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Having our cake and eating it too – the big picture on food security

Posted on 05. Oct, 2012 by .


By Quentin Farmar-Bowers, Deakin University

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Although Australia is a food exporting country, about 5% of Australian families suffer food insecurity – inadequate access to or supply of food, or inadequate food preparation. Many suffer diet-related health problems, such as obesity, because of inadequate food, and things are getting worse. But our current single-issue approach – tackling either obesity, climate change or water security, for example – is unlikely to solve things.

The growing public interest in food security and sovereignty (control of production) isn’t spawned by a single issue. Australians are worried about vulnerability to climate change, population growth, foreign ownership of land and water resources, oil price rises, social inequities, food waste, diet-related health problems, early deaths in Indigenous Australians, fertiliser price rises and availability, land degradation, river health, biodiversity loss, declining growth in agricultural productivity, ageing population, urbanisation, and globalisation (with the increasing influence of international markets and the increasing power of multinational agribusinesses).

The diversity of these concerns reflects the reality of humans’ principal interaction with the environment of the planet: production of food. The diversity of concerns also ensures the public’s interest in food security will grow as these concerns grow.

While most food related research is aimed at improving profits in agribusinesses – including supermarkets – the wide scope of people’s concerns ought to be addressed in publicly funded research. Much of this public-funded research will be spent on individual concerns, such as “climate change and food security”, “population growth and food security” or “GM and food security”. While such focused research may answer specific problems it will fail to address the many interacting factors that are bearing down on our ability to feed ourselves adequately and maintain things we value such as native habitat and animals.

To get a multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach we need to frame food security and sovereignty using two ideas: systems and securities.

First, systems. The food system is part of larger social-ecological systems where people interact with the world’s biophysical landscapes and processes. So research into food security should be undertaken within the frame of social-ecological systems.





The ‘food system’ is part of a larger ‘ecological system’. buiversonian/flickr





People do not want the food system to “fail”, so resilience may be a useful approach for food security research. Agribusinesses improve their profitability by increasing the efficiency of the operation of the food supply chains. This reduces the resilience of the food systems to keep delivering when circumstances change. The notion in resilience is that system failure (losing the things we value that the system produces) might be avoided if we can transform the system, or parts of it, to keep the benefits coming and the failure point somewhere in the future.

Second, securities. Bread might be the staff of life but life is more than just “bread”. Food is not the only thing people want to “secure” for their current and future well-being and welfare. Food security is only one “security” among other “securities” we have to have to live full lives. In obtaining a satisfactory diet we shouldn’t deny ourselves or future generations the ability to fulfil all of our (or their) needs.

So what are these other “securities”? I think they relate to the full range of “needs” we all have.

Manfred Max-Neef lists nine fundamental human needs as follows:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity and
  • freedom.

Max-Neef’s notion is that people or societies are “poor” when one or more of these needs are not met. “Security” is about ensuring each of these needs will always be fulfilled in the future.


Most of these needs are psychological, but to achieve them we have to use materials and establish social arrangements and processes. For example, leisure requires places for recreation as well as the social acceptance of free time.

Instead of trade-offs between needs, the needs approach asks us to seek synergies so that one action can secure as many human needs as possible. For example, welfare payments may provide relief but when used as a permanent solution (as is government policy), such payments prevent the recipients from satisfying important psychological needs; welfare swaps “food poverty” for “participation poverty”.

The production of food is quite rapidly becoming a black box; very few Australians understand the operation of any of the numerous food supply chains. This lack of understanding makes it hard for us weigh up our competing needs. We have an inability to participate effectively in decisions about what we eat (really eat) and hence an inability to protect our families’ welfare and protect things that as a nation we are supposed to cherish, like equity (a fair go), native biodiversity and our ability to choose our futures.

A systems approach for food security research provides a way of studying social-ecological systems so that changes can be made to reduce food insecurity in ways that maintain the full range of securities that families need for a healthy and productive life. The current modest level of food insecurity in Australia provides an opportunity to experiment, at minimal social and economic cost, to find new ways of improving food security in preparation for future problems.

A fuller description of these ideas is available in Food Security in Australia: Challenges and Prospects for the Future.

Quentin Farmar-Bowers does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation


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Crops hit by drought and biofuel policy: another food price crises

Posted on 31. Jul, 2012 by .



Important article by SFFA member Brigit Busicchia.   Brigit is a research student at Macquarie University and has just returned from France.

 ”Crops hit by drought and biofuel policy: another food price  crisis?



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Planning for Sydney’s Food Security – Part 2

Posted on 17. Mar, 2010 by .


A Vew from the EDGE: Issues in Rural and Fringe Metropolitan Planning part 2 of 2 articles by Ian Sinclair.

