation of wealth. The consumers, on the other hand – the workers and the poor – were morally inferior, a drain on society. The provision of relief was thought to unnaturally weaken the gene pool. This did not mean a preference for small government: the supporters of laissez-faire economic policy 'were more than willing to see government provide tariffs, railroad subsidies, and internal improvements, all of which benefitted producers... What they condemned was intervention on behalf of consumers,' the historian Kathleen Donohue[ix] contends. Workers and the poor were seen to be diverting money that could be reinvested in production. Government structures, policies and legislation enhanced the rights, protection and power of producers.

By the late 1920s, however, empire trade was failing, and so too were the policies to deliver economic subsidy and advantage to the producers. Massive surpluses accumulated in the exporting countries, due to a combination of reduced world trade and the actions of producers, merchants and governments, who refused to sell at lower prices and colluded to deliberately withhold produce from the market. The New York stock market crashed in 1929 and commodity prices went into freefall. The price Australian wheat fetched on export markets in the 1931-32 season was two-thirds lower than in 1924-25.[x] Governments responded with a hodgepodge of panicked and parochial economic and trade strategies. Farmers were forced to try extracting more from the land to recoup their losses.

Much of the West's confidence began to crumble. Fascism and totalitarianism spread in Europe, and military tensions between industrial powers were heightening. Instead of attempting to lift people from poverty, and stimulate demand to raise prices, food surpluses were left unsold while millions starved.

 

FRANK McDOUGALL WAS dismayed by the system he had helped create. In 1933, when the World Economic Conference 'failed to agree to anything save the desirability of the restriction of production in a poverty stricken world',[xi] McDougall abandoned his views on imperial preference and tariffs. He thought it immoral and economically senseless to restrict production in a world of hunger. Instead of protecting and subsiding the producers, he argued for a plan to increase the capacity of consumers to purchase the surplus, stimulating demand. The purpose of agriculture would be restructured. It could no longer be treated as a set of commodities for balancing terms of trade – the global system would be redesigned to provide the world with more nutritious foods.

McDougall had become good friends with John Boyd Orr, the world's leading nutrition scientist. Orr was about to publish a study that described a vicious circle by which Britain's poor could not afford food, leaving them less productive and without the capacity to lift themselves from poverty. McDougall's nutrition agenda was drawn directly from knowledge he gained through his friendship with Orr. A healthier society, combined with other efforts to increase living standards, would increase world demand, stimulate industry, end the problem of surpluses and bring the world economy out of depression.

In a briefing paper of 1934 entitled 'The Health and the Agricultural Problems' McDougall drew on the nutrition literature to argue that the emphasis of agricultural production should shift from high-energy grains to the most nutritious and vitamin-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs. He argued that food processing and distribution should be 'conducted more on the lines of public utility services', rather than profit-making businesses.[xii] McDougall was suggesting a public takeover of private industry: food production would be a public utility, like the domestic water supply. He even included ideas for how milk might be delivered by a system of pipes and distribution centres, following the model of petrol stations. The long-term aim was to restructure the global economy, redistribute wealth, and create a more equitable and healthier society. It was extraordinary, it was radical, and it gained worldwide attention.

In 1935, Stanley Bruce, by now no longer the Australian Prime Minister, took the paper to the League of Nations, promoting it as a plan to 'marry health and agriculture'. Members were intrigued by the reversal of conventional thinking. The historian of international development Amy Staples wrote that its originality 'rejuvenated' the League of Nations and caught the imagination of a Depression-weary world. Before long twenty countries had established national nutrition committees, India reduced its tariffs on milk, and Estonia did the same for fruit and vegetables. It became the league's best-selling pamphlet.[xiii]

As war with Germany loomed, attention diverted from the nutrition revolution. McDougall tried to argue that food programs could bring peace: better health could alleviate the grievances of those in Germany causing social unrest in response to poor economic conditions. This approach was labelled appeasement, and it failed. War halted the spread of international nutrition plans.

