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URBAN FooD SySTEMSF o c u sLoCAL FooD FoRSUSTAINABLECoMMUNITIESMany people are waking up to the wisdom of growing food withinand around cities and towns, a movement that is leading to thecreation of more sustainable communities. Rachel Sullivan reports.Bringing food production much pesticides and fertilisers and monoculture Making city space workcloser to home makes sense. As our specialisation. Recently, however, growth But can food forests, green roofs, backyardpopulation becomes more urbanised, slowed due to a combination of changing veggie patches and community gardensthe environmental and financial impacts climate, existing crop varieties reaching their realistically feed the tens of millionsof transporting produce to our suburbs maximum yield potentials and progressive predicted to live in the cities of the nearhave risen. Meanwhile, traditional soil depletion. Waste products – water, future?agricultural belts are facing the challenges manure and vegetable waste – that were Yes, says Kirsten Larsen, an expertof water shortages, climate extremes and once composted and returned to the soil in sustainable food systems and Eco-declining land productivity, while once- as an integral part of a closed production Innovation Policy Research Manager atproductive land on the urban fringe is system, became a by-product liability. Melbourne University’s Victorian Eco-being increasingly developed for housing Agriculture is also now responsible for Innovation Lab (VEIL).and other infrastructure. This all coincides 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions ‘First we need to change ourwith concerns about the health and (GHGs) globally.1 Carbon dioxide is understanding of cities and start to see themenvironmental impacts of large-scale produced from making fertilisers and as productive, not consumptive spaces.commercial agriculture. from running farm machinery, processing ‘While we’re not going to see fields of Until the Second World War, when plants and delivery trucks. Methane is wheat or large-scale animal productionadvances were made in synthesising produced mostly by gut fermentation in the heart of the city, there is a greatfertiliser, most people grew at least some of processes in cattle, and chemical processes opportunity for the production of fresh,their own food. They kept a few hens, had taking place in farmed soils release nitrous perishable foodstuffs – especially fruitfruit trees and large veggie patches. Scraps oxide. Carbon is also indirectly released and vegetables – to expand, thanks towere fed to the chickens, or composted and into the atmosphere from soil as a result the concentration of water and nutrientmixed with animal manure then returned of chemical applications, land clearing and resources in urban areas.to the soil. Backyard food production was conversion of savannah or pasture land ‘At the moment 47 per cent of wastelabour-intensive but highly productive, to arable land, and from overgrazing and going to landfill is organic; 21 per centand supplemented by produce from subsequent soil erosion. is food waste. Much of that could bemarket gardens and smallholdings on Against this backdrop of concern composted or turned into mulch andthe urban fringe. about food’s environmental and health returned to the soil to reduce reliance on After the war, advances in machinery impacts, and more recently its future fertilisers that are derived from fossil fuels.and synthetic fertilisers pushed production availability, people in urban areas have been ‘Similarly, harvesting stormwateraway from towns and cities into more rediscovering the pleasures of ‘slow food’, and wastewater from cities and makingmarginal farmland. For the next 40 years, growing and picking their own produce, it available for crops after appropriatebroadacre productivity in developed and purchasing freshly harvested fruit and treatment will help close agriculturalcountries skyrocketed thanks to artificial vegetables from suburban farmers’ markets. production loops.’ Larsen believes that ‘food-sensitive1 http://www.climateandfarming.org/pdfs/FactSheets/IV.1GHGs.pdf urban design’ can contribute to18 EcOS 152 | DEc–jAn | 2010
the packing line at Brisbane-based Food Oliver Foster’s next generation representation of Professor Dickson Despommier’s verticalConnect, which is successfully matching local farming idea proposes converting existing buildings into controlled growing spaces thatfood producers to local buyers via a simple support urban life. Oliver Fosterdelivery program. Food Connect put into broadacre agriculture needs to be keeping and vegetable production. Similar put into urban production systems. to hydroponics, plants grow on rafts, with Further, we would need to look their roots dangling in water enriched by at utilising different spaces, such as fish waste. The water is then filtered and basements and rooftop gardens. Larsen recycled back into the fish tank. says Melbourne, for example, has a great Geoff Wilson, President of the Urban deal of rooftop space that could be used Agriculture Network–Western Pacific, says for food production, if certain engineering the technique allows relatively small areas challenges could be overcome. to be highly productive. ‘With fish food the Rooftop gardens are appearing in Japan only input, aquaponics has the potential and the USA, notably Chicago and New to be one of the world’s major food York. In New York’s Brooklyn district, an production systems.’Looking down on Wilberforce, NSW, a organic farm has been established on the Another new idea is vertical farming,typical growing satellite community with 550-square-metre roof of a defunct bagel a concept that originated with Professordecisions to make about how to best use its factory (see www.rooftopfarms.org). The Dickson Despommier from