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Bathurst Burr: How to secure Australia’s food

By Michael Mobbs

23 December 2010

  • “The underlying problem is confoundingly simple: agricultural methods that lose soil faster than it is replaced destroy societies”David Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

I saw white sheets flapping and waving in a strong wind in the hot sun today. They were high on the top of a yellow building. Their sprightly dancing was spellbinding. (If you’ve never slept on sheets newly dried in the wind and sun, you’ll have no idea of the freshness they offer.)

Then I fell from the magic of the dancing sheets and immediately the yakkity-yak bits of me (the analyst, the inner critic, the wonderer) regathered, yapping around the heels of my mind, and I (they) asked, “What was that?”

I had two answers, one for the yappers, one for what I’d seen.

For the hecklers attempting to distract me from the lovely sheets, I said, “I’ll take the sheets, thanks.”

For the wonderer, the gut instinct part of me which I trust, I listened to the questions it asked: “Who hung those sheets? Do they see the sun and wind as I do, as Earth’s gifts? Isn’t it a lovely thing they hung them there to catch the warmth and drying on offer for free? Not for show. Probably in breach of some body corporate rules. Beautiful lawbreaking.”

I’d lain down to think, before the sheets caught my eye, about how most of us – we Australians, and most developed countries – will not have enough food and will pay very high food costs before 2020.

It was when I was thinking that it’s unlikely most Australians will agree with me, and we’ll continue to sleepwalk into the food crisis that’s begun, that my eyes caught the distant sheets.

Now to thank the person who hung those sheets, I’ve decided to write an offer – a plan to secure our food. These words are my sheets in the wind.

What do I mean by “food security”?

We lack food to keep us healthy when both the quantity and quality of food and soil are in constant decline, and when we do not have food growing where people live and work.

To secure our food we must secure all links in the food chain, and shorten it.

If – and I’m serious – our culture is to survive, we must maintain the soil to grow food, grow food locally, end the intense use of energy to refrigerate, store and transport it, eat food instead of “stuff” which is mostly fats, salts, “additives” such as corn syrup, packaging and sugar, and we must cease to waste it.

My seriousness about the crisis that’s begun is based on facts, not fear.

In his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R Montgomery says:

“. . . soil degradation translated into inadequate agricultural capacity to support a burgeoning population, [is] predisposing whole civilizations to failure.  That a familiar script appears to apply to small, isolated island societies and extensive, transregional empires suggests a phenomenon of fundamental importance.  Soil erosion that outpaced soil formation limited the longevity of civilisations that failed to safeguard the foundation of their prosperity – their soil.

“Soils provide us with a geological rearview mirror that highlights the importance of good old dirt from ancient civilizations right on through to today’s digital society. This history makes it clear that sustaining an industrialised civilisation will rely as much on soil conservation and stewardship as on technological innovation.”

This is not another “plan” to prevent farming land being lost to suburbs, although it will do that.

Saving farmland near cities doesn’t divert our citizens away from spending much of their food money on manufactured “food” that’s causing widespread ill-health, mortality and driving up hospital and health costs.

A plan that focuses only on preserving farmland will not:

•    stop most of Australia’s food being sold overseas;
•    stop most of Australia’s manufactured food being imported;
•    restore soil quality or quantity;
•    stop obesity;
•    stop the increase in blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other diseases caused by manufactured food, fast food, nor the spiralling costs of health care;
•    promote home or urban farms, road gardens.

The suburb development industry says farmland near cities isn’t vital to secure our food because only a minor amount is grown there, with “over 87 per cent of Sydney’s food from the Murray-Darling Basin”.  True.

But the industry’s planning horizon is less than 10 years; it’s unsustainable, and won’t get us fed beyond the next 10 years.

The food grown in the Murray-Darling Basin in the next 20 years will at least halve – the river water is expected to decline by at least 30 per cent.

What’s with those in our society who hold themselves out as authorities on public policy but either don’t, or can’t, read about this, people like suburb developers and city planners and union and political party hacks?  Is it just corruption that blinds them?

This certain decline in Australia’s major food-growing land is widely published and deeply researched. Because the same fixed, finite amount of water is owned several times over by farmers, there’s not enough for all who “own” it.  They’re each waging a campaign to keep their (now largely theoretical) rights to that water, so the prospect of the river continuing to meet existing needs is zero.  Whatever the politics, the amount of water currently available will be lost to those farmers, and the food they grow will be lost to us city folk who eat their food.

