We launched straight into business on day one with Kartini's presentation based on GRAIN's recent 'Food Sovereignty for Sale' report. (If you haven't read this yet its well worth your time) After identifying the challenges of supermarket expansion as an important issue in Asia, GRAIN has been engaging with a range of stakeholders across the food distribution chain including small scale farmers, fresh-market traders, hawkers and workers. This workshop was intended to tackle the issues raised by corporate take-over of the whole food system.
The rise of supermarkets in Asia poses a direct threat to the livelihood of people. More than 3000 fresh food markets in Asia were shut down between 2007 and 2011, with the overall number declining from 13, 450 to 9, 950. In 1989 China had no supermarkets. 25 years later there are 10 000s.
A common riposte to this situation is, "Why don't the farmers just sell to the supermarkets?!" For small scale producers it is almost impossible to fit the procurement requirements set by supermarkets. Supermarkets create their own procurement chain through direct contracts with Big Ag companies that undercut local production. Supermarkets also require constant big volumes at the lowest possible price and this often sees supermarkets importing product rather than sourcing locally.
The scale and speed of this transformation in the food system in Asia is astounding. The Asian market is being pursued aggressively and things are changing quickly. The next speakers on day one gave us some insight into how these changes are occurring in their own countries.
Dharmendra Kumar from the FDI Watch discussed how his organisation has been challenging the rise in foreign direct investment in the Indian retail sector. FDI Watch fought a long battle against Walmart and finally lost in 2011. Dharmendra shared some alarming statistics about the rate of closures of smaller retailers once a Walmart opens in the same area.
Kingkorn Narintarakul from Biothai spoke about the rise of convenience stores in Thailand and how their prevalence is altering consumer habits. RTE (Ready-to-Eat) meals first appeared in 2005 and they now sell about 5 million per month! Convenience stores can supply what street sellers supply at a cheaper price and with a 'cleaner' appearance. Kay also noted the decline of home cooking in Thai homes.
Reina Villaluna from The People's Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) in the Phillipines gave an overview of how corporate agriculture and market expansion are impacting on rural development. She pointed out how both horizontal and vertical integration are leading to a loss of biodiversity and less consumer choice.
Pathut Indroyono from the Sekolah Pasar (The School of the People's Market) shared the importance of the traditional market in Indonesia as the central point for millions of local farmers, fisherman and craftsmen to distribute their wares. Pathut highlighted the value of the traditional market as the centre for entrepreneurship for the middle lower class. We also heard from the Indonesian Market Trader's Union (IKAPPI), the Association of Small Business Women Entrepreneurs (ASPPUK) and the Yogyakarta Labour Alliance who shared insights on the situation in Indonesia.
And all this we heard within the first half of the first day! Overwhelmed?! Well, yes! We felt rather small and timid in that room full of people filled with such courage and conviction. The afternoon session saw us break out into workshop groups and you can read about the discussion more here.
Day two featured two more workshops that focused more on problem solving and mitigation strategies (to be shared with you another day!). We also had time during breaks and meals to talk more informally with our Asian counterparts. It was these conversations that provided the best opportunity for us to gain some deeper understanding of the issues at hand while also giving us a chance to express ourselves better in a more relaxed environment.
We arrived in Indonesia with some awareness of the problems farmers are facing but had no idea of the magnitude of issues like land grabbing, farmer suicides, the pushing of “food safety standards” and the insidious rise of the modern market at the expense of the traditional market. Hearing personal testimonies about the ways the modern food distribution chain is disrupting long cultural traditions is disturbing.
We found it difficult not to slip into complete despair over the state of these countries’ individual struggles and our shared collective global reality. After the second day of workshops a young woman from Yogyakarta approached Joel and I and after hesitating for a moment she asked us who we were and why exactly we were here when Australia appeared to be perfectly fine.
Good question, I thought. We explained that we’d started Future Feeders because we were worried about food security and the fact that farmers’ numbers are declining in our country with no apparent interest from young people. We explained that access to land in Australia can be challenging without large amounts of capital. We talked about the lack of engagement with our food system and how a renewed interest in connecting with food has emerged only recently. We talked about the lack of tradition around markets and the difficulties of setting up resilient alternatives to the major supermarkets. “I’m so sorry!” she said.
Perspective is a wonderful thing and something we gained in bucket-loads over those few days!
On the morning before our flight we piled into Pathut's car and drove to the local wet market at 5.00 am. There's nothing like the sights, sounds and smells of a food market at dawn to remind you of the significance of food. A reverence for beautiful produce is something easily shared across cultural boundaries. It was the perfect summation for our trip.
On the forty hour return trip home we had plenty of time to consider how we might be better advocates for our new friends as well as ourselves. We feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to gain such an insight into the struggles, losses and victories of our neighbours in their quest for an ethical food system. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to share what we have learnt and use it to inform the development of a genuinely fair food system for all.
Future Feeders Team