A hand holds a paper bag with red vegetables

The Sustainability of Farmers Markets

This article explores the many ways local farmers markets can help promote sustainability. But before we get to that, a little question: Why doesn’t ANU have its own Farmers Market? Canberra itself has a wealth of markets, and yet we don’t? It’s even more baffling when you consider all the university students we offer as potential customers. This is a campus – and a generation – that is often keenly interested in healthy, sustainable eating. So why don’t we have our own on-campus markets like other universities in Australia offer? 

It’s a simple question, and it comes with an even simpler answer: it’s because nobody has tried to start one up. A few months ago, I grabbed a coffee with the student Mayra Escobedo to talk about an O-Week project the Environment Collective was working on: a guide to sustainable food options around Canberra. Myra said a farmer’s market would be a great way to launch it. I agreed, but was sceptical about pulling it off – the guide alone seemed ambitious, a market seemed like a whole lot more on top. Unperturbed, she pulled out a laptop and shot some emails off.

That’s how easy it is to start. Seeing it through is another thing of course, but if you want to at least try to make something good happen in this world, you should know how easy it is to take those first steps – as easy as writing an email. You might find out, as I learned from Mayra, that once you start the rest eventually falls into place.

Why bother, though? What’s the value of a farmers market in terms of sustainability? Sustainable Table, an environmental not-for-profit that provides Australians with the tools and information to make ethical eating easy, has a useful resource that we can look to for guidance.

According to them: “Up to 60 per cent of our personal eco-footprint is embodied in the food that we buy. By following eight simple steps to sustainability, we have the power to overcome today’s environmental challenges, one meal at a time.” Let’s see how a farmers market addresses these eight steps, shall we?

1. Buy local and seasonal: Farmers markets provide local, seasonal produce, reducing the distance that food needs to travel, the amount of refrigeration it needs to stay fresh, and the amount of packaging required. Supporting local businesses also promotes sustainability beyond the environmental by building a sense of community, and redistributing wealth away from vast conglomerates towards smaller, more mindful businesses.

Four seedlings growing

2. Buy chemical free, organic, or biodynamic: Markets specialise in this kind of stuff. Many smaller producers take pride in the fact that their produce is organic or biodynamic! It’s important to understand the downsides of practices like organic farming, such as increased land clearing, but overall it’s still probably better to be buying organic, and it certainly tastes better!

Egg in hand

3. Choose truly free-range eggs: Again, local producers often specialise in this too. Free from the burden of providing supermarkets with huge amounts of eggs, smaller producers can often provide their animals with a vastly better quality of life.

4. Instigate meat free days: Of course, any meat consumption comes with a steep price. One of the most powerful things we can do as individuals to reverse the current ecological crisis is to reduce our meat consumption. Farmers markets provide a more ethical and sustainable source of meat, and yet perhaps their greatest benefit is that they offer an attractive selection of vegetables and non-meat options.

Reusable shopping bags

5. Reusable shopping bags: We use 3.9 billion shopping bags every year. The prioritisation of convenience above all else here is just obscene. Farmers markets can help here too: produce usually comes straight from the earth without packaging and is fresh enough to not require it. Markets typically encourage people to bring their own bags, too. 

6. Choose ethically farmed meat and dairy: There are some 500 million animals housed in Australian factory farms each year. Life in a factory farm is fucking miserable. Farmers markets help combat that by rejecting the ‘economies of scale’ model and instead raising smaller amounts of livestock. We still need to consume meat sparingly, of course, but also mindfully.

Bowl of ramen

7. Choose sustainable seafood: Okay, so maybe an ANU farmers market can’t help much here. Canberra isn’t exactly a seafood city. Can’t win ‘em all.

8. Reduce waste and compost: We already covered the packaging and plastic reductions from buying local and seasonal. It’s worth noting, however, that smaller farmers typically operate in more sustainable ways to reduce waste and utilise compost effectively. For many it’s an integral part of their business model.

It seems, at least according to this list, that a farmers market can do a lot for sustainability when it comes to reducing the environmental impacts from the foods we buy. Avoiding environmental collapse requires even greater structural changes, of course, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook smaller personal changes too – like skipping the major supermarkets for a week and stocking up at a market instead!