Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News Review
When fields yield to houses per hectare
Urbanisation will put our food supplies under pressure, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
WHEN I was a kid, one of the people I loved most in the world was known to me only as Mrs Francis. She had thick, bandaged ankles, permanent men’s slippers, clattery false teeth, pudding-basin hair in a no-nonsense Harbour-Bridge grey and a face whose criss-cross furrows moved with a crocodilian action that entranced me. She was unimaginably old, but until the day she died she grew her own vegetables, boiled her clothes in a copper and made her own soap from animal fat. She had rooms that were never used and a jar of striped peppermint sweets for a sick husband we never saw.
Mrs Francis was our next-door neighbour, and when we were lucky enough to nip through the fence she would sit us beside her on the painted wooden bench
at her table and tell us tales of the time before the city, the time when her spreading, verandahed bungalow was the farmhouse around there, and our house – inconceivable! – did not exist.
In new cities like ours, this is generally taken as the natural march of progress. Cities, like trees, grow in annular rings, with farmland inexorably peripheralised by houses. Put thus, it sounds like a simple question of agriculture versus housing, and in a way it is a contest between humanity’s two most basic needs, food and shelter.
But it’s like that joke about mid-life long-sightedness; it’s only a problem when your focal distance gets longer than your arm. For cities, the issue is what happens when food-growing is shoved beyond a reasonable trucking distance, or past fertile soils or viable rainfall, or after peak oil, or all of the above.
Already experts predict food shortages in Australia. Incredibly, it could happen – easily. Australia is already a net importer of seafood, pork, fruit and vegetables and general groceries. We fly in strawberries from Israel and fish from Bali. By 2050, warns the leader of the CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, Mark Howden, we could become a net importer of wheat; by 2070, we could be importing as much as we currently export.
Are we ready for this? In a world where population is growing faster than already inadequate food yields, and where human-driven climate change, carbon prices and peak oil are likely to reduce those yields further still, food security becomes at least as important as energy security. What should we be doing about it?
Changing the shape of our cities, if the exhibition The Contested Landscapes of Western Sydney has its way. The exhibition, dreamt up by the photographer John Reid and an epidemiologist, Dr Tony Capon, is part of the ANU school of art’s field studies. Bringing student artists together with scientists, farmers, medics, bureaucrats and environmentalists, the study focused on the Hawkesbury’s five Macquarie towns – Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town, Wilberforce and Castlereagh.
They’re dotted through the area known to some as Sydney’s breadbasket and to others as the north-west growth centre, slated for hundreds of thousands of new dwellings. It’s not just government and big bad developers who want to bulldoze the strawberry fields. At a community meeting in the Leppington school hall, back when this strategy was announced, I expected placard-waving protesters protecting their fertile pastures. Instead, by far the dominant gripe was from mums and dads who couldn’t get their land rezoned fast enough.
It’s clear that Sydney needs more dwellings. Although neither our population nor our property prices are swelling as fast as Perth’s or south-east Queensland’s, something like 640,000 new homes must be built by 2031, according to the Metro Strategy. Of these, it is envisioned, roughly one-third will occupy what the Planning Department proudly describes as “the biggest land release the NSW government has ever planned” in the north-west and south-west sectors. The rest will be “infill”, within existing suburbs.
But all these people need to eat. There should be no more sprawl, period. The reasons are many: soil, water, energy, carbon, diet, land-use. But however you cut it, the old habit of simply shoving the food-lands further out must stop.
The next step out, after the fertile floodplains of the western Sydney basin, is across the Blue Mountains where (even without climate change) rainfall is inadequate and soils less fertile, which means increasing reliance on irrigation, transport and artificial fertilisation, all of them energy-intensive and fossil-fuel-based.
Which is why 95 per cent of food is oil-related. It’s also, says an Arup environmental engineer, Michael Velders, why food prices typically mirror oil prices and why food accounts for almost half of our total eco-footprint.
The push for food security, then, demands that we break the nexus between agriculture and fossil fuels.
“In spite of all our canning and deep freezing,” wrote the planning professor Denis Winston in Sydney’s Great Experiment in 1957, “there is no real substitute for fresh vegetables … Perhaps one day we shall be able to fly them in cheaply but we can’t do that yet … the preservation of the farms and market gardens is therefore of considerable importance for the well-being of Sydney as well as for the economy of the state.” That was the last time Sydney had anything you could truly call a plan. Needless to say, we didn’t stick to it.
