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Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture

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Published: 21 Dec 2018

The relationship between people and food is changing dramatically. Food has become something we share not just at the table but virtually. We are obsessed not only with sharing photos of food, but also with how our food is produced.

This isn’t the first time such changes are happening, and it certainly won’t be the last.

One of the earliest and biggest shifts occurred when some savvy villagers or cave dwellers noticed that small plants appeared in dung heaps. No longer was food something you had to find at random. For the first time we could control what we ate and when we ate it. This control over our food system brought with it significant changes in our diets. It also resulted in some fundamental social changes as we suddenly had time—and enough calories—to ponder and build our future. This was a shift away from the Hunter Gatherer Age of food and the dawn of the Agricultural Age.

In the 19th and 20th century, fossil fuels and industrialisation enabled another massive change with our relationship to food. Now we could focus on scale and convenience. Every step of the process—from planting seeds to milling flour to making a sandwich—was optimised for maximum yields and minimum costs. Most of us spent some part of our lives in this, the Productivity Age of food.

Today our challenges have again changed. No longer is it enough to talk about food in terms of production or satisfying our daily calorific needs. Today’s conversations are about food justice, food security, food safety. We need to have accessible, affordable, safe and nutritional food for all. We need to ensure our farmers generate appropriate income. But our food also needs to be produced sustainably and responsibly.

In the 21st century, we need to consider how agriculture relates to our communities, to our water, our air, our health and to the people who produce it. We must think about how to improve agriculture’s relation to our society at every step of the way.

We have entered the Social Age of food.

As surely as we can’t go back to a hunter gatherer existence, we can’t avoid focussing on the social impact of agriculture.

The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture is working to keep agriculture productive, but just as importantly, we need to crack the code of how to keep agriculture safe and sustainable at the same time.

Each age of agriculture has delivered new benefits and new challenges. For all the time and freedom the earlier ages of food enabled, they also gave us less diverse and less balanced diets or negative impacts on our environment.

There is value in reimagining our relationships with food. Not only will we add value to the crops we produce, we will add value to our future.

Not since those first cave dwellers tentatively planted rows of wild wheat and barley has our relationship with food changed so quickly and so broadly. Our challenge now, aside from uploading the absolute best picture of our lunch, is to ensure that our food systems become better for us all.  

Written by TIA Director Holger Meinke

This article appeared in the Tasmanian Country newspaper on 21 December 2018.