Fork In Review

Jan Hume

“In the Name of the Land”

In the Name of the LandThis film was a box office hit in France, and did very well at the 2020 French Film Festival in Sydney. It’s basically about how agricultural methods and rural life have changed over the last 40 years. The director, Edward Bergeon, based it on his life growing up on a farm.

The main character, a French farmer is in debt, and has to deal with the pressure to upgrade his farm with a Faustian bargain. To do this, he signed up with a large corporation which effectively turns farmers almost into slaves with huge debts and consequently depression. There is very little farmers can do about it because large corporates hold all the power. And if a farmer objects and decides to become litigious, the corporates have deeper pockets to afford hotshot lawyers.

This means having to bow to the pressure of industrial farming and leave behind traditional agricultural practices which are actually better for the soil and animal health.

But, it’s not just anxiety and depression, there are other problems which farmers have to deal with:

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic Australian farmers and market gardeners are having trouble finding labour to pick and pack their produce for market. Foreign backpackers usually do this work, but are not around right now, so there could be a food shortage. The pandemic has revealed the limitations of industrial food systems that are about efficiency and profit, not resilience.

Bushfires – This time last year a lot of the Australian landscape was scarred and charred with bushfires. Apart from all sorts of buildings being destroyed, millions of animals died. This has woken people up to climate change and the effects of it. There is a lot of scientific climate evidence, as well as indigenous land management practices, however, some of this is ignored and trivialized by some media, some politicians, and people who should know better. This lack of attention has an effect on the food on your plate.

Political issues – Nick Rose runs the Food Sovereignty Alliance, and is a researcher for the National Food Plan. The agriculture minister at the time said that this plan “will ensure Australia has a sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food”. This plan is meant to benefit all Australians, but the details suggest it is really a plan which is more likely to benefit large agri-business and retailers. It also suggests that it’s a continuation of business as usual, which is based on some lazy assumptions: food insecurity will automatically increase, farm incomes will be higher, food prices assume environmental, health and social costs, the free market is efficient, and will deal with inequity and social justice. (1)

Intensive farming vs sustainable land use – Cropping land is used to grow fodder for livestock rather than food for humans. Soybeans are a crop whose by-products can be used in processed foods, including vegan. But the majority of the world’s production of soy is grown for livestock feed, and this is why the growing demand for meat, especially in China, has contributed to an increase in demand for meat. This increases greenhouse gas emissions. It also contributes to deforestation in South America, and the displacement of indigenous people and small farmers. Similar is also happening around the world with: palm oil, almonds, almond milk products, cashews, avocados, and no doubt many more. Linked to this is abuse of workers, child labour, very low wages, waste of water, organized crime, greenhouse gas emissions linked to artificial fertilizers, and long distance delivery.

Perhaps farmers should be encouraged to switch to crops consumable for humans – better for our health and the health of the soil. There’s more to it than just decreasing food miles, although that’s important. A quantity of grain produced in another country does a lot less harm than the same quantity of chicken or pork produced a relatively short distance away. If Australia had a climate change policy, maybe an idea would be to pay farmers to do something different, rather than spending more public money on trashing our life-support systems.

Regenerative farming – Charles Massy wrote a book titled Call of the Reed Warbler which is about the recognition of his own mistakes, regenerative farming and indigenous land management. It’s a memoir and a call to arms to change the way we farm, eat and think about food. Here’s a provocative quote: “How modern industrial agriculture… is not just poisoning us but is also, confoundingly, making us obese while starving us at the same time with food that is bereft of nutrients.”  He went into debt buying food for his sheep during the ‘80s and ‘90s drought, when his farm became a dust bowl. The key to regenerative agriculture is maintaining groundcover and moving stock regularly. Also, lessons can be learned from Indigenous people and their rural practices.

Grass protects the soil by trapping water, and is a home for insects for natural pest control. Some chemical companies dispute the possible link Massy draws between using glyphosate on crops, and the increase of cancers and auto-immune diseases.

Farmers don’t like being undercut and sometimes feel pressured to produce chlorinated chickens, and use antibiotics, steroid hormones and pesticides. These practices usually take place in CAFOs (Concentrated animal feeding operations) which are huge industrial farms. These products are cheap and large retailers love them, therefore customers who are food insecure also love them. But, it is on poultry factory farms that some viruses have mutated into something harmful.