Columbiaproductive surrounding land. Ian Sinclair gardeners behind the project say they University’s Department of Health are ‘committed to a sustainable businessresilient, sustainable communities by model that supplies fresh, locally growndiversifying food sources, making use of organic food and spreads food educationlocal resources, reducing transport and throughout New York’. Day-of-harvestrefrigeration needs, and spreading risk deliveries are made by bicycle or locals canacross different distribution channels. All pick their own. It has been so successfulof this contributes to positive community that organisers are planning to expand intodynamics, not to mention greater food other vacant land.security. In Cuba, for instance, community New skill sets will be required togardens set up on disused land to grow vegetables and fruit on walls and incompensate for reduced imports following aquaponics systems. Aquaponics, currentlythe Soviet collapse now produce half the being trialled by Melbourne communityleafy vegetables consumed on the island. farming group CERES Community Kirsten Larsen’s home garden typifies the To make urban agriculture viable again, Environment Park, is an ancient Aztec increasing popularity of GyO – Grow yourLarsen says the same level of investment farming technique that combines fish- Own – produce. Kirsten Larsen152 | DEc–jAn | 2010 www.ecosmagazine.com EcOS 19
URBAN FooD SySTEMSF o c u sSciences. Custom-built skyscrapers and materials at their true ecological value communities, education could help boostwould bring large-scale food production in a carbon trading framework would also production significantly.into the place where most of the food is make alternatives, like high-rise farming, Through the Stephanie Alexanderconsumed. Food could be produced year more economically viable. Kitchen Garden Program schoolchildrenround in a climate-controlled, parasite-free are learning about food productionenvironment, seeing the end of harvests Community learning benefits and healthy eating from an early age.lost to droughts and storms. Features such Back on the ground, permaculture food Supported by federal government funding,as water and nutrient recycling, biogas- forests such as Brisbane’s Northey Street the program involves 91 schools Australia-powered cogeneration, geothermal heating City Farm (www.northeystreetcityfarm. wide, with more being added each year.and cooling, and rooftop PV technology org.au) not only provide an edible land- Children from Years 3–6 spend 45 minuteswould minimise the environmental scape with more than 1500 exotic and a week tending an organic vegetable gardenfootprint of such skyscrapers. native fruit trees, bush tucker plants, they help create, then an additional hour- Proponents also believe that usingsoilless growing media could be up to30 times more productive than traditional ‘We need to plan for food, and identify where good land lies, wherebroadacre cultivation. In an article published in Scientific there are good soils and not too much fragmentation, then zoneAmerican, Despommier posited that that land as primary production only, with a caveat placed on it,’vertical farms could help combat the effects Ian Sinclair says.of climate change, allowing transport-related GHGs to be cut dramatically andcarbon sequestering forests to be planted shrubs and groundcovers growing on and-a-half learning to cook and prepareon former farmland. the 4 hectare farm site, they also provide meals from the food they harvest. But while there has been considerable a focal point for the community, and an While inner-urban food productioninterest in vertical farms, with prototypes education in permaculture, horticulture is critical to future food security andon the drawing board, at the moment and sustainable living. advocated by The CSIRO Home Energythey are prohibitively expensive: to be Kirsten Larsen believes this educational Saving Handbook as an important part ofviable, each farm would need to feed component is critical to the success sustainable living, Ian Sinclair, Principalaround 50 000 people, be about 30 storeys of urban farms. ‘There has been an Consultant at Edge Land Planning, believeshigh, and cost hundreds of millions of increasing distance between production the urban fringes will continue to playUS dollars to build. This could make and consumption of food and many a major role in a decentralised urbanskyscraper-farmed crops more expensive people now don’t have the skills to feed agriculture mix.than those grown by traditional methods. themselves,’ she says. Even in successful ‘However, land use conflicts need to be Australian architect Oliver Foster believes community gardens, which have often been managed at the regulatory level,’ he says.that retrofitting existing structures may be a set up as part of social welfare initiatives ‘At the moment, a lot of perishable foodmore cost-effective solution. Pricing energy in multicultural or disadvantaged production occurs on the urban fringe in cities. Greater Sydney, for example, produces 15 per cent of the state’s total vegetables, but when looking at the perishable or fresh component, the Sydney region produces 90 per cent of Asian vegetables consumed in the state, and 80 per cent of its mushrooms. ‘But as the population has grown, development has steadily encroached onto rich productive farmland. High rates and complaints from neighbours, who like sweeping rural vistas but object to the sounds and smells of farming, are driving farmers off the land.’ Offsetting food supply shortage Indeed, there is growing concern that the development-driven spread of urban infrastructure is permanently ‘paving over’ the highly valuable and most productive soils near cities – a natural asset that often attracted settlement in the first place. Beyond these areas, land is more marginalMembers of Brisbane’s Northey Street City Farm harvesting honey. they produce great local or degraded. Observers, includingfood, share skills and connect to their wider community. Northey Street City Farm renowned conservationist David Suzuki220 EcOS 152 | DEc–jAn | 2010
