Meeting Nick Rose for the first time was like sitting down with an old friend. It was a terribly hot day in Melbourne but we were able to enjoy the cool hum of the academic offices were I was working. It would have been a lovely friendly catch up if there wasn’t a tape recorder sitting in between us, pieces of signed pieces of papers scattered across across the table and a very demanding timeline! Funnily enough Nick was interviewing me … so this time the table has turned and Nick is under the spot light!
Nick Rose is an incredibly inspiring determined, thoughtful activist. He is a player in the local food movement is so crucial that without him on this team, there would be this gaping hole, a broken link. He is understated, almost too much so that would almost think he was part of the furniture; he’s casual and familiar, almost too much so that it feels like you’ve always known him; and he’s intelligent and smart (because they are two different things), almost too much so that you feel thankful that he’s on our side.
What surprised me most about the interview is that despite the position he finds himself in now; having established the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, written the People’s Food Plan, and actively researching and writing in fair food causes; it wasn’t always this way. As a young man he had stars in his eyes as he studied law at the very prestigious Melbourne Law School and took his first job as a commercial solicitor. Its amusing as I wonder what he would have thought if he could have been told as a 20-something year old knowing that one day he would have been so moved by his experiences abroad that he would turn his life around to be a leader in a movement to bring fresh, fair food to all.
I think he would have been quite chuffed.
I hope you enjoy this interview and be sure to check out the Fair Food Week festivities that Nick is organising in August.
Note: Images from Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance
Tell us a bit about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study, and what path led you to what you are doing now?
I grew up in Perth, then my family moved to Darwin in 1981 where I finished high school. I went to Melbourne Uni to do a law degree, and then I spent a couple of years in Melbourne as a commercial solicitor. A long way from a fair food activist!
Probably the best thing about practicing law at that time was that it allowed me to meet my life partner, who joined the firm a couple of years after I did and worked in the same department. We left and traveled in Asia for 18 months, before arriving in England in early 1993, not long after the political demise of a certain Margaret Thatcher.
We lived in London through the 1990s where I did various legal-related jobs – researching and writing for a specialist employment law journal, a research officer for a whistle blowing charity, and then as a legal officer for a major trade union. I was becoming increasingly interested in social justice and human rights, and in early 2000 my partner Julie and I decided to leave the UK and travel to Guatemala.
Our goal there was to learn Spanish, en route to Colombia, to work for a NGO called Peace Brigades International (PBI) – they provide what are sometimes called ‘unarmed bodyguards’, i.e. foreigners who live or work alongside an individual in a conflict situation who has received harassment or threats to her or his person or family. The idea is that the presence of the foreigner will deter the group making the threats (usually a military or paramilitary organisation) from actually carrying them out.
It sounds pretty scary and in lots of ways it is, though PBI take lots of safeguards, informing all the relevant embassies and government departments, and making assessments in the particular conflict context as to how ‘expensive’ diplomatically it would be for that country to have the death of a foreigner on its hands. It’s complex. Anyway, we had been volunteering with PBI in London and wanted to go to work with them in Colombia.
So Guatemala was supposed to be a temporary stay, just to learn Spanish. But it ended up being our first and final destination in that part of the world – we stayed for 6 and a half years, both our children were born there, and we helped found a human rights support organisation. We did do some human rights accompaniment work for a year or so, and it was amazing and life-changing. It was in the context of the post-conflict situation, where the mainly indigenous victims of a brutal and ultimately genocidal internal armed conflict were being assisted to exhume numerous mass graves, both to give their loved ones dignified burials, and to gather evidence for eventual war crimes and genocide prosecutions against the leaders of military junta responsible, a process that is still ongoing.
Through living in Guatemala I became deeply and at times painfully aware of how fundamentally unjust so many aspects of our current global order really are. I learnt for example that the country’s best chance of democracy and equality in the 20th century – 10 years of a ‘democratic spring’ from 1944-1954 – were snuffed out by a CIA-backed coup, largely because the then Guatemalan government wanted the country’s largest landowner – the United Fruit company – to relinquish some of its massive holdings to allow the great majority of poor campesinos the opportunity to look after themselves and their families. It was one thing for a country like Guatemala to govern itself; it was quite another when its government decided to act for the benefit of its own citizens, and against the interests of a giant multinational.
