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PacificEdge | May 25, 2017

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Launched: the NSW Food Summit underway

Russ Grayson

THEY CAME FROM COUNCILS and health services, NGOs and universities, farms and government… and they filled the NSW Parliament House theatre to capacity. This was no convention of the curious. It was the launch event for the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s (SFFA) drive to develop a food policy for NSW.

The impetus from the well-attended launch will carry into a series of regional events spanning the region from the Inner West/Eastern Suburbs, the Macarthur region, Blue Mountains, The Illawarra and Central Coast. Centred around food issues affecting those regions, recommendations will flow from them to the SFFA’s Food Summit on October 22 and 23 this year.

The front desk crew

The front desk crew

The tall, shaven-headed figure of Greens MLC, Ian Cohen, opened proceedings with a presentation of the economic, livelihood and urban food security benefits of Sydney’s regional agriculture and the role played by the region’s small, family owned market gardens, orchards and other farming enterprises in sequestering carbon in the soil. It is many of these farms, Ian stressed, that the state government threatens with urbanisation. Ian acknowledged the presence of Paul Pearce MP, Labor member for Coogee, at the launch. Conspicuous by their absence was any representative of the Liberal Party.

(left) NSW Upper House MLA, Ian Cohen (The Greens); Catriona McMillan, Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and Organic Traders and Consumers Network; food journalist and director of the inaugral 2009 Sydney International Food Festival, Joanna Savill

(left) NSW Upper House MLA, Ian Cohen (The Greens); Catriona McMillan, Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and Organic Traders and Consumers Network; food journalist and director of the inaugral 2009 Sydney International Food Festival, Joanna Savill

It’s been a long road for Ian, from riding Byron Bay’s glassy swells to the dim corridors of the NSW parliament, and in that time he has done much to have Sydney’s urban fringe farmland retained as a local food source for the city.

It’s been a long political road for independent, Clover Moore, too. Clover — who followed Ian on stage at the SFFA launch to open the event — is a compact but determined woman at home in the hurly burley of state and local government politics. Like Ian, she promotes the value of a regional food supply for the city and her government, the City of Sydney, has stimulated the development of farmers’ markets and community food gardens, of which the City supports 14, with two more on the way. The City’s community garden and volunteer coordinator, Annie Walker, was also in attendance. Clover spoke of the fertility of Sydney’s periurban agricultural soils which produce a full 18 percent of NSW’s food, making them around 30 percent more productive than the rest of the state. Like Ian, Clover pointed out that state government development plans threaten the existence of a substantial area of regional farmland at just the time when they are becoming most essential to the city’s future.

ALP member for Coogee, Paul Pearce MP, with the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance's Catriona McMillan

ALP member for Coogee, Paul Pearce MP, with the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Catriona McMillan

The SFFA event served as a forum for speakers from academia and farm, all of whom have a vital interest in Sydney’s local food supply and the availability of a healthy diet for the city’s 4.3 million residents, expected to grow to 6 million by 2030.

The SFFA Food Summit launch was MCd by food journalist and director of the inaugral 2009 Sydney International Food Festival, Joanna Savill. Joanna co-created and hosted The Food Lover’s Guide to Australia TV series and is a member of the Sydney Slow Food movement, some of whose other members were in attendance.

Localise, but avoid binary thinking

Macquarie University economic geographer, Dr Bob Fagan, drew links to trends in the global food supply and advocated the need for a viable, regional food system as vital to the city’s food security. He pointed out that the fall in farm income and in the number of farmers, as well as debt and the increasing price of farming inputs threatens the achievement of this.

Dr Fagan said that the concept of ‘food miles’ (an estimation of the distance food is transported with the impact of that on food nutritional values and the emission of greenhouse gases) increased the energy intensiveness of the conventional food supply available through supermarkets and other outlets. It was not the only factor in food system sustainability, however. Corporate food sourcing networks, such as that evident in the dominant supermarket food supply chain, encourage what amount to ‘food swaps’. The UK exports something like 270 million litres of milk to the EU, and imports around 129 million litres… from the EU.

