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Strength in diversity

In Australia food is plentiful and seems to be everywhere you turn. What with all the produce, brands and products stacked high on the shelves, you may feel rich with choice – yet if you scratched beneath the surface, you would realise this is an illusion.

It doesn’t matter which chook you buy – free range, organic or otherwise – practically all Australian meat birds are one of two hybrids. If you buy eggs at the supermarket, chances are they came from one of four producers. Things don’t get better in the fruit bowl either – of the 7,500 varieties of apples, only eight are commercially available.

Diversity is disappearing in the system that delivers food from the field to your fridge – there’s rationalisation and consolidation in every link of the chain. We’re losing the genetic diversity of crops and livestock, small to medium farms, mixed farm systems, and a rich ecology of processers and retailers.

Why does diversity in food matter?
Early farmers cultivated several thousand plant and livestock species over the years, yet today, the global food pool has dramatically narrowed. Only a few crop and livestock species are used, and we’re reliant on this slim pool for our food. Within the species are breeds and varieties with unique characteristics; this genetic variation is invaluable and is being threatened by extinction.

When growers selectively crossbreed crops, they develop desired traits, for example, the ability to resist drought, disease, pests and heat, or for positive yield and growth. Similarly, genetically diverse livestock populations provide a range of options to adapt to changing environments, withstand threats of disease, and meet societal needs. If a livestock breed or crop variety disappears, so too will the ability to breed using the genetic information it once contained. And once a genetic line has disappeared, it’s gone forever. This reduces our ability to combat food insecurity in the face of climate change, diverse environments and population growth.

As farms grow larger, production tends to specialize, monoculture crops are planted, and labour is mechanized. There is a price to this, despite the rewards of economies of scale, monoculture systems are more susceptible to pests and diseases. They require increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, deplete soil organic matter and, as a result, may ultimately suffer from declining yields.

Diversity isn’t just important in the natural world – it’s vital for economic markets to function. Free economic markets theoretically contain a variety of businesses to provide true competition, with no groups wielding undue influence over laws, regulations and social norms. Yet, over a period of time, markets reach maturation, and firms consolidate control and reduce competition through partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. With considerable size, large companies can influence the price, quantity, quality and location of production. There is also the potential for the misuse of market power. Smaller enterprises can’t compete, so they disappear, with economic and social repercussions.

Finally, diversity is vital in human diets for biological reasons. The internationally lauded dietary guidelines devised by the Brazilian Ministry of Health encourages the consumption of natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, of mainly plant origin. They champion the consumption of a wide variety of foods, as well as combining food plants with nutrient profiles that complemented each other – for example, eating rice with beans in traditional Brazilian cuisine – to supply an adequate combination of nutrients the body requires.

Diversity is essential for human health, resilient farming and fairer business. So how do we measure up in the diversity stakes? How consolidated is our food system? How did it transition from variety to singularity? And what are the repercussions? Let’s take a look.

The state of food diversity

Crops and livestock
Traditionally, gardeners and farmers saved seeds from their harvest. They would plant the seeds the following year, exchange them with neighbours, or sell them at local markets. In doing so, they created and improved their own varieties over many plant generations, and adapted them to local conditions.

In industrialised countries, most growers buy their seeds. Yet, over the last 40 years, the commercial seed industry has transformed from a competitive sector comprised of small, family-owned firms to one dominated by transnational agrochemical corporations. The companies shifted from stocking open-pollinated seeds to patented hybridized and genetically engineered varieties.

Today the top three seed companies – Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont – account for over half of the global proprietary seed market. This consolidation has reduced seed diversity, which includes diminishing the variety and the availability of non-patented seeds. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world has lost 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of its agricultural crops between 1900 and 2000.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is a well-known example of the risk of genetic uniformity. There were few varieties of potatoes in Europe, none of which were resistant to a fungus that struck. The fungus destroyed entire harvests for years, causing famine, resulting in death and mass emigration.

Australia’s banana industry is one that’s strikingly uniform. Although there are about 2000 varieties of cultivated bananas in the world, virtually all commercially grown bananas are the Cavendish variety – and it accounts for 95 per cent of production here. This variety is susceptible to the Panama Tropical Race 4 disease that destroyed the industry in the Northern Territory in the late 1990s, and reappeared in Queensland during 2015. You would think that we’d learn: before the Cavendish was globally popular, Gros Michel was the commercial breed – before it was decimated by disease.

