Social entrepreneur and raconteur Robert Pekin of Food Connect featured in an article in the Courier Mail’s QWeekend magazine on Queensland being a world leader in organic farming.
ONE OF THE GREAT VISIONARIES OF ORGANICS and sustainable communities, Robert Pekin, is checking the produce being packed in his rustic factory space across town in a small industrial estate in suburban Salisbury, 11km south of the Brisbane CBD.
In 2004 Pekin founded Food Connect, a food system that provides south-east Queensland families with fresh produce from local farmers, straight off the farm, for fair prices. In essence, participating farmers drop off their produce at various “food hubs” across Brisbane. Consumers who have subscribed online to Food Connect then pick up their boxes of goodies from the hubs.
The produce, sustainably and “ethically” grown, is seasonal and consumers can take comfort in the fact that their fruit and vegetables have been produced locally. Clients can also visit the farms where their food has been grown, and can participate in the harvest. It is a paradigm known as Community Shared Agriculture, done on a small scale in some towns and villages across the country, but never on the scale of Food Connect.
Pekin, a third-generation dairy farmer from Victoria, lost the family farm in the late 1990s due to a confluence of circumstances, then literally disappeared into the Tasmanian wilderness for six months, connecting with nature and reflecting on his life and future. He emerged with a strong vision for sustainable living, and Food Connect was born. “The idea at the time was to get this food to people who couldn’t afford organics,” Pekin says. “We would pay farmers more than they would ordinarily get but the food would be affordable.”
He believes the organic industry is at a crossroads. “There is now this industrial push,” Pekin says. “Organics could really make a huge difference if it went out and started to talk about something that the movement and the standards represent, rather than a very narrow portion of the standards and replicating the industrial model, the supermarket model.
“In my mind, it probably is going to be too late for the organic industry to capture a huge segment of Australian farmers who want something deeper and more holistic. And it’s too late because there’s a consumer out there that has been too cleverly marketed towards, one that thinks organics is just about no chemicals. It’s about much, much more.”
Pekin says big farmers are using organically certified pesticides and fertilisers and then deeming their products “organic”.
“They’re not interested in the holistic approach, treating your farm as a whole ecology, and they’re not actually repairing the land or producing any better food. With the pesticides and fertilisers, you’re just replacing a chemical weapon with an organically certified weapon, and you’re not improving the nutritional density of food.”
Supermarket organic products, in his view, are examples of “shallow” organics, as opposed to “deep” organics. “It comes from anywhere in the world. It’s food from nowhere,” he says. “The organic movement has done great things but it hasn’t evolved with the times. The true meaning of the word ‘organic’ was lost ten years ago. It’s just become now the marketing industry has captured it. It’s just become a brand.”