Why You Should Give A Fuck About Farming by Gabrielle Chan

Very occasionally, I read a work of nonfiction that shatters all I know. It’s occasional because I tend to choose books that are on topics that I have some existing interest or knowledge in. I started Why You Should Give A Fuck About Farming by Gabrielle Chan thinking I had a reasonable grasp on the agriculture and water industry in Australia, sustainability and the impact of climate change. I was wrong.

This book expanded my thinking, threw light on aspects of farming and sustainability that I had not previously considered, and threw doubt on things that I had loosely held to be truths or relatively unchangeable parts of industry.

Chan begins by stating that if you eat, you have a stake in farming –

Eaters will be the ultimate arbiter of where and how food is grown and how the land is cared for…

However, our largely city-dwelling population has become so removed from the production of food, that we do not understand the true ‘cost’ of food production, and more importantly don’t see ourselves as implicated in, or responsible, for driving changes that would alter the way farming is done.

Farming sits at the intersection of the world’s biggest challenges around climate change, water, energy, and natural disasters. And yet, Australia has no national food policy, no national agriculture strategy, and a water policy that Chan describes as ‘…close to the Hunger Games‘ (this is the one bit of the book that I am across, and her description is accurate). This is a very complex problem, and Chan makes it clear that it needs innovative, strategic and collaborative solutions.

To give a snapshot of the complexities, consider the fact that the biggest input into agriculture is water, the cost of which is highly volatile (how can we plan in such a market? And what incentive is there for the adoption of new technology or practices, when changes are not enough to overcome seasonal changes in water price?); that food prices do not account for externalities such as the cost of environmental damage or migrant labour; and that the landscape will change again when large corporates have to manage carbon amelioration (will they buy up land to turn over, and to what?).

Chan points to the detrimental siloed approach of government policy around energy, agriculture, water, environmental protection, and food manufacturing, noting that ‘…politics and economics were originally organised around getting everyone fed…’. And yet, somehow politics and economics have lost sight of the long game. For example, considering water as a mere commodity doesn’t make sense from a natural security or national security point of view. The same can be said for biodiversity or the importance of vibrant rural communities. If we fail to account for the environmental, social and economic issues of food production and water management, broader government policy (or lack thereof) will allow for the growth of conglomerate international farming businesses (who are driven by short-term economics).

I found the most fascinating part of the book was focused on food security and the security of supply chains (local and international). Chan notes that Australians import 90% of our fuel, and although we boast about ‘producing most of our own stuff’, our production is far from ‘secure’. In fact, Australia is ‘…not food resilient’. I was astounded to learn that 75% of our food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species.

COVID and recent natural disasters have been effective at sharpening our attention to what happens if we can’t get one particular thing. As Chan points out, COVID was also useful in illustrating that we ‘…don’t want an economy at all costs’. Perhaps the time is ripe for change. Perhaps people are willing to invest in the long game.

The sheer specialness of our environment which might swell the chest with nationalist pride if it were a sporting team or an opera house, is hard to comprehend.

You want a book like this to finish with lots of reassuring answers (because honestly, I was feeling alarmed). Chan states that ultimately we must forge a new social contract that accounts for the true cost of farming (including ensuring that farmers earn a decent living), while mitigating climate and biodiversity loss. This is not a new concept but she goes further by providing specific examples, such as –

  • the idea that in the future, farmers are greater energy producers
  • a greater emphasis on transparency (meaning that the production process of food is part of the product – ‘…if farmers can’t stand behind the virtues of their food production processes they’ll fall behind.‘) and consumers demanding this transparency.
  • the importance of reinvesting in Australian agricultural research (we were once world leaders) – it would seem that there’s enough at stake to fund organisations such as CSIRO to levels that they were in the past.
  • policy that crosses traditional government models.

4/5 Really important.

9 responses

  1. Oh, this sounds really interesting. In my day job I handle comms for an agri-food business (I also look after businesses related to property, renewable energy, hospitality, and mining, so can’t complain about the diversity of the role!) and one of our mantras is sustainability and food security for the nation. I know far more than I ever wanted to know about beef supply chains, for instance, so I’d be keen to read this to find out more…

  2. This is a topic that has interested me a lot this last year. I’m guessing that though the arguments advanced here work for any farming system anywhere in the world, the thrust of this book is the Australian story?

  3. I’m currently watching Zac Efron’s series on Netflix which explores the environmental impact of farming in Australia. It’s very interesting because I’ve always viewed Australia as being wholesome, thriving, and an ideal place to live. I’m beginning to understand the true depth of trouble every country is in due to climate change and its causes.

    • There is a prevailing image of Australia that it is ‘built on a sheep’s back’, and to a certain extent that is true, however as this book points out, that won’t continue unless considerable changes are made. I’ll look out for the Efron doco.

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