projects involving higher urban density to Slow food take the pressure off land. ‘In the future we will be able to feed ourselves from urban food production models, but we also need to make policy decisions and need to provide incentives to retain rural land now.’ Professor Julian Cribb, author of the forthcoming book The Coming Famine,3 says that year-round availability of food has contributed to a massive population explosion that, by 2050, will give rise to a dozen cities of 30 to 40 million inhabitants. Geoff Buckley from Food Connect poses with Unless things change radically, his research staff and a fresh delivery of home-grown reveals, none will produce enough food, tamarillos. Food Connect leaving them almost entirely dependent on outside food sources. ‘We source our produce from 80 ‘When supplies fail, as they almost growers who live within a couple of hours inevitably will for some reason, the of Brisbane,’ says Robert Pekin, who goes ensuing catastrophe will appall humanity,’ by the charming title of CiEiO of Food says Cribb. Among the reasons for such Connect. ‘Farmers send their produce to a supply failure, he cites the fact that most homestead on the outskirts of Brisbane. It agriculture depends on fossil fuel for is then packaged into 11 different types of the Slow Food movement advocates a return to locally and sustainably grown transport, processing equipment and other boxes and dropped off at various locations and prepared produce. Food Connect equipment; with thousands of new cars on around the city – family homes, schools the road each day in China and India, by and community centres – and subscribers The Slow Food movement (www. 2050 there won’t be any fossil fuel available collect their box from there, hopefully slowfood.com) began in Italy in 1989 for food production, according to Cribb. getting the chance to talk to like-minded in opposition to the fast food lifestyle Phosphates and nitrates for fertilisers others in the process. sweeping the world. It currently has will also run out. Most of the nutrients ‘The organic content of the boxes varies 100 000 members in 132 countries, taken from soils in the form of produce – sometimes it is as high as 100 per cent, many of whom are active in forming consumed by urban populations during but we opt for locally grown produce over and sustaining seed banks that preserve the past 50 years have been flushed out organically certified,’ he adds. ‘That said, ‘heirloom’ crop varieties; preserving to sea. Increasing water shortages will no chemicals are sprayed directly onto the and promoting local and traditional continue to affect production, and climatic fruit and vegetables prior to consumption food products, and developing an ‘Ark extremes resulting in droughts, floods and and all of our farmers, some of whom also of Taste’ for each ecoregion; educating bushfires will have catastrophic effects. supply eggs and dairy products, meet strict citizens about the drawbacks of The consequences of an unreliable food ethical and animal husbandry standards.’ commercial agribusiness and factory supply would be dire, says Cribb, who Pekin comments that this model has farms; helping to preserve family farms; argues that since the 1990s, two-thirds of multiple benefits: it encourages farmers to and encouraging ethical buying in local all conflicts in the world have been caused grow a more diverse range of foods, which marketplaces. by shortages of land, food or water. is good for the environment, and ensures ‘Bringing food production back into they are fairly compensated for their the cities where it is consumed, and produce. They don’t need to transport theirand state government planners, say city intelligently recycling nutrients back into produce as far, which saves time, energyplanners need to do more forward-looking agriculture or horticulture, is essential if we and money, all of which they are able to putassessments to safeguard these areas. are to stave off disaster,’ concludes Cribb. back into growing high quality crops. ‘We need to plan for food, and identify The formula has proved so popular thatwhere good land lies, where there are good Connecting the dots Food Connect is about to launch in Sydney,soils and not too much fragmentation, then Brisbane-based Food Connect has created Melbourne and Adelaide, with other citieszone that land as primary production only, an innovative community-based food and regional towns such as Bellingen andwith a caveat placed on it,’ Ian Sinclair says. distribution model that brings together Coffs Harbour expected to follow suit. He points out that if we want local food small producers – including people whosystems, farmers also need to be provided grow excess veggies in their home gardens, More information:with an incentive to stay. community gardeners, school farmers Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), ‘Rate rebates are one such incentive. and even ‘gleaners’ (people who collect http://www.ecoinnovationlab.comAnother could be market-based, where fruit growing on street trees) – with Australian City Farms anddevelopment credits are ascribed to 1600 subscribers who want to purchase Community Gardens Network,farmland and could be redeemable for seasonal, locally grown produce. www.communitygarden.org.au Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program,2 Read more at www.davidsuzuki.org/Economy/Sustainability/alr_report www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au3 The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb will be published in 2010.152 | DEc–jAn | 2010 www.ecosmagazine.com EcOS 21