The loss of livestock breeds mirrors seeds. Small farmers and pastoralists bred and raised livestock, adapting genetic strains over thousands of years for disease resistance, the size of their operation, their market and the ability to thrive in harsh conditions. In industrialised countries now, a narrow selection of high output breeds has displaced local breeds. According to the FAO, of the 8,300 breeds known, eight per cent are recorded as extinct, and 22 per cent are at risk.

Just 50 years ago, there were hundreds of small breeders; yet today, almost all companies fulfilling that need are multinational with a global market. It’s estimated that two companies supply three-quarters of the world’s broiler (meat chicken) market, three companies control the breeding of chickens (for eggs), and three control the majority of turkey. One company leads both the pig and cattle market - that’s a lot of eggs in the global basket.

Breeding companies have overly selected for rapid growth and meat production. According to Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, this has resulted in livestock with excitable temperaments, lowered reproductive ability, and compromised disease resistance.

Australia used to have hundreds of export and domestic livestock abattoirs, with many more local slaughterhouses servicing rural communities. Yet many have since closed, with the consolidation of those remaining. Today, the two largest red meat processors in Australia are Brazilian-owned JBS (the world’s largest meat processing company), and Teys (a joint venture with Cargill, transnational agribusiness producer and marketer).

Australia’s two largest meat chicken processors, Ingham and Baiada, own over 70 per cent of the market. The chicken meat market is vertically integrated: companies own or control most of the production chain, from producing fertile eggs, hatching the eggs, growing the chickens, processing, value-adding and feed production. This is another form of consolidation. And egg and pork sectors are similar.

Global processors are the top three suppliers to major supermarket chains and account for 66 - 98 per cent across nine major categories, including breakfast cereals, soft drink and cheese. Against this competition, opportunities for smaller enterprises are severely limited.

Disappearing retailers doesn’t help matters. A generation ago, there were a plethora of milkmen, greengrocers, bakers, general stores butchers and greengrocers who shared most of the market. Now Coles and Woolworths dominate, with over 70 per cent market share for packaged food, and 45-50 per cent for fresh.

While it is well known that Australia’s food retail is consolidated, not many realize just how supermarkets’ buying practices has reshaped supply chains.

During the 1990s, Coles and Woolworths moved away from wholesale markets, sourcing produce via direct contracts. More recently, they consolidated their distribution centres and suppliers - small-to-medium-sized farms are effectively excluded from the market.

There has been structural change in response. Many farmers increased their farm size and production or formed marketing groups. Because the cost of compliance to do business with the chains is high, farmers have undertaken large debts, and are under increasing pressure to raise production to remain viable. They tend to buy more land and intensify, specialise and concentrate production.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that between 1982 and 2013 the average farm size increased 13 per cent and the overall number of farms reduced by more than a quarter. Now only seven farms produce that 85 per cent of Australia’s ware (for the table) potatoes; four growers supply 70 per cent of lettuce; one grower provides 50 per cent of carrots; and one supplies 60 per cent of Australian-grown garlic, according to agrifood consultant David McKinna.

According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, the world’s diet is becoming increasingly similar at a rate of 36 per cent over the last 50 years. “More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food," says lead author Colin Khoury, scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Diets low in variety and high in energy contribute to obesity and chronic disease.

In the face of these issues, how can we conserve genetics for farmers of the future? How can small and diversified farms find a market and prosper? How do we promote dietary diversity?

How to wrestle back power and decentralize food
Growing forgotten breeds and crop varieties does necessitate alternative processing and retail. Here’s how Australian enterprises are rebuilding a strong and connected alternative.

Conserving crops and livestock
Scientists are actively saving crop varieties. More than 1,700 gene banks are located worldwide, collecting, storing, regenerating and distributing food crops and their wild relatives. A worldwide push to conserve rare animal genetics has also begun.

There is another way to conserve rare and heirloom seeds and breeds, though, use them. With this method, crops and livestock can be adapted to the needs and conditions of particular communities and regions. Farmers can select for good flavour, livestock temperaments and other positive factors.

Gardeners have sprouted seed-saver networks in Australia and overseas, where they learn how to save open-pollinated local varieties, grow and swap them. A small number of seed companies also sell them, which small market gardeners tend to grow.

