An Australian food success story in Vietnam

Millions of people – almost equal to Australia’s entire population – live in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Their food-growing land is already feeling the impact of rising sea level and salination. Available freshwater is polluted, and in short supply. 

Lyndal Hugo, born into a Newcastle mining family, knows a bit about the plight of those millions because she now lives among them in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), built on flats at the delta’s edge. She’s a scientist, but commonsense alone tells her that this part of the world is a prime candidate for a climate catastrophe affecting huge numbers of people. 

Right now Hugo and all her fellow workers in their Vietnam-based agribusiness Orlar are having to deal with another attack from nature – a resurgence of Covid in their region with the prospect of worse to come if the Omicron variant gets established in South East Asia.

The years of Covid and increasingly frequent extreme weather events tell us there’s no such thing as economic certainty and we should stop thinking we can ever return to normality, whatever that may be. But one thing is certain – we will always need food, all of us, every day. If whole populations are denied that, bad things happen.

Hugo is driven by a deep concern about the impact of pollution and climate change on poor countries – both key Mekong Delta issues. Last month she told an interviewer from one of her venture’s backers, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, that Orlar set up in Vietnam because of the country’s vast need for clean food.

Last week I drew on the wisdom of farmer and thinker Wendell Berry to question the notion that technology-driven “industrial farming” was an effective answer to world hunger. Then a friend drew my attention to Orlar. The result was an hour’s Zoom conversation with Hugo and her wife and business partner, Amanda Cornelissen.

Berry is on the right side in his lifelong battle against the dominant Western credo that technology will solve world food problems. But the shadow of potential mass hunger and migration compels us to draw on all tools at our disposal to grow good food with minimal environmental impact. Modern technology has its place, after all. 

Orlar uses greenhouses containing small-footprint, high-hielding vertical pods to grow clean, nutritious plant food, free of contaminants and using around 15 per cent of water used by broadacre equivalents. The growing medium for this wizardry is a rock able to retain heat energy and moisture, and infused with plant-friendly microbes able to resist unfriendly ones.

Hugo’s educational and working background is perfectly suited to address the closely-related twin scourges of hunger and climate change. She earned her scientific stripes with a PhD in environmental chemistry, then did advanced studies in pesticide residues in SE Asian food chains and greenhouse gas accounting.

She was still working out what to do with her expertise when she met the person she calls the superstar of the Orlar venture. Cornelissen applied decades of horticultural experience to nail their enterprise’s most vexing problem: how to control the lateral and vertical movement of water so that all plants get an equal share of the precious liquid.

The pods in which Orlar’s produce grows are only partially made from recycled plastic, but when current moulding problems are ironed out the entire infrastructure, inside and out, top to bottom, will be fully recyclable. With all plant waste composted, absolutely nothing will go to landfill.

A major supporter of Orlar, the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD), certifies that the venture meets world-leading sustainability standards. It commissioned an independent engineering audit of Orlar’s systems that verified company data, confirming high per-hectare yields with ultra-low carbon emissions, energy use, water use and waste.

Over the Covid years, Orlar has trebled per-pod yields. Surviving a three-month lockdown, it now sells its produce to most supermarkets across Vietnam. The next big step will be applying the technology to a broader range of food crops and climatic conditions.

Orlar’s most important investment, says Hugo, is its people. “We came here to build the world’s number one clean, affordable, ethical, sustainable, fresh food company but at the same time create local employment opportunities and invest in people.” 

A footnote: In our conversation Cornelissen, who hails from Victoria, mentioned in passing she had a Tasmanian great-uncle named Michael Sweet. This Derwent Valley doctor, who retired at 89 just a couple of years ago, was a favourite of my late mother, who often reported on their chats about life. Ah, connections…

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Back to the future: farming in the wake of corporate overreach

Ten years ago Wendell Berry, the revered American writer, sage and farmer, gave a speech at a conference about the future of food in which he described “an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism”.

As Berry saw it, a sustainable food supply called for agriculture that was inherently democratic, “work for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence”. It would be “fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places” – something which financial, intellectual and political “hotshots” were ill-suited to manage.

Contrary to today’s trends to bigger farms under corporate management, said Berry, we should be limiting the scale of operations, avoiding at all costs the same industrial-scale technology which had caused the problems in the first place. We must not cause permanent ecological damage – “break things we cannot fix”.

He warned against solving problems by moving on: “We must try to stay put, and to learn where we are geographically, historically and ecologically” while also learning the sources and full costs of our own economic lives. He called for “local, locally adapted economies, based on local nature, local sunlight, local intelligence and local work”. 

“We must give up the notion that we are too good to do our own work and clean up our own messes,” said Berry. And we must understand that these measures can be implemented only by us, not by “any expert, political leader or corporation”.

He spoke of damage done to nature by industrial agriculture, a disease we seem powerless to counter, and said that this “legitimated violence” was likely to continue. But resistance was increasing, said Berry. We can see this in the uprisings in India over recent months against government-backed corporate farming, swallowing up local enterprises.

Industrial farming is just part of the modern world’s assault on nature. Add to that land clearing, mining, oil and gas extraction, fish-farming, ocean fishing and urban sprawl – driving and driven by growing economies, growing populations and growing waste – and you have more than enough ingredients for ecological catastrophe.

The people directly involved in these activities see them as normal, legitimate work, contributions to our economic life that bring in money to keep us fed, clothed, housed and mobile – and presumably happy. 