It’s obvious that there are competing issues, such as price, animal welfare, carbon footprint and consumer preference. What we grow and eat will largely be the result of political choices, which are not always the wisest of choices.

Climate change – A very large portion of food production is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and this is partly due to dietary changes, more food from animal sources, food waste, and how food is produced. Halving food waste, eating less meat and more vegetables, would drastically reduce projected emissions. If we change our diet we’ll need policies and governments that make it feasible and affordable.

Markets in the northern hemisphere are probably going to create more stringent import standards for Australian farm products. Australian farmers who are slow to respond are likely to incur export sales penalties. Also, the government will need to tighten import rules to avoid undermining their own domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Most countries have emissions targets, but Australia seems not to want to pay much attention to this issue.

No matter how much greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, Australian farmers will still need to improve on capturing carbon, change herd management systems, increase growth rates, and match production to appropriate farm sizes.

We need to think about how much land we need to feed ourselves. This would help prevent both climatic and ecological disasters, as well as governments everywhere using taxpayers’ money to continue hell bent on planetary destruction.

Getting back to ‘business as usual’ should not happen. It should be an opportunity to change food and agricultural practices.

  1. Businesses could measure success and productivity in a way that is more just, and ecologically-oriented, ie. metrics that account for the true costs of food.
  2. Governments at all levels need to continue to develop policies which create and maintain sustainable food production. Subsidies could be given to farmers who avoid harmful practices, such as factory farming, which would incentivise other farmers.
  3. Plan for reduction in food waste.
  4. Plan for possible future pandemics of zoonotic diseases, and more vigilant food safety.

This pandemic has shown us that food is everyone’s business. And, the farmer in the French film shows us that we too can be broken when the agricultural system is broken.


  • The draft National Food Plan: putting corporate hunger first.

The Conversation 20 July 2012

Restaurants During COVID-19

Restos during Pandemic

Every year the trend oracles have a go at predicting what restaurants are going to serve up the following year. Remember fads like acai, kale, cauliflower, kombucha, and plant-based protein?

However, hospitality is not just about fads, food and drinks, it’s also about meeting friends and having a chat and a laugh. Occasionally, this makes a welcome change from your home cooking, which may become tiresome after a while.

Well, this year those predictions and fads went the same way as food scraps.  This virus has become the great leveller.

All that normal hospitality has been replaced by restaurants and cafés struggling every day to stay afloat.  That means menus have to be cost effective but cheap enough to be attractive for customers to want to return. Suppliers have to be reliable, and if not, chefs have to be nimble and imaginative enough to concoct a dish with what’s left in the cool room.

Behind a plate of food are hidden costs: labour is the biggest, and there’s a tricky balancing act between paying a worker fairly and ethically, and keeping the labour cost percentage down.

A worker also has a life, bills to pay, and probably a family to support, so having a stable roster is fairer than employing people casually. The result is less staff turnover, and stability.

The business owner may like to consider a co-operative or collective ownership model. Ultimately it’s fairer, and the owner is less likely to be denigrated behind his back for not taking the opportunity to change the traditional kitchen culture ie. bullying, racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity.

There has been enough in the press about policies of fairness and inclusivity being more profitable, than the hostile bullying modus operandi. Not only that, the owner is less likely to be hauled up in front of a court, or fined by government agencies for underpayment of wages etc. A bit of thinking never hurt any chef or business owner.

There’s a saying which goes something like ‘never waste a disaster’. It’s an opportunity to change things for the better. For example, buy responsibly produced foodstuffs and change the menu according to the seasons. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are cheaper and plentiful; it makes sense to use them, preferably directly from the market gardeners.

Apart from the labour cost, there is the food cost, which is closely linked with menu pricing. Some cuts of meat, and fish are very expensive even if bought from a wholesaler. It is portioned and along with accompanying ingredients, costed. But sometimes this makes the selling price too high, so there is a juggling act: the prices of the cheaper dishes have to be raised to compensate for the more attractive selling price of the very expensive dishes.

Another issue is the supply chain: further back up the supply chain, community-based farming works a lot better on many levels than broad-acre monoculture crops. But there is sometimes a problem of exploitation of agricultural workers.