In 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt made his 'Four Freedoms' speech. The third was 'Freedom From Want': an opening to put nutrition back on the agenda. McDougall prepared a memo for the United States Department of Agriculture in 1942, and by chance Eleanor Roosevelt read it. In September that year he was invited to dinner with the President.

McDougall claimed most of the conversation was taken up by Franklin Roosevelt trying to determine a name for the United Nations after the war. At one stage, when 'the President momentarily became absorbed in the contents of his plate', McDougall suggested that the United Nations should have something to do, such as an international agency for food and agriculture.[xiv] In February 1943 Roosevelt called the first conference of the United Nations at Hot Springs, Virginia. Its subject was food and agriculture. It seemed like a triumphant moment but England, followed by the United States, began to put strategic interests before international co-operation on agriculture, food and health.

 

BY MID-MORNING CHRIS and I have picked up forty-eight kilos of summer fruit, just about every kind of bread you could think of, frozen T-bone steaks, gourmet pies from the National Gallery, bottles of flavoured milk and 'indulge mango sensation' yoghurt.

I ask Chris what he wants to do after he finishes working at OzHarvest. 'I want to get into Duntroon. I want to be a peacekeeper.' His father is in the Air Force.

I know people with family members who have served in Afghanistan; thinking about the danger, I make a comment that comes across as flippant, saying that at least Australia might be out of there by the time he finishes training.

'There'll always be somewhere,' he replies.

It's time to make our first drop-off. We head to St John's Care, a couple of blocks from the city, towards the red boulevard of Anzac Parade and its symbols of sacrifice. The car park is full. Chris stops the van in the middle of the lot, leaving just enough room for others to get out.

Inside a small building trestle tables are set up with supplies. People enter and select what they need, like a supermarket. Mothers carrying infants or walking with children by their side are laughing and sharing plans for Christmas. It's communal, almost joyful. I don't know if it's always like this or if it's due to the festive season. There's a hardness about their appearance – creases around eyes, pulled-back hair, protruding elbows – that suggests the toughness that comes with living and working at the margins.

A man in his late thirties with a shaved head and a crescent-shaped scar from his temple to the back of his head asks if I've brought food. He wants to help. His speech is slow. I point to the van, and he sets about loading the food on trolleys in such a determined and efficient manner that I realise that even if we didn't need his help he was going to give it.

The two directors help unload food too. While everyone around here seems fairly relaxed, Sue and Robyn look weary, and a little anxious. Their doors only just opened but they've already had twenty-seven families this morning. I ask Robyn if OzHarvest's food has helped the St John's Care centre. She glances at me with a grim-looking half grin. 'We no longer have to buy it...or as much, at least.'

 

BY LUNCHTIME WE'VE picked up eight kilos of lamb souvlaki and the odour of garlic is so powerful we could find our van in a car park by smell alone. The back of the vehicle is stacked to the roof with another twenty-five kilos of bread.

We drive north to a warehouse where Hand Up operates. They support more than nine hundred families. At the warehouse they run a shop where people can buy essential grocery items at a discount. 'Hand Up are good for mono-drops,' says Chris. 'The smaller agencies need variety, so it's hard to drop off, say, a hundred kilos of oranges, but they serve so many here it's not a problem clearing it.'

I start wheeling a trolley with yellow crates full of bread from the dock into the warehouse. There are five women working for Hand Up and each one says, 'Bread! You've got bread. We're out of bread!' So close to Christmas their supplier couldn't get extra loaves. With well-practised swiftness they begin unpacking and sorting on a ten-metre-long stainless steel bench. Just before I leave I notice towards the back of the room, among the shelves of grocery items, a tall woman with long hair telling her three-year-old daughter to choose something special for Christmas Day.

For the rest of the afternoon we collect food donated at Canberra's public libraries. They've been running a 'food for fines' program over the summer: borrowers can clear their fines by offering tinned and packaged food in lieu of cash. We pick up twenty-seven kilos of tinned soup, tomato paste, baked beans and pasta at Belconnen Library, and the same amount at Kippax.

