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David Holmgren: design approach to food security

David Holmgren: design approach to food security

By Russ Grayson. First published 2007.


Based on a David Holmgren’s (and here) address at the food security theme day of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network’s national conference, March 2007, Collingwood Town Hall, Melbourne.


STANDING THERE ON THE STAGE and looking out over the several hundred gathered in front of him, did he momentarily reflect that this is where his work, started thirty years ago in that southernmost capital city of Australia, would lead him? Did he ever imagine that he and his collaborator’s ideas would be the reason that people nationwide would come to listen to him?

a grassroots, international movement of practitioners, designers and organisations – of networks

He stands there briefly, in front of that crowd, then starts to talk about a design system for sustainable living, “ …one that’s concerned with both the production and consumption side and that is based on universal ethics and design principles which can be applied in any context”.

There’s no prizes for guessing what David Holmgren is talking about. For those that do not know, he went on to describe permaculture as  “a grassroots, international movement of practitioners, designers and organisations – of networks”.

Quickly, he warms to his topic that day in late March 2007 when he addressed the national conference of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network on the day set aside for presentations on food security.

That the day would be set aside for such a topic is testament to the journey from fringe to mainstream that the idea of food security has traveled. It seems just a few years ago that people would respond with a ‘what’s that?’ on hearing those two words. Then, it was heard mainly in the isolated conversations of international development practitioners. How things change!

The city feeding itself – allotment garden at Collingwood Childrens’ Farm, Melbourne. Government can assist urban food production by adopting policy to support community allotment and other types of shared gardens. The high fences separating the allotments have now been removed.

The design approach to sustainability

“I want to take the design approach of permaculture to look at food security in a future world of low energy availability,” David announces. He suggests that there is confusion over the issue of food and that is is only now starting to appear in official sustainability thinking.

“The official version of sustainability we get from government, very well intended and often well informed… it’s all about buildings and transport but it’s not about food. This is why gardening is seen as a hobby rather than a serious form of agriculture”.

David has long advocated that the production of food in our cities, whether in home or community gardens, should be recognised as a valid form of small scale agriculture. What he talks about, in effect, is the farming our suburbs. He coined the term ‘garden agriculture’ in recognition of this.

Part of the household economy

David distinguishes between garden and urban agriculture. “I see urban agriculture to be in some way commercial or which produces a surplus for sale. Garden agriculture I see as part of the household economy where people produce for their own needs. Of course, there’s a complementary relationship between them”.

The practice of home garden agriculture is an Australian tradition, just as it is for most cultures. It is not something new. You hear this when people recall how their parents or grandparents had a backyard vegetable patch or kept a few chooks. Those recollections indicate the problem, however. Home gardening has become a memory for all too many, a memory that harks back to their early childhood.

Home gardens are part of the household economy. The home garden of a shared house in Perth, Western Australia.
Home gardens are part of the household economy. The home garden of a shared house in Perth, Western Australia.

Just how pervasive home food production has been in Australian social history was disclosed in an Australian Bureau of Statistics report on the subject in 1991 and, more recently, by Andrea Gaynor’s book, Harvest of the Suburbs (Harvest of the Suburbs – an environmental history of growing food in Australian Cities; 2006; University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA. ISBN 1 920694 48 X).

Permaculture more than organic gardening

For David, the challenge is to bring those memories to life in the present. It’s not a vain hope. Home gardening started to pick up as an urban activity back in the late 1960s, thanks to the rise of the organic gardening movement. Subsequent years have seen a steady growth, propelled in part by food fears such as those over agro-chemical contamination of our food through the use of farm chemicals – a concern stretching right back into the 1960s with the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring.

It’s also about our connection with nature, about tools and technology and about community

Other fears followed. In the 1990s, permaculture co-originator, Bill Mollison started to warn about genetically modified food. Recently, home and community food gardening and the idea of eating locally-produced food has been popularised by the international Slow Foods movement and the seeking of local solutions to global warming and peak oil.

Permaculture must take some credit for the popularisation of home food gardening over the past 30 years. It forms the focus of their permaculture practice for many.

