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PacificEdge | March 27, 2017

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Drought makes urban food production more than a good idea

Russ Grayson

Written by Russ Grayson. First published by Online Opinion in 2007.

FACED WITH DROUGHT and the likelihood of higher food prices, it is time for state and local government to protect the urban fringe farms that supply our cities and towns with fresh produce. It is also time to recognise the value of food production in urban gardens.

Food crises are something we think of happening in developing countries, but suddenly, Australia is looking at its very own food crisis.

Urban market gardens are critical to the secure supply of affordable food for the cities.

Urban market gardens are critical to the secure supply of affordable food to the cities.

Politicking around the Murray-Darling water crisis became national news in mid-April with Canberra’s announcement that water allocations to farmers along the Murray River could be cut if no substantial rains fell in the catchment. A further tactic in Canberra’s attempt to wrest control of water from the states, the prospect of higher prices for fruit and vegetables as production fell, in a region that produces something like a third of the country’s food, became national news.

The news should not have been so unexpected. Jim Salinger, lead author of the Australian section of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that Australia was a drying country and large areas of the south and south-east could face continued drying. With 78 percent of NSW in drought, Salinger’s prediction of a reduction in cropping area in the water-stressed Murray-Darling seemed to be coming true.

Up goes the carbon

To cope with the projected production shortfall in fruit and vegetables, the federal government claimed that Australia would have to import food, a move that would increase agriculture’s contribution to global warming – its ‘food miles’. This an estimate of the energy embodied in food – its ‘embodied energy’ – based on the oil used to make agricultural chemical inputs combined with the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel oils consumed during the production and transportation of foods.

Given the prominence of global warming as a political issue, and irrespctive of whether the drought is caused by climate change, the potential for food imports to compensate for a drought-induced fruit and vegetable shortfall to become permanent, rather than stop gap, would be a questionable outcome.

The value of local

The drought and the possibility of higher food prices highlight the value of urban fringe agriculture to the food security of our cities.

If the drying trend worsens – some commentators suggest that this is likely – or if it goes away only to return in a few years, those city fringe market gardens, orchards and poultry farms are going to become even more important to the food security of Australians. This makes it imperative that state and local governments act now to ensure their survival against the pressures of urbanisation and to introduce policy that sustains their continued economic viability. For Australia, this is a strategic issue because it has the potential to influence public health and livelihoods.

It is the value of urban fringe farming to the food security of our cities that necessitates state government action to ensure the future viability of the industry

Sydney is fortunate in that it sources much of its fresh vegetable supply from urban fringe market gardens. Even though this still-viable farming industry might cushion drought-induced vegetable price rises, costs are still likely to increase as demand exceeds supply nationally.

According to the advocacy and educational organisation, the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, on only 2.5 percent of the state’s land surface, the Sydney Basin produces:

  • 90 percent of the city’s perishable vegetables
  • 80 per cent of its mushroom supply
  • and 33 per cent of its poultry.

This on farms that are mostly family owned and operated and average only 40 hectares in size. On this $1 billion a year agricultural base rests a food marketing, processing and distribution industry that employs around 12,000 and is worth around $4.5 billion a year.

According to the Alliance, if drought pushes up urban food prices significantly it will be financially vulnerable families that suffer, people who already find difficulty in buying a sufficient quantity of nutritious foods – people who constitute the ‘hidden hunger’ that exists in Australia’s suburbs.

As well as the benefit to regional economy and nutritional health, the other reason why a regional supply of food is important is because transport from grower to eater is less than foods trucked in from further afield – that is, it contains less embodied energy – and there is lower emission of greenhouse gases.

It is the value of urban fringe farming to the food security of our cities that necessitates state government action to ensure the future viability of the industry. More than ever, now, urban food production is a strategic planning issue of the utmost importance, but are state parliaments capable of reading the signs?

Growing in the city

Urban fringe farming is not the only type of agriculture increasing the food security of our cities. Home vegetable, fruit and poultry production remain a diminished but still popular suburban activity, as television gardening programs and a substantial nursery, publishing and education industry that has grown around the practice indicates. Considering its importance to household nutrition, home growing of food might best be regarded as ‘garden agriculture’.

Despite government disregard, home food production remains an economic activity of considerable scale

Community food gardens supplement he household food supply. There is potential to scale-up their productivity were a food crisis to eventuate.

Community food gardens supplement the household food supply. There is potential to scale-up their productivity were a food crisis to eventuate.

Government agriculture departments do not collect statistics or research home garden productivity on a sustained basis because production is for the consumption of growers and their families. That is, it generates no monetary income that can be counted. In reality, home food production is an economic activity as well as a hobby. It would be better regarded as part of the household economy.

Despite government disregard, home food production remains an economic activity of considerable scale. We know this from a 1992 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which disclosed that, in that year:

  • home fruit production in Australia totalled 110,000 tonnes
  • vegetable production was 153,000 tonnes
  • nut production 1541 tonnes
  • domestic poultry used as meat totalled 2000 tonnes
  • egg production 26.1 million
  • and the volume of beer brewed, 39.8 million litres.

The survey found that recreational fishing, a wild harvest that can contribute to household food security, amounted to 31,000 tonnes.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no more recent research although Andrea Gaynor reported on home production in her book, Harvesting the Suburbs (2006; University of Western Australia Press, Crawley WA).

Over the past 30 years, and especially since the mid-1990s, food production on public open space and on social housing estates in Victoria and NSW, in community food gardens, has offered urban dwellers without a home garden the opportunity to become producers of part of their food supply,  rather than mere consumers.

The productivity of community gardens varies tremendously, with perhaps the most productive found on housing estates in Carlton, Flemington and Fitzroy in Melbourne, all projects supported by Cultivating Community, a community-based organization providing assistance in the form of community garden development and food co-operatives to Department of Human Services estate residents.

Like home gardening, there is little research available on the production of food in community gardens. Again, the perception of the activity is as a hobby rather than a productive undertaking contributing to household economies.

This is to make the error of equating food production with the unproductive gardening of ornamental plants. It is the end use of gardening activities that differentiate them and distinguish their relevance and utility in a country gripped by drought and potential food price increases. In addition, any evaluation of community gardens would have to take into take into account their role in the development of the social capital of neighbourhoods.

Water and energy efficient

To a water-stressed country faced with the prospect of substantial price rises for fruit and vegetables, home and community food gardening offers benefits in terms of water and energy conservation and nutrition.

the conclusion is that we should use water at home to produce food. Don’t let anyone, including the authorities, tell you that is environmentally irresponsible

Agriculture in Australia accounts for up to 70 percent of national water consumption. In contrast, area for area, home and community food production has a much lower embodied water and energy content than commercial farming. This is due to water conservation and horticultural practices.

It is because of this that landuse designer, educator and author, David Holmgren, told a recent food conference in Melbourne, “the conclusion is that we should use water at home to produce food. Don’t let anyone, including the authorities, tell you that is environmentally irresponsible.”

Holmgren argues that state governments should provide urban garden agriculturists a larger water allocation than that given to growers of ornamental and native landscapes.

Perhaps, in view of the ongoing, drought-induced decline in farm productivity and food price rises, it is time to take a serious look at these unorthodox ideas and make out cities and towns more food secure.

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