At twenty to two we're driving to the next library when Chris gets a call from Pete at the OzHarvest office. Sue from St John's Care needs more food. Forty more families arrived after we left and have cleaned her out. 'Sue never calls,' Chris says. 'She is desperate.'

All we have in the van are the non-perishables from the libraries. Chris pulls over and rings Van 2 but there's no answer. He wonders whether he could go out to the big food donor near the airport. A few months ago he collected four hundred kilos of 'ready to go' ravioli in one pick-up. Chris decides there isn't time, and he's not scheduled to go there until tomorrow anyway. He sounds worried. 'Hopefully Van 2 can get something to them,' he says. 'Tomorrow I'll do the pick-up near the airport and I'll be able to smash them with food.'

 

AS WE DRIVE through the suburbs of north Canberra I notice advertising on bus shelters. On the left-hand side of the road an ad announces: 'War declared on liquor prices'. On the right, there's a giant yellow M, with 'Open 24 hours' written underneath. I wonder if we're living with the unintended consequences of McDougall's nutrition agenda. His scheme, worked out with John Boyd Orr, included plans for a rapid increase in agricultural production, an independent organisation that would arrange the financing of capital for farmers in developing countries, short-term food relief and open access to markets. It sounds like the institutions and global food regime that operates now: the FAO, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. It sounds like the Green Revolution, which was successful in increasing yields but degraded environments and probably increased inequality.[xv] In Griffith REVIEW 24: Participation Society Mark Hopkinson argued that the switch to a consumer-oriented economy created ever-expanding expectations of material growth. Perhaps this has helped produce food surpluses and over-consumption.

On the surface there are similarities, but this is not the way that McDougall envisioned postwar development. Britain and the United States began to perceive the global nutrition agenda pushed by McDougall and Orr as a threat to their domestic and strategic interests. Orr's 1936 study, Food, Health and Income, so embarrassed Britain that it excluded him from the 1943 conference on food and agriculture at Hot Springs. McDougall found a way to include the nutrition scientist. He screened a film called The World of Plenty that featured Orr asking, 'What are we fighting for?' Amy Staples described the reaction: 'When Orr answered his own question by arguing for a war against want, starting with food, the delegates rose to their feet and cheered.'[xvi]

In October 1945 an interim commission met for what would be the first of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's regular meetings. Britain only granted Orr observer status. The British delegates conspired with the United States' Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and Assistant Secretary of State Will Clayton to diminish the organisation's responsibilities. Its role would be to gather statistics and offer advice. One year later, to the extreme disappointment of the British and North Americans, Orr was the last candidate standing for the position of first director-general of the FAO. While director-general he proposed a more activist World Food Board. He wanted it to create vast food banks, stabilise prices, oversee trade agreements concerning agricultural commodities, advise on the most nutritious foods to grow, redistribute food and provide generous assistance to farmers in developing countries. This was McDougall and Bruce's marriage of health and agriculture.

Britain opposed Orr's proposal because it was dependent on food imports and any plan that might lead to higher food prices would be detrimental to its weakening economy. Raising farmers' incomes in developing nations was not its priority. The United States was opposed because it saw its future as dependent on the generation of wealth through opening markets for its exports. It wanted the new International Trade Organization that it had played a significant role in founding to determine trade agreements without any interference from the World Food Board. It wanted trade to protect its prosperity, not to lift the poor from poverty. The United States also thought the proposal would obstruct its national security agenda and the pursuit of its long-term strategic interests. The World Food Board would have limited 'its ability to use food aid to bring third-world nationalists into the US fold, and its garnering of international goodwill through its food initiatives', Staples wrote. The State Department described the proposal as 'disturbing'.[xvii]

Knowing the World Food Board was popular among developing nations, including India, Britain and the United States worked quietly to defeat it. McDougall, Bruce and Orr believed international co-operation and the economic and social advantages of a mutually beneficial global agricultural system would define a new era of peace. The dominant power, the United States, pursued a parochial nationalist agenda centred on economic conflict, military supremacy and the promotion of a false free trade. Food became just another instrument of its foreign policy.