It wasn’t that they needed convincing, but David reiterates the link: “Permaculture is clearly about people and food”, he tells the audience. “It’s also about our connection with nature, about tools and technology and about community. So it really covers a much wider scope than it is commonly understood as a specific form of organic gardening”.

David suggest that food issues “throw up an enormous number of opportunities. I’m trying to make permaculture central to the issue of sustainability, putting those simple, core ideas of small, local, nature, food on the table as the most important”.

What people think, what they feel

By this time David is getting into the swing of his presentation and speaks with greater emphasis. He tells the audience that we can expand the production of food in our cities even without breaking up pavement or taking down buildings.

“The other thing we need is dietary change to seasonal, local food that is less processed and that contains less animal protein.

“These changes are possible in a very short time. A lot of it has to do with people’s heads – what they think, what they feel. It’s said that this is the hardest thing in the world to change. We’ll see.

“Full organic methods, including the full recycling to land of all wastes including human waste, is in the long term the most critical feature in the sustainability of the food system. We won’t have that bleed of high quality nutrient in human waste not going back to the food system.

Polyculture breeds productive landscapes

“An element commonly associated with permaculture is what we can probably call polyculture – the integration of crops, livestock and structures rather than the idea that these are all separate systems. This is where we get the synergies, the efficiencies and so many of the social and environmental services. There are elements of beautiful and productive landscapes that come from this integration that polyculture brings.

It’s very hard for one or two person households to undertake household economy measures

Home garden as polyculture. Annual and perennial vegetables grow with fruit trees and vines. Fiona Campbell and Russ Grayson's one-time garden in Sydney.
Home garden as polyculture. Annual and perennial vegetables grow with fruit trees and vines. Fiona Campbell and Russ Grayson’s one-time garden in Sydney.

“Another basic redesign strategy is to increase our household size. All our systems in modern societies are too big but our households are too small for the sustainable, efficient use of resources. It’s very hard for one or two person households to undertake household economy measures. We can get economies of scale through larger household size”.

Moving away from one and two person households would be a challenge as these are the fastest growing segment of the housing market in the major cities The trend is supported by the movement of people into apartments, of which there are two main segments. One is made up of first home buyers purchasing apartments because of their greater affordability in the inner and middle ring of suburbs in our larger cities. The other segment are ‘downsizers’ — parents whose families have grown up and left home, or who might be retirees who are no longer able to, or who prefer not to maintain suburban houses and gardens. The resource cost of one an two person households was disclosed in Sydney University research. This indicated that these smaller households still required the same number of white goods and other appliances as larger households, although the appliances might be smaller in size.

The notion of a ‘household economy’ is something that David’s partner, Sue Dennett, was to raise in a workshop later in the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network conference. There, she discussed the economic, environmental and food value of setting aside preserved seasonal produce to have supply of out-of-season foods without importing them over vast distances, with all the travel and greenhouse gas emissions that entails.

Thinking in terms of a household economy would certainly present a challenge to a culture in which the definition of ‘economy’ is money-related and entails working outside of the home. It would involve a mindset change to recognise the value of non-monetary activity having economic value. Women, of course, have been advocating this ides since the 1970s in regard to child care and housework.

Localising Melbourne’s food – without clearfelling Mt Dandenong

In Melbourne, says David, there’s a significant amount of public open space that could, with great social and ecological benefit, be transformed for food production.

“Public open space is about 12 percent of the Melbourne metropolitan area. We might not actually want to cut down the forests on Mt Dendenong or, maybe, log the botanic gardens and turn them into food production”, however there remains plenty of urban open space that could be used for garden agriculture.

“The Melbourne metropolitan area is nearly 9000 sq km. That includes quite a lot of land that’s not built over. On the fringes, it includes quite large areas of forest and parkland. There’s almost three and a half million people in this area, a density off 388 people per square kilometre. The area of land per person is 2500 sq metres, about a quarter acre per person. How much of this is built on I was not able to find out.

“I am not suggesting that Melbourne should produce all of its own food, but John Jeavons claims that biointensive, vegan agriculture at its extreme is capable of supplying total food supply on 300 sq metres per person. I think that’s about the top limit and maybe its theoretical.