Already supermarkets fly in low-cost (but high food-miles) apples from China, making life almost impossible for smaller, local orchardists in areas such as Bilpin. Already parents raise their children not to follow them onto the land.
As Velders jokes, we’re facing not only peak oil, peak soil, peak phosphates and peak water, but also peak farmers. “People always laugh when I say that,” he says, “but it’s true.”
Yet, of perishables such as Asian greens, parsley and capsicums, between 75 per cent and 90 per cent come from the Sydney basin, most grown on small lots (under three hectares) zoned rural-residential.
If this land disappears under McMansions (which increasingly house fewer people in more space), our bok-choy and coriander will be less fresh, less nutritious and vastly more expensive in food-miles, fertiliser and dollars. It will also become, as our import habits burgeon, much less secure.
We think we have land aplenty, but a soil map of Australia is a sobering thing, and mandatory bio-fuels only worsen the pinch. What to do?
As art must, the Contested Landscapes exhibition offers not solutions but commentary – such as Miriam Cullen’s Fruitless, which sees the city as a mandarin blight, and Polly Pickles’s Core Values, highlighting the primal battle between apple and home.
It is a mistake, though, to frame the problem as a simple city-country clash, as though “city” were the enemy of “country”. In fact, the denser and more contained our cities, the cleaner and closer our countryside. Our favour to nature has been – should be – to keep ourselves out of it.
The problem, rather, is the suburb, neither city nor country but the built desire for the best of both – rus in urbe – and to make this paradise available for Everyman. Suburbia was always going to prove an expensive conceit.
The answer? Urban agriculture. David Mason is an urban agriculture specialist with the Department of Primary Industries who won a Churchill Fellowship to study urban agriculture in Singapore, Britain, the Netherlands, the US and Canada.
One of the drivers, he notes, is a universal consumer demand for fresher, healthier food. Increasingly, in terms of growers and markets, “local” is seen as “healthy” and “small” as “good”. This means there is a natural alliance between local food, organic food and slow food; in essence, it’s about taking control of what you eat.
Compare with a century ago, when public health concerns led, contrari-wise, to zoned cities, separated uses, edge-agriculture and dietary control handed to food scientists. (The 19th-century “sewage farms” of London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin are notable counter-examples here, responses to epidemic cholera and typhus designed to “launder” sewage through crops and closed only in the late 20th century when the accumulation of industrial heavy metals became prohibitive.) How, then, should our cities change?
Michael Velders, who helped design Wanzhuang, China’s new eco-city, says there are two possible directions. You either build high-density residential with nearby agricultural “offset” zones that recycle waste as fertiliser, or you lower densities a little, integrating food production throughout the community.
The Wanzhuang proposal shows five-storey green-roofed apartments with leafy courtyards, cherry-tree avenues and neighbouring paddy-fields. Admittedly, China has a tradition of both urban agriculture (80 per cent of its vegetables are still grown within municipal boundaries) and sewage-fertilised farmland. It also has a serious economic imperative, with the government reporting that in 2004 pollution produced economic losses of 1080 billion yuan (or $165 billion at today’s conversion rates), or 4 per cent of GDP.
There are other examples of what the 400-mayor World Economic Forum christened “SlimCity”, but to that agenda of energy, transport, finance and housing, we must now add food. You can’t be carbon-efficient without being food-efficient.
A few SlimCity smallish projects have been built while the more ambitious projects may be fully designed but are as yet unbuilt. Even Sydney has its sprouting Urban Food, Seed Savers and farmers market movements.
The achievements are remarkable. Greenhouses, offering 10 cropping cycles a year, are limited only by a community’s waste-produced methane; thus fuelled, they can quadruple food production and double per capita income while losing no jobs, producing organic, non-GM food, reducing carbon by 70 per cent and water by 75 per cent.
Cuba was famously forced this way by the Soviet collapse. The rest of us will have to jump, before we’re pushed. But growing her own food seemed to suit Mrs Francis all right. You’d wonder, on the evidence, what’s taking us so long.
The Contested Landscapes of Western Sydney will be at Purple Noon Gallery, Freemans Reach, and Sassafras Creek gallery, Kurrajong, until February.
TWO PHOTOS: Visions of the future … an impression of the proposed eco-city, Wanzhuang, in China, and SYNTHe, left, turning a rooftop into a garden in downtown Los Angeles.