DOWNLOAD…Planning for Sydney’s Food Security March 2010 (pdf. 121KB)

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Planning for Sydney’s Food Security – Issues

Posted on 16. Dec, 2009 by .


A View from the EDGE: Issues in Rural and Metropolitan Fringe Planning.

By Ian Sinclair, Principal Consultant Edge Land Planning

DOWNLOAD… Planning For Sydney’s Food Security – Issues (pdf 143KB)

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Alliance to act on food security

Posted on 20. Jul, 2009 by .


Jill Finnane reports October 2006…

Hidden Hunger in the Lucky Country was the theme addressed at the launch of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance in NSW Parliament House on 17 October 2006.

Jill Finnane, on the education team of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, works with the Edmund Rice Centre and wrote the book From Lawns to Lunch - Growing Food in the City (2005; New Holland Publishers, Sydney.  ISBN 1 74110 209 X)

Jill Finnane, on the education team of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, works with the Edmund Rice Centre and wrote the book From Lawns to Lunch - Growing Food in the City (2005; New Holland Publishers, Sydney. ISBN 1 74110 209 X)

The title was prompted by the findings of a 2004 survey of low income households in South West Sydney that:

  • 21.9 per cent of households experienced food insecurity
  • 30 per cent of households with children were food insecure
  • 45 per cent of single parent households were food insecure.

Food insecurity might include episodes of food shortage or constantly feeling hunger.

The Sydney Food Fairness Alliance promotes community food security and sustainable food systems.

Address the macro and the micro – Disney

Professor Julian Disney, Chair of Anti- Poverty week, affirmed the goals of the Alliance when he stressed the importance of taking a ‘bifocal’ approach to addressing poverty.

Professor Disney said that our community needs to focus on tackling the macro issues (like competition policy and tax) when discussing food prices and availability in supermarkets, while searching for frontline experiences and action.

Addressing himself to the welfare and media sectors, he claimed they focus too much on quantifying the poverty line and lack of income as a root cause of poverty. “Is this helpful?” he challenged.

Professor Disney claimed that there are many structural issues that need addressing. He pointed to the difficulties created by our tax system that has made investment in housing so profitable that there has been a huge escalation in the price of housing in urban areas.

He believes that one way of tackling poverty is to develop medium sized cities with populations of 0.5 – 1 million residents.

“Our topography is well suited to medium sized cities and it would bring people closer to food sources and growers, helping to retain urban agricultural land.”

Would there be the political will to explore these structural issues? Professor Disney thinks so. ‘Australians do care about poverty.’ He said.

Sydney’s urban fringe farms – a migrant success story

Associate Professor Frances Parker from the University of Western Sydney also explored the structural threat to food security by pointing out that 40 per cent of Sydney’s 2000 market gardens are in designated growth areas. This raises the question: ‘Why do we always choose the most productive land for development?”

Professor Parker felt we should also ask: ‘How many of the policy makers and planners have been out and met with Sydney’s farmers?

The professor has met extensively with Sydney’s farmers and her research on farming in the Sydney Basin shows that Sydney’s agriculture:

  • is worth over $1 billion annually
  • employs 12, 000 people
  • has the largest number of horticulturalists in Australia and the largest number of non-English speaking horticulturalists.

Sydney market gardeners currently produce:

  • 90 per cent of Sydney’s perishable vegetables
  • 100 per cent of the supply of Asian greens
  • 80 per cent of its mushrooms
  • 70 per centof fresh tomatoes
  • 91 per cent spring onions and shallots.

She found that not only do they provide so much of Sydney’s fresh food but the market gardens also provide a significant source of employment for migrants and, as such, are an important anti-poverty strategy. This has led her to ask: ‘How do we frame Sydney farms? ‘Land Waiting to be Urbanised’ or ‘Migrant Success Story’?

She pointed out that if development goes ahead, the loss of this faming land will not only be turning Sydney’s green belt into ‘pollution-making, water-guzzling, commuter-making suburbs’, it will mean that farms will move further out to where there is less water and poorer quality soils.

Professor Parker made it clear: “the future of agriculture and Sydney’s food supply must be considered at the same time as urbanisation.”

We were left pondering many questions. What will happen to these farmers when the land they are leasing is sold? Will food grown under the poorer conditions, further out, cost more? Professor Parker reminded us that if we are to persuade the planners to preserve Sydney’s agriculture we still need to find where the houses can go.

Aunty Beryl – leader with an innovative eduational project

Dignity and identity through food were highlighted by Aunty Beryl as she told her story leading to the setting up Yamma Dhinawan, a new café and training facility in Wilson Street, Redfern, that aims to address some of the underlying causes of poor nutrition. Growing up in Walgett, her family lived off the land and survived difficult times by caring and sharing; her dad was a shearer and they traded lamb for vegetables from a neighbour’s market garden.