“My estimate for a permaculture omnivore is about the 700 to 1500 sq metres per person. This is less than the total area that is not built upon and paved within the Melbourne metropolitan area. So we do have the capacity in the cities to feed those cities”.

Towards an urban agriculture – allotments, glasshouses, preserving, recycling nutrients

Just what would an urban garden agriculture that made greater use of public land look like?

“Firstly, allotment and rooftop gardens. The key thing about these is that they provide maximum solar access in higher density residential areas where individual gardens at ground level next to buildings often really lack product. One of the really great things about allotment gardens is that they aggregate plots together so that can get solar access.

“Greenhouses with minimal bottom heat for seedling production, to get an extension of the growing season, is a reasonable compromise to purely eating what will grow in the outside environment. In this climate it can provide basic winter salads, although that’s a lot easier in to do in Melbourne than where we live (Hepburn)”.

Then there’s home food processing. “Preserving and fermentation using low energy means is an incredibly important part of how we stabilise that huge seasonal flux in food production. Spring is what I jokingly call the famine time. We need methods that use minimum energy to even that out”.

The recycling of nutrients to fertilise our urban garden-agriculture is another thing that can be achieved with a little imagination. Worm farms, deep litter systems for poultry, reedbeds for treating greywater and composting toilets are important, simple, biological technologies for nutrient recycling that we can do within urban areas.

“Mushroom production on compost and wood in shaded areas is something missing in Australia, in part on account of our Anglo heritage. But it has huge potential in urban areas to produce food from decomposing material.

“Poultry and eggs in deep litter systems, chicken tractors – this idea that has been popularised through permaculture – and orchard range systems. Poultry is a key and appropriate form of animal protein in urban areas.

“I think rabbits for meat production, fed on urban lawns and weeds, are another very important and efficient use of wastes that comes as a by-product from those systems.

“There’s neighbourhood goat dairies managed on public land. It didn’t go down very when I suggested this in 1989 during a review of a ten year strategy plan for CERES – the idea of goats munching along Merri Creek. But I think we’ll get there… eventually.

New role for city parks

“Once we get intensive gardens covering significant urban areas, the demand for local organic materials will become quite significant. We can look at public landscaping as a source of organic matter and also for conversion into food systems.

“We recycle everything in gardening, but highly productive food systems need a net input of some organic material from lower-intensive systems. This is a common pattern through sustainable, low energy societies where there’s a larger range of forest woodland that supplies fuel and organic material to support very intensive areas of food production.”

Wastewater a huge opportunity

“I think stormwater harvesting is a huge opportunity in urban areas. We can use this water for low-input pond aquaculture going beyond the sort of wetland systems that are being designed at the moment for stormwater in urban areas.

“We can retrofit those systems for food production… while harvesting weeds, windfalls and surplus wildlife as free food from nature.”

The importance of small, local food markets

“I want to mention food marketing because the cost of current, centralised systems makes this is important. We need to look at how the surplus from gardens can be distributed and how local markets can develop that don’t cost the earth.

“When you shift to subscription agriculture, community supported agriculture (CSA), local supply… there’s really only the producer and consumer and there are benefits for both.

“CSA has enormous benefits for consumers because it provides food security, it connects them to a seasonal food culture and it gives them influence over the production system. They can actually talk directly to the producer.

“For producers, CSA provides a capital base and some sort of market certainty. It stimulates polyculture and tends to stabilise production peaks and troughs. CSA and subscription farming drive the system towards polyculture and away from monoculture, as shown in Japan where farmers grow many varieties of vegetables.

“It also develops the potential for a seasonal labour pool and, also, understanding consumers who are prepared to understand the position that the producer is in.

Farmers’ markets are useful as local sources for consumers and for distributing seasonal surplus from home processing and preserving. They encourage gardeners to become producers. People who are good at what they do get into creating this new economy.

“Another part of food marketing in that we need restaurants and food stores that provide set menus to reduce waste – this is the food that’s available, we can’t get it much cheaper, there isn’t any waste, this is what it is.

Local and regional currencies also encourage this local production and consumption.

