Guest post: Report from Australia

I’m pleased to be able to share the following guest post from Jillian Burt, an Australian writer introduced to me via email by a friend. Jillian reports on technology, mythology, food, the arts and local business in a way that she thinks of as “warm hunting,” considering how what’s contemporary connects up with timeless stories. She lives in Melbourne and has a blog, Yamazaki’s Notebook, that admires the ingenuity of local businesses around the world. It’s named for William Gibson’s existentialist sociologist, Shinya Yamazaki, who calculated value in more than financial terms, explained new technologies, and appreciated culture and beauty. I think she brings a unique perspective to the crisis that Australia, and its food system, are currently experiencing.


“It’s January and we are in the middle of a drought,” Photograph by B. Russell on Flickr.

These sheep live on a farm in Harden, New South Wales, about an hour’s drive from where Australian Prime Minister John Howard presides over Parliament in Canberra. On April 19 he told Australians to pray for rain. This week he admitted to The New York Times global affairs correspondent, Thomas Friedman, that it was the convergence of several things that grudgingly turned him from a ‘climate skeptic’ to a ‘climate realist’: statistics that showed that if we don’t receive sufficient rain in the next eight weeks then there won’t be enough water to irrigate the Murray Darling area, which produces 41% of Australia’s food, and international opinions, from Nicholas Stern’s report on the dire economic consequences of global warming and Al Gore visiting Australia to host a screening of his movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Realist perhaps, but not convert. Last month Clive Hamilton published Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, a study of how the Howard government’s denial of climate change has been shaped by fossil-fuel industry lobby groups. He talks about this at length in a lecture he gave at Sydney University on April 17 that’s available as a podcast. He runs The Australia Institute, a thinktank that tries to counteract conservative and right-wing study groups. Asked on Geraldine Doogue’s programme on ABC Radio about the Australian government’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty, Hamilton said: “When you recognise the scale of the problem of global warming, and Australia’s possible leadership role in the world to tackle this problem, and contrast that with what our government has actually done at all of these negotiations, it really is very striking and very — it’s embarrassing actually, as a citizen of Australia.”

The majority of Australia’s population lives in a string of cities down the east coast, running from Brisbane to Melbourne. The ‘outpost’ capital cities of Adelaide, Darwin, and Perth are dotted on the coasts of their states. The Darling River connects into the Murray River, and it flows along the back of the eastern states from Queensland, through New South Wales and Victoria, and into South Australia. The rest of the country is dry, dusty, and spectacularly empty. What we eat is a patchwork of the world’s cuisines brought to Australia by successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the pastoral crops and sheep and cattle introduced by the English settlers. Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and African immigrants have brought their food with them. The influence of large populations of Malaysian, Korean, Indian and Japanese students can be seen in the style of restaurants in the cities where they’re studying, and Asian produce and convenience stores.

We’ve dictated to the land what we wanted it to produce, and even through previous periods of debilitating drought the land has produced what we’ve asked of it. But no longer.

In March of last year Cyclone Larry hit the Queensland coast and decimated many food crops, particularly bananas. It was the first time in the four years since I’ve been back in Australia — I lived in America for the previous 15 years, the last 11 of those in California — that I’ve seen acknowledgment of climate issues in the retailing of food. Bananas disappeared from the shelves of supermarkets, and juice bars started charging a surcharge 50 cents to $1 more for drinks containing bananas. The drought then intensified, and produce on the shelves often looked distressed, with coarse and scorched lettuce leaves, produce coated with a fine black dust.

In Melbourne, where I live, water features in public art installations were turned off and boarded over, gardens died, and cars could no longer be washed due to water restrictions. I now more often see signs, like the one in a wine store on Friday, offering deep discounts on fine wines from the Margaret River region in Western Australia, “due to the drought.” Some produce is more expensive because it’s scarce, while other food products are falling in price because they can’t be produced to the same standards any more.

Our way of life changed overnight. Previously droughts happened “out there” in the desert and were coped with by the farmers, but they eventually broke without those of us who live in the cities needing to make many concessions or alterations to our way of life. Since in a federal election year, the short-term concerns of getting elected or remaining in office colour the debates on climate change, it’s hard to think through objectively what we’re being told — particularly to calculate to what degree our water shortages in the city have been caused by a wasteful lifestyle, and thus might be alleviated by changes in how we live, and what the long-term effects of energy choices and changes in agricultural production will be.