In April 1948 Orr's term as director-general ended. He left for Scotland, bitter and dejected: 'I took out my handkerchief, wiped the dust of America from the soles of my shoes with it and threw it into the harbour.'[xviii] Years later, Stanley Bruce expressed his disappointment that their nutrition agenda had been narrowed and marginalised to 'humanitarian considerations'. He said their scheme had little to do with high moral principles: they had always argued on economic grounds. The distribution of food was supposed to be integrated into the mainstream of the economy, not something special and conditional, in the form of food aid, that reinforced inequitable economic and power relations. McDougall continued to work for the FAO for the rest of his career, pursuing his nutrition agenda from the inside.

 

THE WORLD HEALTH Organization estimates that by 2020 chronic non-communicable disease, mostly associated with diet, will be responsible for two-thirds of the world's disease and mortality.[xix] An article in the Bulletin of the WHO describes an 'unprecedented' change in humanity's diet. Basic foods are being replaced with processed food products containing high amounts of added sugars, salt, fats and oils. Levels of obesity in Latin America are similar to those in the United States, and higher among women in North Africa. Large transnational food corporations penetrate new markets by purchasing majority shareholdings of local food processors, wholesalers and growers. Mexicans drink more Coke than water.[xx] If governments try to undertake small measures to improve diets, such as labelling food with health indicators or taxing processed foods, they risk legal action under World Trade Organization rules – much like the tobacco industry's High Court challenge to Australia's plain packaging laws.

The line about doubling food production by 2050 has its origins in a 2006 FAO study that estimated demand for grain would grow by seventy to a hundred per cent to feed animals as more people start eating meat.[xxi] The food industry and lobbyists have spun it to justify the status quo. Instead of an international democratic body regulating food, we have multinational food corporations and commodity trading firms regulating the system. McDougall and Orr would be impressed by the intensity of their centralisation, co-ordination and influence.

The major element missing from the McDougall's marriage of health and agriculture was the environment. It is difficult to work out what the alternative environmental impact would have been had the world grown more fruit and vegetables instead of high-energy foods such as grains and sugar. Perhaps the World Food Board, with its focus on nutrition, would have regulated to minimise over-consumption, avoiding wasted use of resources. In any case, the virtue of having a clearly defined purpose for agriculture, better global nutrition, is that planners could change the means and methods without jeopardising the goal. It wouldn't have mattered to McDougall whether industrial farming, organic farming or agro-ecological biodynamic farming was the method, so long as it grew the most nutritious foods. The amorphous agenda of 'prosperity' and 'increasing consumption', on the other hand, conflates means with ends. It produces an agriculture focused on higher yield, at any cost. To suggest change to the system is to threaten vested interests and the established order.

 

AT TWENTY PAST two we make our last pick-up. Two hundred and fifty-five kilos, a quarter of a tonne, all up today. Chris is almost apologetic. 'It wasn't a good day,' he says. 'It's a very light total.'

Van 2 rings to say its been to the big food donor near the airport and collected a hundred and sixty kilos, and is on the way to Sue at St John's Care.

'Thanks,' Chris says, and his shoulders drop as he sighs with relief.

We're travelling south, towards the ranges and the OzHarvest office, when Chris tells me he hopes to see the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at Queanbeyan when he does his drop-off tomorrow. The Sisters will be working food stalls. 'It's a Saturday; it's not a work day for them,' he says. 'They just do it, out of their own time.' He says he admires them, and that they are his role models. 'I think about them most days. I hope some of their goodness, their inspiration, rubs off on me.'

Chris spent his gap year working in a low-paid community sector job because he enjoys it, he wants to be a peacekeeper knowing the danger he will face, and his role models are self-sacrificing Catholic Sisters. What drives him is a deep commitment to public service. He's an extraordinary person. They all are. Dave let OzHarvest take over his home life when he parked the van in his driveway; Pete volunteers six days a week. Since his wife died a year or so ago he's dedicated his life to helping others.