Needed: sensible policy for local food

“If we had public policies that are sensible towards urban food security they would focus, first, on production of local food for local people.

we need ridiculous health and environmental regulations that constrict garden agriculture to be removed

“Secondly, they would remove health and environmental regulations that are impediments to garden agriculture. Just as the corporate world is constantly demanding that government remove the impediments to what they want to do, we need ridiculous health and environmental regulations that constrict garden agriculture to be removed.

“We need to remove the tax impediments to barter and non-monetary economies.

we can extend organic certification to include embodied energy and water

“Of course, this is a very radical agenda. We’re not necessarily going to see this but we should be articulating what would be sensible public policies.

“I think we can extend organic certification to include embodied energy and water. It would show the benefit of local systems. I believe the Soil Association in Britain is looking at the issue of food miles in organic certification”.
Food miles are a measure of the distance foods are transported and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases”.

Needed: government to get serious

“If governments really want to get serious about understanding alternative policy options, they need to go beyond the tools we have at the moment and start using things like energy accounting, which go well beyond things like ecological footprint, to try to understand the relative impacts of different possibilities.

“How does the use of energy and water in the food system compare to housing and personal transport? How large an improvement could we get by redesigning the food system and how does this compare with redesigning our housing and transport system?

“There’s a scarcity of information on this.”

Swedish research, David explains, indicates a huge saving coming from the redesign of the food system.

“This is why permaculture is focused primarily on food.”

Reform needed: water rights for urban garden agriculturists

In Sydney, households account for around 48 percent of the total water budget in supplying the average household’s food supply. This dwarfs any other category.

When restaurants are included, says David, “It probably means that over 50 percent of water consumption is actually being used to supply people’s food”.

Just as forward thinking people are looking at the energy embodied in the production of our food supply, so too some are starting to consider the volume of water used to produce it.

“This concept of embodied water (ed: also ‘virtual water‘) – all the water that is used to make a product – if we look at figures on embodied water from CSIRO researchers – litres per dollar of value, which is a better way to evaluate something in many ways than per kilo weight – we can see how huge growing rice is in Australia. We’re growing rice in completely the wrong places. When I’m dictator we’ll move rice out of the Murrumbidgie Irrigation Area and up to Northern NSW and Queensland and we’ll close down sugar cane and replace it with rice where it can work quite well”, David jokes.

“Sugar cane uses a surprising amount of water. Fruit and vegetables are 103 litres per dollar of value. Meat products are fairly high. Dairy is 680 litres per dollar value.

“I’ve done some rough calculations on our one hectare property at Hepburn Springs. Our own honey, as far as I can see, uses only two litres per dollar value, mainly in washing the equipment. Sue’s two-goat dairy uses a similar amount of water, about a 300 fold saving on going to the supermarket. Our fruit and vegetable production looks like it’s about five times more efficient than food from the supermarket.

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

Developing our skills – now is the time

“The living soil is the water and carbon bank for future food security,” David says.

“We need to develop the skills – gardening, food processing, small livestock husbandry – and I think we can use permaculture as an organising framework for that skill development.

“There are some technical skills that need to be scaled-up tremendously. There are a lot people in this room that I see, over the next ten years, extending those skills to a lot of other people.”

Comments (1)

  • caroline johnson
    June 8, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Please forward to David Holmgren.

    Hi David,
    I live in the Adelaide hills and have spent a lot of energy trying to make my old cottage with a new extension defensible in the event of a wild fire. I have just read your Flywire house free ebook for which I donated $5.00. Thank you.

    What would be really useful to many many people is how to make existing houses , old and newer, defensible without having to pull them down and start again and without spending a fortune.

    I have spent a lot of time, for instance. spanning flywire between the undersides of the fascias and the corrugated iron walls of our old shed, but the possums do their damndest to undo it as fast as I can do it! We have rotten fascias on the old cottage. Had a quote from Fielders for $600 to cover them with colourbond…. too expensive to replace cos the cottage is a can of worms.

    So, could you compile something like a list of hints and ideas for making existing structures more defensible?

    We do have 2 fire pumps, 2 water sources including permanently plumbed in-ground pool and sprinklers on house, sheep grazing up to house on fire side, and 4 huge old leafy elms to the north and east of the house.

    Caroline Johnson, Aldgate, Adelaide hills

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