So I became aware of the complexity of land reform, and some of the structural causes of hunger and injustice and entrenched racism and sexism. I returned to study, completing a Masters in International and Community Development by distance through Deakin Uni. This made me want to go further, to understand more deeply why the world was the way it was, and how that had come about.
Your career path and place of living seems to be driven out of a desire to bring about change. What has inspired this burning desire to make the world a better place?
They say that people get more conservative as they get older. For me it seems to have been the opposite, as I have got older and seen and experienced more, I have become more politicised. The turning point came in Guatemala, learning about the terrible tragedies that the people of that country have lived through, the injustices visited upon them. I read a book called Bitter Fruit when I studied at the Spanish school in Quetzaltenango and it opened my eyes to the way the world really worked. That the aspirations of a whole nation for a better and more dignified life could effectively be snuffed out because the rich men in charge of one US corporation decided that the Guatemalans had no right to demand they pay their fair share of taxes. The coup d’etat that came in 1954 led to 36 years of civil war and a bloody genocide in which 200,000, mainly poor indigenous people, died. I visited some of the villages where some massacres occurred and witnessed mass graves being exhumed. That leaves a deep mark on you; for me it was a burning desire for justice which I still feel strongly, 12 years later.
To some, your activist involvements and projects could seem as quite controversial or at least unconventional. Does this bother you? How do you address this in your activities?
No I’m not bothered by that. You have to try to live your life as true as possible to your convictions. Our society needs people who are at least a bit controversial otherwise all we end up with is a monoculture and the status quo. Which is driving us towards a place that no-one really wants to go to, but it’s hard for most people to do anything about because everyone’s so busy just working to pay bills and keep their heads above water. If I can push the issues a bit I will, because I strongly believe that the need for change is very great, and the possibility of great change is very real. My aim is to convince enough people of these realities that we can actually create this positive change which is just about within our grasp, right now.
Over the past 3 years you have dedicated an amazing amount of time and energy to two really incredible projects – establishing the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and delivering the People’s Food Plan. Share with us how these projects came about, the creation, development and formation – and most importantly solidifying them the sense of rigor and excitement that they were established with.
Thank you for that recognition, it means a lot. Yes both these projects have required a lot of effort and sacrifice, but they have really been worth it, and in lots of ways I feel like we’ve hardly scratched the surface of what’s possible. And now we have launched Fair Food Week, which is really exciting, and can take both AFSA and the PFP to another level entirely.
AFSA was informed to a large extent by my PhD research and my local food activism. If anyone’s interested, they can read my PhD thesis here. In essence, I argue that food sovereignty has the potential to be a transformative social movement, both in Australia and globally, but that its capacity to effect major change is not being fully realised for a number of reasons. One of these has to do with the need to build really broad, inclusive and cross-sectoral alliances. Food sovereignty originated as the discourse and movement of small farmers, which is what needed to happen, because the voices of those people were neither being heard nor valued.
But to be transformative, food sovereignty can’t remain a purely farmer movement. This was the great insight of Antonio Gramsci, whose work informed much of the theory for my PhD. He reasoned that for a movement to be counter-hegemonic – to really challenge and shift the status quo of power in any given society – a social movement can’t simply represent the interests of one group of people, be they farmers or factory workers or business people. It must speak for and in the universal interest. It must aspire to offer a vision and a programme that represents a better life for everyone – or nearly everyone (perhaps not the .001% who hold most of the power and wealth…).
So the idea of the Food Sovereignty Alliance was that it would try to be that sort of movement – advocating for the interests of everyone in Australia who was currently getting a raw deal from the food system, or felt uncomfortable or unhappy with the health and environmental and social justice outcomes of that system. This would certainly include farmers, but it would be much, much broader. It had to be, because farmers are now less than 2% of the Australian population. You can’t build a powerful and transformative social movement just around farmers. They can and should be at the centre of it, given the vital role they play in society, but to effectively challenge power you need a much bigger and broader movement.
So AFSA came into being in 2010 when the Federal Government was talking for the first time about a National Food Plan (NFP), which was clearly responding to the needs and interests of big business. The idea of AFSA initially was to promote a more inclusive national conversation around food, but it quickly became more than that. We saw both a need and an opportunity to fill a vacuum, of the lack of a national fair food movement in Australia. There are so many people and groups doing so many fantastic things all over the country, but they are not unified around a single vision, or articulated into a coherent movement. That was the gap we saw and that is what we are trying to become.