And I don’t suggest a plan to prevent food shortages and limit rising food costs, but what I offer will do that, too.

Each of four threats must be overcome if we’re to continue putting bread on the table in 10 years time as easily as we do now.  Let’s state them one by one.

First:
Our soils are becoming less productive and there is less and less productive land. Thus, our culture – like all others which have killed their soil’s fertility – is dying from less productive or lost soil.  For the last several thousand years, lost and dying cultures all collapsed suddenly, brought down by soil abuse; they’re closely examined in Montgomery’s book.

Second:
Food must be kept affordable.

Food costs are growing as the energy, water and the fertiliser used all dwindle and become more expensive. Within the next 10 years, food will take up most of our income.

Most Australians have never been hungry; food costs are less than a tenth of most of our incomes.  So the idea that it may be too expensive for us to buy food seems unbelievable. But so did the banking crisis, a couple of world wars, our cities running out of water; and so does every crisis.

Third:
We can’t afford to eat the way we do now; we can only afford to eat real food. Too much of the “food” we’re eating is not food but manufactured stuff which makes us fat, causes widespread illness and is driving up healthcare costs and taxes.

We get fat and sick because we eat unhealthy food, or too much, because we walk and exercise less, because the shops are too far away from where we live so we must drive there, because planning rules prevent food growing or shops being where we live, because the food industry dominates TV and other media, because fast food chains profit more from unhealthy food, because food regulators allow unhealthy amounts of salt in bread, biscuits, manufactured food – too much kills us, causes high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes – and because . . . The list covers all the things that affect our food.

Fourth:
Our political parties won’t act because they’ve given food policy control to food chains, fertiliser companies and industry lobby groups who are committed to keeping business as usual.

The two main political parties have caused food insecurity by presiding over careless agricultural agencies who’ve given decades of wrong advice to farmers, thus causing the decline of our soils.

And they’ve given two companies, Coles and Woolworths, control over who grows what, and where and when; and farmers are oppressed by these two buyers of their produce. The food chains’ profits soar while the farmers they control earn less and less and food gets ever pricier. Undoing that control may be beyond our parties but it’s possible the independents and minor parties can change that.

Consider the limited controls our governments have to secure our food now:

•    The only control over who owns or controls Australian farmland and what our farms produce is held by the Foreign Investment Review Board.  But the FIRB only gets power to act when the cost of buying a farm exceeds $230 million. That trigger is set for when a company is bought.  But there’s no trigger for farms bought from persons who are not companies.

•    But there are very different and lower financial triggers for: residential land, banks, telecommunications, shipping, civil aviation, airports and media. You can see all this on the FIRB website: http://www.firb.gov.au/content/default.asp.

The crisis has begun.

In 2004, before the banking system crisis made things worse, in south-west Sydney 22 per cent of households experienced food insecurity, including 30 per cent of households with children, and 45 per cent of single parent households.

This year, two years after food riots swept through dozens of countries in 2008, rising food costs and food shortages have come back:
•    October 2010:  global wheat and maize prices rose almost 30 per cent in a few weeks;
•    2010: global meat prices are at a 20-year high;
•    Prices are at record levels: tomatoes in Egypt and Israel; garlic in China, bread in Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, sugar in Pakistan, cabbages in South Korea;
•    Recently the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines predicted food shortages in their countries next year.

Countries with food insecurity this year include:

•    Russia, which banned overseas sales of wheat because crop failures had reduced the amount needed to feed local appetites;
•    China, which banned rice sales.

Only a short, less than five-page agreement in active-tense English, with financial rewards and public accountability, and signed by the premiers, prime minister and treasurers, will get close to repositioning us and all our food red tape, institutions and apathetic body politic.

I suggest we need the plan to be in action next year.  We’re way behind other countries.  The UK has a draft plan and the London Council has begun to implement one for that city.

It should be something every government agency works to, and which every private sector player plays to.

It will operate at all levels of government and across all government agencies and in all market sectors.

It will become a norm of Australian life, from the defence forces, to road agencies, to health and food and pesticide regulators, in schools, public transport, our three hundred local councils, offices, mines, subdivisions, aviation and outside our front doors.