Farmers are preserving livestock genetics. Two such people are Julia Powell and Shane Muller, free range farmers of Backfatters in Far North Queensland, who breed heritage Berkshire and endangered Large Black pigs. Like many farmers with registered stock, they are not only raising the breeds to save them, but to produce flavoursome, tender and juicy meat.

Farmers are also using genetics to create something new. Buying eggs from Australian breeders, Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad, of Sommerlads’ Poultry, developed new hybrid meat chickens suitable for free-range pastured production. Michael chose the Transylvanian Naked Neck to impart foraging ability and resistance to heat, and the Australian Game for vigor and leg strength, along with other breeds and traits. 

Adding value on-farm
Over the past century, farmers have been receiving a steadily decreasing proportion of the value of the final product. To regain these margins, some farmers are adding value to their existing crops or livestock, so instead of increasing scale, they are increasing capacity.

Unfortunately for pig farmers Powell and Muller, the local abattoir local closed just when they first needed it. For some time they transporting their livestock to the next nearest, yet this wasn’t sustainable. So, with the help of their community, they reopen the abattoir and now process pigs, sheep, cattle, and soon, free range heritage poultry. The couple also built an onsite butchery and smokehouse. “We’re creating opportunities for people to do other things, and this encourages young people to stay [in the ares]. Otherwise there’s only faming of sugarcane, and that’s not making any money,” Powell says.

Farmers also add further crops or livestock to the farm, and integrate the systems. Beef producers might add layer chickens in a planned grazing system, adding revenue with the bonus of pasture regeneration. Pig farmers use their livestock to remove leftover crops from the paddock, along with pests and weeds. As the pigs root up the ground they fertilise it, readying it for the next season. Market gardeners can use layer chickens to clean out crops, eat bugs and fertilise the soil, with the by-product of terrific golden eggs for the market.

Some have found an opportunity in agritourism. Eliza Wood and Guy Robertson, of Mount Gnomon Farm in Tasmania, free-range rare Wessex Saddleback pigs, heritage cattle and sheep. The farmers built an on-farm restaurant to showcase their own produce, as well as the bounty from other local producers.

Reclaiming retail
Advocates for local food are rebuilding local supply chains and distributing nutrient-dense food, with transparency between the producer and eater.

Largely run by volunteers, close to 200 farmers’ markets now operate in Australia. Stallholders value the markets as a reliable distribution channel, with 80 per cent reporting positive economic benefits, according to a Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation study.

Food hubs collate produce from multiple farms and often sell them in recurring ordering cycles. The recently launched Open Food Network is designed to support enterprises like this with an ecommerce platform.

Other encouraging examples include Transition Farm, based in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, which uses the ‘community supported agriculture’ model to feed 100 families. Their supporters buy a share of a season’s harvest upfront and share the risks and production costs with the farmer. In return, eaters enjoy an array of 150 varieties of seasonal vegetables and fruit, many grown from heirloom seeds, and harvested within 24 hours.

What you can do
You can help grow this system. The bonus is healthier, flavoursome and more interesting food today, with a strong food system to withstand shocks in the future. How can you get started?

  • Eat a wide range of fresh food – from cereals to legumes, roots and tubers, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, milk, eggs and meat. Eat diversity within each type.
  • Shop at alternative retailers that support small to medium enterprises. Ask for heritage fruit, vegetables and meat to be stocked – and buy it!
  • Seek free-range farmers with registered heritage breed livestock.
  • Buy open-pollinated seeds, grow, save and share them and join a local seed saver network.
  • Avoid supermarkets and ultra-processed food. Already do that? Then check your bank and superannuation fund – divest!
  • Farmers can research what others are doing and investigate how your business can benefit from diversification – get creative. And share what you learn.
  • Politicians can give the ACCC (Australian Competitive and Consumer Commission) broad divestiture powers where market power has been abused. A code of conduct can also cover the entire supply chain, and this can be made mandatory. Support local food, agro-ecological farming, and small to medium enterprises. Licensing fees and regulations for small processors are onerous – change this to match the scale and level of risk.

Brazil’s dietary guidelines

Open Food Network Australia

Seed Savers

Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems

Southampton Food Safety Program for pasture-based poultry production and processing