That's when I'm confronted with the idealism of McDougall's plan, and my idealism for believing in it. The nutrition scheme required international co-operation. It was optimistic and saw the best in humanity. Even if its economics appeared to make sense, it still depended on generosity, power sharing and empathy. I thought the staff and volunteers at OzHarvest were ordinary people who saw the statistics and were appalled, who were persuaded by reason and rational argument, and who recognised the system is broken and decided to do something about it. But if they are extraordinary, meaning limited in number, I'm left wondering what that means for a plan that requires better relationships between people across the globe. You can only accept the current system of agriculture if you believe some lives, some groups of people, are worth more than others. Is there enough good in us all for a McDougall-style alternative?

At OzHarvest, volunteers are packing hampers under the whirr of pedestal fans. Chris and I unload the boxes of tinned food from the van. The last thing I hear before leaving is that a bus carrying fifty people has turned up to St John's Care. I hope Chris 'smashes' them with food in the morning. And I hope there is another McDougall for the next forty years, for the nine billion by 2050. Perhaps it will be a politician, but that seems unlikely. I would like to see this person come from the ranks of farmers, like McDougall – someone who can bring the people along, who will persuade Australia to 'marry health with agriculture', so that our farming can be a model for rest of the world.

McDougall gave Australia an international voice in unlikely circumstances. Today Australia doesn't have the capacity to feed the world, but we could lead it again.

 


[i] Simpson, Sarah. "Nitrogen Fertilizer: Agricultural Breakthrough - and Environmental Bane." Scientific American, March 20 2009. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nitrogen-fertilizer-anniversary

[ii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). "Current World Fertilizer Trends and Outlook to 2011/12." 2008. ftp://ftp.fao.org/agl/agll/docs/cwfto11.pdf

[iii] Dorothy Blair and Jeffery Sobal, "Luxus Consumption: Wasting Food Resources through Overeating," Agriculture and Human Values 23, no. 1 (2006): 65.

[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008, National Health Survey 2007-08, Cat 4364.0.

[v] Access Economics, 'The growing cost of obesity in 2008: three years on,' (2008): iv.

[vi] Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009).

[vii] John B. O'Brien, "F.L. McDougall and the Origins of the FAO," Australian Journal of Politics & History 46, no. 2 (2000).

[viii] Ibid., 165.

[ix] Kathleen G. Donohue, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer, New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). 2.

[x] Paul de Hevesy, World Wheat Planning and Economic Planning in General (London: Oxford University Press, 1940).

[xi] The Challenge to Western Civilisation, 1947. Articles and addresses by F.L. Mc Dougall, 1929-52, McDougall Papers, NLA, MS 6890, Series 4.

[xii] The Agricultural and the Health Problems, 1934. Articles and addresses by F.L. Mc Dougall, 1929-52, McDougall Papers, NLA, MS 6890, Series 4.

[xiii] O'Brien, "Origins of the FAO," 170-72.

[xiv] Ibid., 173-74.

[xv] The Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2011: Innovations That Nourish the Planet. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011: xviii.

[xvi] Staples, Amy L. S. "To Win the Peace: The Food and Agriculture Organization, Sir John Boyd Orr, and the World Food Board Proposals." Peace & Change 28, no. 4 (2003): 498.

[xvii] Ibid., 505.

[xviii] Connelly, Matthew James. Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008: 127, and also in Boyd Orr, John. As I Recall. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1966.

[xix] Chopra, Mickey, Sarah Galbraith, and Ian Darnton-Hill. "A Global Response to a Global Problem: The Epidemic of Overnutrition." World Health Organization. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 80, no. 12 (2002): 952-8.

[xx] ibid

[xxi] "Telling porkies: the big fat lie about doubling food production," Soil Association. 2010. http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=qbavgJQPY%2Fc%3D&tabid=735

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.