The states and federal government are also in disagreement over who is responsible and should set the policies. Steve Bracks, the Premier of Victoria and the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger have signed an agreement to share their environmental expertise. Schwarzenegger’s observation that “sometimes the Federal Government is a little slower than the states are, then we have to step up to the plate and we have to create the leadership. We have to fight global warming,” comes a day after a report in the Australian Financial Review about Steve Bracks attacking the federal government’s request for states to turn over their water control powers to the federal government, a plan that’s also been rejected by the Victorian Farmers Federation [see note 1]. Earlier in the week it was reported, ironically on a day that it was raining heavily, that Victoria’s water levels have fallen to 29.9% capacity, the lowest level in 40 years.

At one end of the scale, politicians are using terms like “Armageddon”: “The Queensland government remains confident it will meet tight deadlines for billion-dollar water projects before the ‘Armageddon deadline’ of late next year,” the Australian Financial Review reported on Friday[2]. And at the other end, the lifestyle sections of newspapers and magazines and television gardening programmes offer green ‘household hints’ and small gestures, the food section ‘Epicure‘ in Melbourne’s Age on May 1st noted: “Elwood’s Sails by the Bay has recently introduced water-saving measures in its dining room, cafe and functions area. In the restaurant, you’ll read: ‘The current reports regarding the water shortages in Victoria has finally led us to cease offering tap water to every guest on arrival. This is not a decision we have taken lightly, although we have cut our water usage by 30 percent, we need to further reduce the consumption to help in alleviating the current crisis that faces us all. We are now offering imported still and sparkling water in the dining room. If, however, you prefer tap water, our waiters will happily pour this for you.’”

Reading food magazines and restaurant reviews in newspapers makes it seem as if restaurants are existing in a bubble, in a perfect world where wholesale produce is always perfect, something apart from the food chain that serves the rest of the population. Yet the clearest and most thoughtful connecting up of the difficult conditions the farmers are dealing with, and the food produced in restaurants in the cities, comes from the cookbook “Becasse: Inspirations and Flavours” that Justin North, of Becasse in Sydney, published in May of last year. The current issue of the American Food & Wine magazine marks North as “chef to watch,” writing that he’s “serving rarefied neo-French flavours in a room lit by Swarovski crystal chandeliers. If you like offal, ask him to create some dishes for you. We loved: Earl Grey tea-and-tomato consomme.” [3]

But the focus on the urban sophistication of his restaurant is only part of the story. In the introduction to his book, North writes:

I wanted to find a way to celebrate the produce and the producers, to give them the recognition and exposure they deserve…. From garden nurseries to the most technologically advanced processing plants, what these producers have in common is a steadfast commitment to excellence. Whether it’s time spent researching their product abroad, or years of trial and error to perfect their recipe for livestock feed, in their own way each producer embodies what I want to express via my food in the restaurant: timeless depth of flavours through solid technique.

The remarkable thing about this book is that in writing about the cultural background to the ingredients and foods, and the scientific and technical aspects of their production Justin North is quietly realistic: he notes the issues of salinity in the soil, lack of water, the change in seasons and extremes of weather conditions and how they affect the crops that are produced. He’s not operating from a utopian ideal of excellence.

An existential perspective, the melding of the personal to the political in the issue of food production and the connecting of what we eat and how we live to larger issues of society and climate and war and ethics, has struck urban Australians. Agriculture is so important, politically, because it’s both big business and has defined the Australian national identity. The website of the federal government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade states that “nearly 90% of the total value of Australian agricultural production comes from food,” and that “the processed food and beverage industry is the largest manufacturing industry” in the country.

Australian food exports are highest to our near Asian neighbours, but the food export industry has been mired in scandal, controversy, and complications in production and processing in recent years. Friday’s Australian Financial Review reported that a free trade agreement being negotiated with Malaysia is complicated by differing requirements for Halal certification in differing countries. Australia exports Halal meat products to 40 countries, $54 million’s worth of halal meat went to Malaysia in 2005. [4] In the last few years animal rights groups have been strongly protesting the conditions endured by sheep exported while alive. And in the weekend edition of the national newspaper, The Australian, there was an extract from a new book by Caroline Overington, “Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board Scandal,” about Australian wheat being caught up in the corruption of the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Iraq.


“Camel Sausage, Kangaroo Steaks, and Emu Meatballs,” photograph taken in Parachilna, Australia by Katakanadian, published on Flickr.