An advocate of a localised food supply, Dr Fegan advised the avoidance of ‘traps’ in promoting localisation. These include food system localisation’s possible impact on the international trade in Fair Trade foods such as those that support the livelihoods of developing country farmers by providing them with higher returns for farm produce. The popularisation of idea like the ‘100 mile’ diet is also questionable. Dr Fagan said that the US authors of a book who developed the idea had to move to make it happen, and that this is not necessarily an option for urban people. He also advised against ‘binary thinking’ such as that which simplifies the advocacy of a localised food supply in terms of ‘local good; non-local bad’. One of the impacts of the globalised food trade was the end of seasonality in our food supply, he said.

Time to remove the development threat

“We’ve always taken food for granted, but I don’t think we can in future”, warned Dr Frances Parker from the University of Western Sydney, perhaps the leading authority on the Sydney region food supply. She has followed it through her research over the years and liaises with the region’s farmers. Frances refers to the periurban farmlands as “this other Sydney”, and to the farmers there as a “migration success story… through successive waves of immigration”.

Foodwise, Sydney is fortunate among cities. A full 90 percent of the city’s fresh vegetables, 40 percent of its poultry (eggs and meat) and close to 100 percent of its Asian vegetables are produced on 1000 to 2000 small, intensively managed and family owned farms to the north west and south west of the metropolitan area, she pointed out.

This land resource and those that manage it form the basis of a local food chain that underwrites a regional industry supporting the livelihoods of something like 12,000 people and that is worth around $1 billion a year to the regional economy. The “tragedy”, according to Frances, is that the developer-driven state Labor government has included 52 percent of those small but productive family farms into its designated growth areas. Farewell tomatoes, goodbye bok choi… hello concrete and McMansions.

The farmers

Joe Bustani is one of the region’s hydroponic farmers who has been producing Lebanese cucumbers and tomatoes since 1978. Introduced by Frances Parker, Joe emphasised the value of a regional food resource in a time of environmental and political change in the region, a time when trade routes could easily be disrupted and imported food supplies cut. In doing this, Joe raised an understanding that is becoming more and more apparent — that food is a strategic resource and is a component of our national security.

Sydney region farmer, Joe Bustani (left); Jilian Lee - Organic Hunter/Sydney/Illawarra; urban fringe farmer, John Maguire; Dr Frances Parker, University of Western Sydney researcher of Sydney's regional food systsem

Sydney region farmer, Joe Bustani (left); Jilian Lee – Organic Hunter/Sydney/Illawarra; urban fringe farmer, John Maguire; Dr Frances Parker, University of Western Sydney researcher of Sydney’s regional food systsem

John Maguire, a Grose Vale orchardist whose farm is a stop along the Hawkesbury Harvest Farm Gate Trail, has combined farm-based tourism with primary production. He reiterated many of the messages previously delivered and suggested that, his orchard being an example, the region’s farms could contribute to the regional economy in diverse ways.

On to health

Dr Jane Dixon is a public health scientist and the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Author of a book on the chicken meat industry, she spoke of diet and health. Her current work is in researching the public health impacts of supermarkets and the vulnerability of urban populations to climate change and related food insecurity.

Shaun Hazendine, from the Red Cross, described how the international organisation came into food security issues in Australia through its exemplary breakfast and other programs. Red Cross has supported the SFFA with use of its premises for organisational meetings.

The UNSW Faculty of the Built Environment’s Dr Susan Thompson’s specialty is urban planning. She outlined opportunities for including food in state and local government planning instruments and praised the City of Sydney’s 2030 plan, although, she suggested, it could be a little stronger on food systems. Susan mentioned the value of community food initiatives such as community gardens and street verge plantings. She is presently working with an Eastern Suburbs council to develop a policy on street verge plantings that will likely include edibles.

Planning expert, Dr Susan Thompson, UNSW School of the Built Environment.

Planning expert, Dr Susan Thompson, UNSW School of the Built Environment.

And on to bigger things

It’s been more than a couple years since SFFA organised a metropolitan conference centred on food. That first one was a success. For the organisation, the success of the Food Summit launch places it as the lead organisation in developing ideas on Sydney’s region food security that incorporate personal and public health and urban environmental improvement, as well as creative responses to contemporary and emerging challenges such as climate change, peak oil, the development of regional and local economies based on food systems and the localisation of our food supply.

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THE SYDNEY FOOD FAIRNESS ALLIANCE is a coalition of individuals and organisations made up of: regional farmers, health workers and nutritionists, local government staff, NGOs, community workers, landuse interests, politicians, organic food industry interests, local food systems such as CSAs and food coops and the churches… as well as community-based initiatives such as community gardening, permaculture design and TransitionSydney.

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