The People’s Food Plan has become our major campaign and our most effective mobilising strategy. We were inspired by the work of the People’s Food Policy Project in Canada (2009-11). We followed the NFP process for a couple of years, till we saw that it was always going to be about the needs of big business. And we though, why can’t we create our own Food Plan that speaks to our values and principles? So that is what we set out to do, beginning in June / July 2012. And so far, with a budget of $0 but oodles of volunteer love and labour, it has been amazingly successful.
But what we want it to be more. We’re re-writing the PFP now into a short, manifesto-style version for the 2013 Federal election. We want to open-source it, put it onto a wiki platform, and really engage the broader Australian community in a truly democratic and participatory conversation about the future of food and farming in this country. Because if we don’t, then those with the most money will make all the important decisions, and our food system will continue to be unfair and unsustainable. And that can’t go on forever. In fact, it probably can’t go on for that much longer at all.
This year the PFP and AFSA are going to a new level with the Fair Food Week. We’re really excited about this and so are lots of other people. It’s a meme and an organising frame, a way for everyone who shares our vision and values to get involved and host an event raising awareness about unfairness and celebrating fair food all over the country. We’ve got great support so far and we think it’s going to be big. In 2014 we think it’s going to be huge and in 2015 it will be truly massive. We are now riding the wave of big changes and we want to bring as many people as possible on this journey with us.
You currently live in Coffs, NSW. What is the local food scene like up there?
Actually I’m now in Sawtell, which is a village just south of Coffs Harbour. There is a small but growing local food scene here. We have two well-established weekly growers’ markets. we have a large community garden, and several of the schools have veggie gardens. We are hosting the first veggie swap in my son’s primary school on 23 June. I have had a fortnightly column in the regional newspaper, the Coffs Coast Advocate, to speak my mind about food matters local, national and global, for the past three years, which has been great. I have met some fantastic and inspiring people here, and heard some great stories. In Bellingen, where we lived from 2007-2010, the local food scene is stronger still – two community gardens, two growers markets, and a veggie box CSA – in a town of only 3,000 people.
What project are you working on at the moment that you are most excited about?
Fair Food Week, which I’ve talked about earlier. It’s really exciting, to work with a whole lot of other people right around the country to create a space that allows hundreds – maybe thousands – of people to step in to and do their own thing, in their own way, in their own place. It feels really good, I’m very excited.
Also I just found out that I’ve been awarded a Churchill Fellowship for 2013/14. I’m really happy about this – my project is to spend 6 or 7 weeks, divided between the Great Lakes region of the US, and Argentina, to research urban agriculture projects there, and see what lessons I can bring back to Australia. I really believe that urban ag has a huge transformative potential, which is starting to be realised in the US and Argentina, but not as yet in Australia. Here it’s just pidgeon-holed as community gardening which is seen as being of educational value, but not really as something that either contributes to food security or to economic development. I think the experience in the US and Argentina says otherwise, and I think urban ag in Australia can be huge. If I can be part of enabling that to happen it’ll be a legacy I can be really proud of.
Local Food Questions
– Most inspiring food activist?
There are so many. I really admire all the thousands of activists who created Via Campesina and made it what it is today, because they have given food sovereignty to us, which I think is a hugely powerful vehicle for big change. In Via Campesina I really admire Nettie Wiebe, the first woman president of the National Farmers Union of Canada, as a trailblazer and as a central figure in building the relationships that made the birth of Via Campesina possible. I am a huge believer in the power of relationships, and so is Nettie.
– Most inspiring public garden?
I saw the story of the 14-acre community garden in south-central Los Angeles documented in the film, The Garden, a couple of years ago. That was an amazing and inspiring garden. What a tragedy they destroyed it – but it’s spirit lives on in a thousand other places.
– Most inspiring food project?
Again, there are so many, but it’s hard to go past Incredible Edible. What those women and that community have achieved with the amazing vision and sheer hard work is simply mindblowing. On a bigger scale, I have to mention Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the ‘town that ended hunger’ in just ten years. Again, the power of people together working to achieve a shared vision. It’s powerful stuff.