The curious tale of the guy who wouldn't dig holes | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Food Security, Locavore on Feb 14, 2019

Not a fan of manual labour

In a recent opinion piece, published in a mainstream New Zealand newspaper, a young man declared (my paraphrasing here) that manual labour was beneath him and why would anyone want to dig fence post holes.

The answer to the riddle is quite simple: farmers would want to dig fence post holes because without them, the yet-to-be-put-on-Styrofoam-plate-protein would run away. Quite simple really. If you want to eat, then you must have people willing to ‘break their back’ to provide you with food. And, it is about time that we gave them some respect.

There is evidence that not all farmers are saints (similarly, not all suit-wearing-young-men are angels) but the impression that there is work that is ‘beneath us’ because it may cause physical strain warrants further investigation. But first, some philosophy.

A philosophical spin

A recent conference in Ireland (Food on the Edge, FOTE 2018) had the slogan “I eat therefore I farm” – a bit of a play on the Latin: cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am; coined by philosopher Rene Descartes in 1637). Descartes believed that the very act of doubting our own existence served as proof of our own mind – our ability to think defines the fact that we exist). Now Descartes first principle of philosophy is a bit off track when talking about food, but let’s dig a bit deeper on the Food on the Edge slogan: in essence, it ties us to the fact that our food comes from farming (or other forms of production) – the very fact that we eat acknowledges that someone farms. Phew!

Descartes is arguably quite a step up from the opinion piece of someone who doesn’t “see the benefits of a hard day’s work on a decent wicket.” In fact, philosophy may have escaped this particular young man, along with the understanding of where his food comes from. And, therein lies a significant problem.

Without understanding there cannot be appreciation

The link between knowledge about food, knowledge about food systems, food waste and food prices seems logical. If we do not appreciate the difficulties and vagaries of primary production, we do not value it; if we do not value it, we are less likely to want to pay what something is worth; if we are not willing to pay what food is worth, then the investment in people and research to make production systems better is less likely to occur. And so, the cycle continues… People want cheap food without wanting responsibility for the cost of that cheap food.

There is a growing disconnect between urban and rural; and the perceived growing lack of awareness about what it takes to produce food. Consumer expectations about availability of produce (all year round) reflects a lack of understanding of basic horticultural principles. Another illustration of the perhaps unsustainability of the horticulture sector, for example, is the Food Price Index (FPI). While the FPI is only one measure of how a sector is doing; the prices for fruit and vegetables (in NZ) decreased 6.1% over 2018. While this is great news for those wishing to purchase fruit and vegetables, it is likely that this represents a less-than-rosy future for producers. Without a concomitant increase in productivity, or decrease in costs, this has a direct impact on the viability of the sector: there is a base price that growers need to achieve to maintain the financial sustainability of their enterprise.

Down on the farm

It is not all doom and gloom down on the farm. In fact, if you got out of a large city and went and spoke to a farmer or two (in New Zealand) you would come across a group of people who are generally happy with their lot. Primary production is both a job and a lifestyle, it generally does not involve a 9-5 routine, nor does it observe statutory holidays or weekends – it is a total commitment. Of concern, however, is that farmers are an aging demographic, and this is unlikely to improve quickly given the cost to ‘get onto’ a farm, lack of training facilities for farming and, sadly, as demonstrated in the article that sparked this blog, a lack of interest in what is very demanding and, sometimes, very physical work. It will be interesting to observe the impact on consumers in years to come - if you want to have a latte, someone has to milk a cow.

Work smarter not harder

While primary production is a total year-round commitment, it is wrong to assume that innovation and technology are not embraced. Greater awareness of soil management, animal handling, irrigation systems, and effluent management, are a few areas that have received considerable research investment. Like all businesses where innovation leads to improved production (whether that is measured by milk solids, reductions in animal losses, or more productive soil, for example), adoption is easy. There are also examples of leading-edge technologies coming from the rural sector such as Halter, a virtual fencing innovation that uses artificial intelligence to monitor and move herds, and Regen; a system for virtual monitoring of water, nitrogen, and effluent (with the results conveniently delivered directly to your phone).

Nature will always have the last word

Although technology is being developed to assist with primary production nature always holds the wild card. The impact of climate change on food production is a real threat – it directly threatens the lives and livelihoods of those who work in the sector; and it impacts the price of food for all. It is difficult to comprehend the heartache felt in the rural sector when stock are lost from flooding, fires, droughts, or fruit lost from unseasonal frosts or hail; every day those who work in the rural sector face the gamble of whether their investment (including that back-breaking labour) will provide a return. While Descartes philosophy defined ‘dualism’: the separation but interconnectedness between mind and body; perhaps we can apply the same principle to food production and consumption. There is a separation between how food is produced (even if it is not to our liking) and our need to eat. It seems that 17th century wisdom remains relevant.

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