There are also the issues of unsustainably caught fish, and animals which come from feed lots.

The owner of the restaurant incurs fixed costs, eg. rent which can be raised on a whim if the landlord perceives the restaurant to be thriving and busy, or not. The other fixed cost is insurance for contents and probably other things.

However, all this has been upended by the Covid pandemic, which has meant that restaurateurs, caterers, suppliers, cooks, and market gardeners have had to change their ways. Hence the expression: ‘never waste a crisis’.

One way chefs can reduce costs is to establish cloud (or ghost) kitchens which have been making an appearance recently. Apart from cooks, the only people who enter are deliverers from organisations such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo. And instead of waiters, all they need is the software to receive orders from these apps.

If lunch and dinner revenue is decreasing, make easy-to-reheat take-away deals for those working at home. Failing that, if the prep kitchen is too expensive to keep open, the chefs could make their meals from home, or pop-ups, using social media to advertise and sell them. And don’t worry about fickle food fads.

A few chefs who have had to close their restaurants have started to use their facilities and skills to cook and produce meals for donation to those who are in precarious circumstances. This is not only helpful for those on the receiving end, but also the chefs gain some reputational advantages. If these out-of-work chefs cook for a charity, that is good for both the chefs’ resumés, the charities they work for, and the recipients of these meals. Collaboration works socially, environmentally, and gives people some hope.

It’s about adaptation and trial, for example, offer Zoom classes on how to cook; offer classes on ideas about how business could increase their lines of business.

The rationale for this is that returning to normal after the pandemic may not happen.

And you never know, it might give policy makers something to do which is efficient, feasible, productive, useful – working towards a real solution to food insecurity.

The policy makers in the UK didn’t do a great job of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme because it resulted in people crowding together in restaurants and the street outside. The scheme offered restaurant goers 50% discount to eat out on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But it didn’t stop them continuing to eat out the other days in the week. Perhaps what the UK government could have done is to subsidise hospitality businesses with cheap loans, debt relief, tax relief, or payroll subsidies.

Finally, if all else fails, and business owners want to save the world, they could start composting their food waste, and invest in carbon farming.





Book Review: “Choice Cuts” by Mark Kurlansky

Choice CutsThis book is like antipasti. You can pick at pieces, and if Greek writers or German philosophers are not to your taste, you don’t have to ready them anymore. You can simply try the next platter and see if that’s to your taste. And you can snack, rather than wolf the lot down all at once.

But this is not a recipe book or a gourmet guide; it’s more an anthology of historical excerpts written mostly by European writers and philosophers. There is not much written by Asian, African or African-American writers which one would expect in the current environment. A book like this is yet to be compiled.

The subjects written about are not meant to be appetizing or mouth-watering; they range from Proust swooning over madeleines, to unpalatable dishes such as an omelette made out of chicken intestines, Icelandic soup “like scented hair oil”, fish of which “the tougher kind tastes like toe-nails.”    Also, Elizabeth David upsetting herself over garlic presses.

David’s writing is more relevant to the current period. She wrote in the post-war period when she travelled around the Mediterranean countries, and her writing is still relevant today. She introduced olive oil to British cuisine, taking it from the bathroom cupboard to the kitchen cupboard, where it has stayed.

Other writers in the post-war period include MFK Fisher, Jane Grigson, George Orwell, James Beard, and Mark Kurlansky, the editor.  In the introduction, Better than Sex, he says that Grimod de la Reynière was witty and opinionated, and was considered the forefather of most of today’s food writers. Another writer, Liebling who wrote for The New Yorker, maintained that “a true gourmet had a middling income: poverty bars too many experiences and an unlimited budget does not develop curiosity or discrimination.” Liebling wrote “This is not because millionaires are stupid but because they are not impelled to experiment.” A gourmet, in his opinion, needed to be a little deprived which would lead to the curiosity to experiment.

An interesting query is why people read and write about food. I think it’s because they love eating. MFK Fisher thinks it’s also about security, love, hunger, and the feeling of warmth and richness when hunger is satisfied.

Nowadays, Kurlansky would probably include articles on: social media, the cult of celebrity chefs, food shows on TV, spices, different cuisines and the people who cook them.