Tourism and foreign trade departments of the federal government are encouraging a market for “bush food,” a cuisine based around Australia’s iconic animals the kangaroo and the emu, and animals whose populations have sometimes been uncontrollably large (the crocodile and camel). Susan Kurosawa, the editor for the travel section of the Australian newspaper wrote an uplifting, cheerleading essay that appears on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “And, of course, don’t forget Aboriginal-guided bush tucker tours and up-close encounters with those quirky kangaroos and koalas, emus and wombats at wildlife parks regulated with a keen eye on conservation.” The idea of eating the animal that appears on our national coat-of-arms strikes me as a savage form of respect. While this branch of “bush food” is something that seems to be inspired by urban restaurants, the study and understanding of what the land has traditionally provided in the way of food is becoming a necessary, even crucial pursuit. This year’s ‘Australian of the Year’ is Tim Flannery, a scientist, explorer and conservationist, whose book “The Future Eaters,” is an ecological history of Australia. He’s outspoken about climate change, and his books have touched on our troubled and sensitive relationship to our past and the treatment of indigenous Australians and their culture.

The ritual nature of food, how communities are tied together, how they mark occasions and stages of life and observe spiritual ceremonies through the preparation and offering of food, is complex; it encompasses much more than agriculture. “Australian values” and questions of “authentically Australian lifestyles” have been politically explosive issues in recent years, with the current Prime Minister John Howard setting a rigidly conservative agenda. The questions of culture and identity are complicated in Australia, and while conservative politicians speak of “Australian values” as something largely defined by white Australians from the middle-class in the middle of last century that can be expressed as a slogan for the tourism board, the reality is that Australia is an exceptionally diverse society and “Australian values” are encyclopaedic in scope.

Thomas Friedman spoke to Prime Minister Howard, and also the leading politicians in the opposition Labor party for his New York Times column. “When you look at the climate debate around the world, remarked Peter Garrett, the former lead singer for the Australian band Midnight Oil, who now heads the Labor Party’s climate efforts, there are two kinds of conservatives. The ones like George Bush and John Howard, he said, deep down remain very skeptical about environmentalism and climate change “because they have been someone else’s agenda for so long,” but they also know they must now offer policies to at least defuse this issue politically.”

The media has been watchful and skeptical about Peter Garrett’s change from an aggressive, confrontational activist and performer to a measured, careful politician with a steely calm and sombre deferential demeanour, who exists within a party that — although the more socially progressive of Australia’s major parties — holds some views that contradict his own. As well as the environment, his portfolio includes the arts and heritage, and he sits on committees concerned with communications technologies and indigenous Australians. While performing with Midnight Oil he was also leader of the Australian Conservation Foundation for two stretches, and in a speech (PDF) in 2001, at the beginning of this severe drought Garrett quoted from T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”:

What does it mean? Wave after wave of the extinction of species of birds and animals, and the creeping malaise of saltification of the earth — call it salination, call it what you will, it’s salt, you can’t grow things in it, and it erodes buildings — the precursor to any civilsation’s downfall, are wrestling the landscape into wasteland.

Ah, here’s a poem for you:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water …

We live on the driest continent on Earth, except for Antarctica. That too is well known.

T. S. Eliot’s words could be a literal description of the conditions on Australian farms today, but the wasteland he refers to is symbolic, a condition of the soul, and people are trapped in a perpetual state of ennui because they’re living inauthentic lives, disconnected from the world around them.

Patrice Newell, who has owned the biodynamic Elmswood Farm in New South Wales for the last 20 years, is one of a number of farmers actively working to alleviate climate change by making the connection between the well-being of the environment and our own well-being. In her book “Ten Thousand Acres — A Love Story,” she writes: “We farm with new ambitions, never forgetting that there is no degree of separation between us and nature…. Some areas may not be used for economic gain, but they remain important to the ecosystem — not only to the rhythm of the seasons but to the great cycles of water, minerals and energy. To be a good farmer you must keep the land alive.”

References for the news articles referenced above that are not available online:

1. Not Biting: Farmers Reject Water Deal by Duncan Thomas. The Australian Financial Review. 5/4/07

2. Water Projects on track: Bligh. “Concern is growing about project delays as Brisbane water levels dip to 19 percent.” by Mark Ludlow. The Australian Financial Review. 5/4/07

3. The go list! Insider’s 40-city restaurant guide: top new places, best values + more. Page 133. Food & Wine. May 2007

4. Halal Standard to Beef up Trade. By Tracy Sutherland. The Australian Financial Review. 5/4/07

One Responseto “Guest post: Report from Australia”

  1. sophie says:

    Australia has always seemed like such a land of plenty in terms of produce when I’ve visited (everything bigger and fresher, such a huge range), but I haven’t been over for a couple of years. A very thought provoking article…

    I’m surprised about the restaurant recommending imported bottled water. It’s very commendable of them to focus on a goal of reducing consumption by a third but you’d have thought that packaged, imported water probably has a bigger environmental impact long-term. Or maybe I should be being cynical rather than surprised.