We need to grow food where we live and work and travel, and we need to start planting, and start growing soil now. It takes at least two years to grow a citrus tree in good soil to the stage where its fruit may be harvested.

And we need to begin getting rid of unhealthy food now.  It presently takes years for red tape to get rid of unhealthy additives to food even though the science may be clear that the additive is causing harm, even death.

And it takes several years to grow soil, and to make poor soil healthier.

Trees and plants need to be planted now before we may enjoy their first harvest some two or more years after planting.  Some will die and need to be replaced, thereby losing another year.  And we’re losing thousands of hectares of land to roads, urban development, soil infertility and salt every month.

So, here it is.

The plan to secure Australia’s food

1.    All councils must in 2011 buy all their food direct from farmers in their council area or nearby, and most of it should come from farmers who use low-impact tilling methods, who grow soil (such as carbon farmers – see, for example, wwwcarbonfarmersofaustralia.com.au), and who rarely use  pesticides.
2.    Local councils should promote and patronise food box businesses which buy direct from local farmers and sell locally with a business aim to deliver at least 40 per cent of their customers’ money to the farmers, and for which they must account to their customers.
3.    Local councils should support farmers markets in local parks so it’s possible for locals to walk to buy and carry home their food without using a car.
4.    Every state and federal agency and every parliament should buy their food from the local box businesses and local farmers markets established by local councils.
5.    No chain store should be approved located off the main street, and financial and planning incentives need to be implemented to revive main street food businesses, except for fast food outlets.
6.    Every primary and secondary school should plant a kitchen garden in 2011 and install a teaching kitchen with the goal of producing at least a couple of days’ food a week from the gardens.
7.    Amend all local council tree and plant controls to mandate productive, edible native and exotic plants and trees, and require implementation in all development approvals and council planting programs in 2011.
8.    Make it the first item of every COAG meeting to table a review of the current state of Australian food security prepared by the Australian Bureaus of Statistics, which includes farmers markets, box services and the food being produced but not sold in schools and community gardens.
9.    Amend the nomenclature of the data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to show: what food is grown locally and what is transported, and over what distances; what energy and water is used to grow, transport, store, buy and waste food; what soil exists and what its health is; and how much soil is eroded or restored.
10.    Require CSIRO to not begin new research, or continue other research, unless they first check and report back to government that indigenous culture does not have an explanation for loss of productivity, crops, trees or plants. Some answers to soil and plant problems are already known to indigenous people; they just need to be asked.
11.    Amend Australian Standards for road design to require all roads (existing and new) to be:
a.     planted with edible, productive trees and plants
b.    for maintenance works to be amended to require such plantings
c.    pale coloured
d.    at least half covered with tree canopy (except, of course, freeways and major roads)
12.    Require all national, state and local council taxes, fees and rates to be at levels which incentivise productive land or land where soil is being grown (carbon farming).  Use the incentives and taxing powers of the COAG and tax system to achieve this during 2011.
13.    Make it mandatory for all council approvals to require:
a.     pale roofs, pale roads, at least 50 per cent tree canopy cover for all new roads except, of course, roads with five or more lanes;
b.    office leases to require food to be purchased from local farmers;
c.    workplace agreements to include healthy food to be provided and healthy soil to be kept where the work being done affects the soil.

Australian cities are six to eight degrees hotter in summer because of hot roads and roofs. The heat reduces tree growth and the canopy.

We don’t need new committees and agencies, just to refocus the ones we have.

There are many bodies and agencies with powers to remove farmland without being required to include productive, edible landscapes in their new developments, such as state road agencies, state education and housing agencies.

Coles and Woolworths have a large investment in their “own brand” foods and much of that food comes from overseas because it’s cheaper than food grown in Australia, and that’s causing farmland loss. These companies owe their primary loyalty and planning to their shareholders, not to Australians or to the Australian farmers.  They have no role in the plan.

The key roles are held by us – we citizens.

Let’s use our money to buy local food direct from farmers, to work with our schools to plant kitchen gardens there, to grow food where we live and work.

Why don’t we lead?

After all, governments don’t lead, they follow. Let’s lead them to secure our food in the next 10  years.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au

Michael Mobb’s book “Sustainable House 2nd Edition” is available from his website

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