These values of caring and sharing have been something she has tried to incorporate in her community work with hospitality and food. Yamma Dhinawan has been set up so that single mums, who’ve never had a job, or women wh ha’ve been out of the workforce for a long time can come for training and work experience.

So far, 20 women have signed up. Aunty Beryl can see the changes in the mum’s confidence and self esteem as they learn how to cook and shop, however she believes it is not enough just to teach people how to do this. “Looking after the land is critical”, she said .

Now, when Aunty Beryl returns to her family’s home in Walgett, she finds the river is dry and polluted.

“The cotton growers provide lots of employment but there are no fish left. People are reliant on takeaway from the local shop and feel shamed about bush foods”. She said it makes her sad.

New alliance – busy start

Russ Grayson explained that a key goal for the Alliance is to get food security on the public agenda. He described the progress the Alliance has made in the short time since its tentative beginnings in May 2005.

The Alliance:

  • is now incorporated
  • has made a submission to the Metropolitan Strategy
  • produced a series of discussion sheets
  • set up a list-serve and a website – all thanks to the hard work of the various Alliance teams.

The event was chaired by Joanna Savill, who appears on an SBS food program, and co-hosted by MLCs Penny Sharpe and Ian Cohen.

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Urban farming on way to extinction

Posted on 20. Jul, 2009 by .


IF YOU EAT FRESH FOOD in Sydney, offer your thanks to the 1300 market gardeners who farm the Sydney Basin and supply the city with its fresh produce. And if you live elsewhere in NSW you might thank those farmers as well – a full 90 per cent of the state’s perishable produce originates in the agriculturally-favoured Sydney Basin.

Whether you will be able to continue to eat the region’s produce, however, is an open question. Rising land values, urban expansion, a lack of interest among the children of farmers and the need of farmers to finance their retirement are combining to reduce the amount of food produced in the region.

According to NSW Agriculture, the region’s urban fringe agriculture including market gardening, orcharding, poultry, cut flowers and glasshouse and hydroponic cultivation is worth around $1 billion with flow-on benefits to the state economy of between $2-$3 billion.

One of three urban farms remaining in the Rockdale area, this one is typical in that it is managed by Asian farmers

One of three urban farms remaining in the Rockdale area, this one is typical in that it is managed by Asian farmers

Market gardeners in the Sydney Basin farm two geographically distinct pockets:

  • the Hills to Liverpool area on the south-west urban fringe
  • the outer Blacktown to Hawkesbury region to the north.

Both of these areas are experiencing rapid residential and commercial development as Sydney’s population expands by up to 1000 a week. The farmland between Parramatta and the Nepean River/ Blue Mountains escarpment was long ago consumed by residential development.

Decimation by attrition

Fronting the Pacific on its eastern edge and restricted by the line of the Blue Mountains to the west, the geography of the Sydney Basin has forced agriculture in the Sydney region to the west, south-west and north-west. To the north, the sandstone uplift of the Hornsby Plateau limited further expansion. It was similar in the south where sandstone uplands – today’s Royal and Heathcote national parks and Sydney Water’s bushland catchment area feeding the southern dams – have limited development.

Remnant agriculture in Sydney's suburbs - a market garden in Rockdale local government area

Remnant agriculture in Sydney's suburbs - a market garden in Rockdale local government area

The origin of farming in the Sydney region goes back to the passengers of the First Fleet. Frustrated with attempts to crop the sandy soils around the harbour at places such as Farm Cove, site of the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens, the colony’s agriculture was moved to the clay soils of the Parramatta region as soon as it was opened by exploration. Farms were established at Rouse Hill and elsewhere in areas that would within 200 years be engulfed by the flood tide of urban expansion.

Agriculture spilled into the Sydney Basin and what are today suburbs as far apart as Ryde and Kogarah once supported orchardists and market gardeners. As the metropolitan area grew it pushed the urban fringe farmers before it. The 1960s and 1970s brought rising land values that ended the urban agriculture of the Mona Vale-Warriewood pocket behind the northern beaches.

Farming the suburbs - urban agriculture in Kogarah. The market garden is the last in an area that was once intensively farmed.

Farming the suburbs - urban agriculture in Kogarah. The market garden is the last in an area that was once intensively farmed.

The same process, and the need to open new land for subdivision for a growing population, had earlier pushed urban agriculture from older suburbs. To the south of the city, the Kogarah-Rockdale area beyond the Cooks River was in the late Nineteenth Century the source of much of Sydney’s fruit, vegetables and poultry. By the middle of the Twentieth Century urban expansion had covered the farmlands in houses, factories and roads. Few urban farms remained.