On a pre-industrial scale that might be so, but technology has enabled acts of violence of an unprecedented size, massively damaging the lands and ecosystems which are our lifeline. And these assaults on nature are not merely allowed, but encouraged by governments driven by short-term gain.

Do authorities understand what they’re presiding over? When they attack and proscribe protesters attempting to stop the “developments” they have approved, are they not the tiniest bit uneasy about their practice of punishing people trying to curb our excesses?

Do they ever stop for a moment to think what is prompting people to go to such lengths – sometimes risking life and limb – to prevent the schemes they have approved from happening? Do they appreciate that protesters feel genuine grief at losing something precious and irreplaceable? Do they care? Apparently not.

Culpability is a whole other question. We need to hold to account, at the polls or in law, the powerful interests which commit or enable these crimes, to make plain the undesirability of blighting the future of humanity and the multiple species with which we share the planet. 

But in a sense we are all culpable – at least, all of us who live our lives of relative ease on the back of a money flow enabled by industrial-scale exploitation of Earth’s resources. I am part of this cohort.

Wendell Berry’s radically different, new-old recipe for a future worth having – small farms fitted to local needs and environments, people staying put, valuing, tending and taking responsibility for their own particular natural and historical estate – is an ideal, a model for confronting the rise of monocultural monsters and preparing for their inevitable collapse.

Our effort to turn around this global juggernaut must be driven by communities, separately but also together. To limit the scale of the damage we must protect what we have in our local regions, including the capacity to govern our affairs. 

Backs against the wall, we must prepare for huge personal and collective effort. That’s what it takes to build something worthwhile and lasting. Contrary to political messaging, it will involve sweat, toil and tears, if not blood. And there will be significant financial cost.

Someone has to take the first step. That’s what small farmers, local foodies and protestors against monoculture and corporatised, remote resource management are doing. I salute them.

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Glasgow Pact leaves us out in the cold

A dozen years ago, in that moment in history when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull were closing in on a carbon pricing agreement, I joined a team of climate action lobbyists in federal parliament.

In a few frantic hours we managed to meet independent, Labor and Greens MPs, but try as we might we couldn’t get an audience with a single MP in the Liberal-National opposition.

We knew that many on that side of politics disliked “green” groups, but their leader, like us, supported Rudd’s carbon pricing scheme. Then, a week or two later, the Liberals dumped Turnbull in favour of Tony Abbott, ending any prospect of bipartisan carbon policy.

The MPs we did see taught us another lesson. Leading up to the big Copenhagen summit, polls showed Australians supported the stronger targets we advocated, yet we were told that for every one of us visiting them in Canberra there were a dozen fossil fuel lobbyists arguing for weaker targets. Unlike us they were paid for their effort.

History records that Copenhagen collapsed into tears, chaos and vitriol, with the US and China blaming each other for the debacle.

Fast forward to 2021 and another historic moment. Like Canberra and Copenhagen, the Glasgow meeting crawled with fossil fuel lobbyists, keen to eke out a few more decades of business. In Australia’s large pavilion there, Santos had pride of place to show off its latest carbon capture and storage project at a South Australian gas hub.

Which says all that needs saying about our country’s position at Glasgow. Australia refused to sign up to a well-supported pledge to phase out coal-fired power. Then Energy Minister Angus Taylor, saying he doesn’t approve of targets for specific sectors, stopped Australia from joining over 100 other countries in signing the US-sponsored methane pledge.

Glasgow might have ended like Copenhagen, and many predicted it would, but instead it produced a smidgen of hope in a world desperate for good news. “Phasing down” coal isn’t the same as phasing it out, and current national pledges for 2030 will not get us close to the 1.5C warming threshold. But we’re moving in that direction. 

It was definitely not good news for the Morrison government. Making “phasing down” coal a global priority pulls the rug from under the Coalition’s persistent argument that coal is a big part of our future energy mix. And having to revisit our 2030 pledge next year will ensure the spotlight stays on Australia’s lack of commitment.

Back in 2002, when John Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, climate change was widely seen as a second-order issue. An equally-recalcitrant George W. Bush, keen to have Howard’s support in the Middle East, ensured Australia would not be isolated or ridiculed. 

But 19 years later Europe and the UK are firmly against Scott Morrison’s stance, and Donald Trump’s defeat a year ago removed any possible US shield. In the global climate debate we’re exposed as never before, alongside countries with a big vested interest in fossil fuels, notably Russia and Saudi Arabia as exporters and India and China as consumers.

Australia has a clear moral obligation to play its part in the climate mitigation effort. Earlier in the UN’s history we would have done so without question, but no more. In refusing to update the target we set in 2015, we have acted against the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

Unlike a number of states including Tasmania, Australia has never legislated its emissions targets. With virtually unanimous global agreement that urgent action is essential, our country’s failure to lock its targets into law is a clear obstacle to an effective national response.

The government has access to top-notch economic planners but chose its own route to 2050 which Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute branded “economic science fiction”. The PM’s emissions reduction plan relies on speculative industries, unknown technologies and unmitigated coal and gas. And the efforts of others. He calls that “can-do capitalism”.

The government’s cavalier attitude to the 2050 target is negligence of the highest order. For many reasons, not least the damage done to our reputation as a good global citizen, we need sanctions to discourage such misbehaviour, just as we need stronger anti-corruption laws. 

Creating a framework for crimes against nature will be in the spotlight at Hobart’s RACT Hotel on Thursday at 5.30 pm, when former Greens leader Christine Milne launches a new book by a globally-recognised criminologist, Rob White. This is a debate whose time has come.

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