The same thing happened as the city expanded westward and onto the clay soil plains to the south-west. As late as the 1970s a vineyard could be seen beside the Great Western Highway on the metropolitan outskirts and there were fruit orchards a little further along the Highway. Now, it is only houses.

Pressures make farming unviable

The speculative housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s consumed much agricultural land, but it was not as if the market gardeners were the unwilling victims of urban growth. They sold their landholdings to finance their retirement, a practice that further spurred urbanisation and continues to this day.

As housing developments have encroached farmland, the new residents discovered that farming was a practice not without odour and noise. Complaints brought further pressure to the family-owned market gardens of the urban-rural fringe.

Today, market gardening by what is a predominately immigrant farming workforce is an economically important industry providing a reliable supply of local, fresh food to the city. Unfortunately, it is not all that financially rewarding. The prospect of limited income, long hours and an education that qualifies them for better-paid city jobs are the reasons that the children of the market gardeners are not attracted to the life. The industry may find itself with a labour shortage.

Much of this was confirmed when NSW Agriculture set out to develop a policy on sustainable agriculture in the Sydney Basin in 1997. In their preliminary study, the government department said there existed a significant potential to utilise urban wastes of organic origin as an agricultural input; sewage sludge, wastewater and animal by-products were mentioned.

The study also disclosed a number of problems facing urban fringe agriculture:

  • environmental health problems associated with agricultural spray drift
  • inefficient use of irrigation water
  • pesticide pollution
  • the movement of hobby farmers onto agricultural land
  • a lack of landuse zoning to prevent further loss of agricultural land.

Investigation finds farming a health hazard

That such problems persist was disclosed by a series of investigate articles that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2001. Under the headline “Sydney’s tainted food scandal”, Herald journalists disclosed that much of the city’s production of fresh vegetables was ” …grown… by migrant farmers who regularly misuse pesticides, often damaging their own health and potentially putting consumers at risk… The… frequently poor farmers who work on the city fringes are misusing dangerous pesticides and becoming ill, in many cases because they cannot read the complex English-only labels… “.

The Herald found that government reports, as well as their own interviews that spanned two months, documented:

  • the mixing of agricultural chemicals with bare hands
  • spraying of “potent” chemicals without masks or protective clothing
  • the use of veterinary chemicals on crops
  • the practice of farmers of smelling chemicals to identify them.

All of these this breaches standards of occupational health.

“More than half the market gardeners reported becoming ill after using chemicals”, the Herald reported. “A long-awaited report of the Premier’s specially established task force into Sydney’s market gardeners warns that misuse of pesticides risks contaminating the $150 million worth of Sydney-grown vegetables sold to consumers each year”

At the time, NSW Agriculture was reported to have slashed its food testing programme that monitors contamination by agricultural chemicals. After the Herald investigation, however, the department appointed an officer to educate farmers about safe chemical use.

A future in doubt

The environment lobbies talk much of sustainability yet they have a poor record when it comes to the sustainability of the urban food supply. It is only recently that they have become aware of food as an issue and it was probably genetic engineering and land degradation that drove them to that. Now, they are paying a belated attention to the broader issue.

They have also been quiet on what pushes urban growth in Sydney – a population growing at the rate of 1000 a week, most of whom are overseas immigrants. This is touchy territory with potential to upset the city’s ethnic lobbies, yet, as Premier Carr has said, it is a real issue in need of addressing. Short of reducing the immigration intake or encouraging or stipulating that new immigrants must go elsewhere than Sydney, there appears little that can be done.

Reducing the numbers coming to Sydney would have only an indirect influence on the loss of agricultural land on the urban fringe. It is government – local and state – that can have a more direct and immediate influence and that could save the urban fringe market gardeners and the land they farm. That can only be done by introducing legislation that leads to the zoning of land for agricultural use.

A sensible approach would be to compile a land capability survey of the remnant agricultural lands of the Sydney Basin. Enough information may already exist to do this. A survey would disclose areas of agricultural potential – the more fertile soils – and those of limited potential. It is these low-quality lands that could be set aside for urban development.

Without doing something like this to retain urban fringe farming as a viable, small-scale, family-based industry, Sydney residents are likely to be faced with an increasing food bill as foods are brought in from further afield. And there are costs other than monetary – increased use of fuel, increased road traffic, food that is less then fresh by the time it is served.

Sydney is fortunate in having its fresh foods – vegetables, fruit, poultry and fish – sourced from its immediate hinterland. Only timely government policy will keep it that way.

Story & photographs: Russ Grayson 1998, updated 2001.

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