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Food for thought

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

BATHURST BURR: Most of us in Australia have probably never woken up wondering, “Where can I find food to eat today?”.

And probably never expect to.

My guess is, no matter who we are or where we live, sometime in the next three to five years each of the world’s seven billion people will wake with that thought.

The seasons to grow food are disappearing so fast that they’ll be gone in few years.

It may be easier for me, and others who’ve lived on farms, to expect the unexpected, including catastrophic weather.

Floods, droughts, pests, rat, mice and locust plagues are harbingers of the changes on the way. Farm life can be a gift helping us to choose to see life on this planet as it really is.

This photo shows one such gift I received.  It’s probably the 1956 flood when my family’s farms near the Lachlan river, NSW, were cut off for four months.

There was no school. Instead, kids came by boat and horseback to a temporary school in the old first farm house on our property. We played on the hill there, surrounded by flood water.

The photo shows the flood waters in the background, the chook run in the middle, and the dunny in the foreground, with a grapevine and track to the left of the house just out of view.

It was probably taken by our neighbour who owned a Gypsy Moth biplane.  He would fly over, throw out a sugar bag with tinned food, turn off the engine to hear Mum and Dad yell out if they were ok, then fly to the next farm.  The photo shows how close he got to the house.

Despite that flood, Mum and Dad kept farming until Dad had taken up the farm fences 17 times, after which he sold and bought farms up north on hill country. (When a flood comes, the tie wires on the bottom of the miles of fences have to be cut so logs and debris carried by the flood waters flow through, and don’t bring down the fences.)

What’s here is not about the common laziness of optimism or pessimism but about the rational faith we may have in our human spirit to keep on going. In the words of US conservationist  Rachel Carson,  “ … we go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself”.

May I offer some facts to support my assertions?

In September there was a train taking 725,000 litres of water a day to a mine near Lithgow in NSW. With local sources of water depleted, the mine operator is using city water to stop the mine bursting into flames, and to “ keep jobs secure”.

But we don’t need to have lived on a farm to see what’s happening to the planet, or to dig coal to be blind to it. The US space agency, NASA’s EarthNow phone app shows images of Earth’s vital signs about water, salinity, and more.

This image shows enough carbon dioxide now pollutes Earth’s air to end food growing seasons.

Dozens of cultures died out when they couldn’t grow food because Earth’s weather changed. Norse warriors migrated to Greenland when the weather warmed but then died out when it got cold.  In the south west of the US, the Hopi Indians did well during wetter centuries but survived in only a few wet locations when the climate dried.

In Australia’s dry climate, we might follow the decline of the Hopi Indians unless we learn from and copy the food growing ways of those who have lived here for 40,000 years.

This image from my book, Sustainable Food, shows how the production of a modest breakfast of a small punnet of yoghurt, a tomato, an egg, a slice of bread and some bacon requires more than 1200 litres of water.

In Chippendale, Sydney, where I live, the data shows total average annual water use is 750,000 litres per person, about three quarters of the water in the local swimming pool in nearby Victoria Park. Over 6,000 people live here in one of the city’s smallest suburbs.  The figures are hard to compute, aren’t they?

I have a dozen potatoes in my fridge that used 500 litres of water to grow, not including the water I used to wash and to cook them.  Look how much water is needed to grow 1 kg of food:

The table below shows how much energy we get from some foods.

Yes, these figures are for industrial agriculture and, yes, small, local farming for local consumption is many times more efficient and uses far less water and fuel.  And, yes, up until about 40 years ago, we used to grow about 60 per cent of our food in our cities. But that land has gone, now has houses and roads on it, and few people know how to grow food. Still, we waste about 40 per cent of our food so saving it is an obvious solution and is one of the solutions offered below.

To get the energy from food we import fuel. In Australia, we have less than 50 days’ reserves of petrol, diesel for our cars to drive to the supermarket and for our farmers to drive the engines to grow the food then transport the food to us.

This year,  Europe experienced its hottest summer on record. Australia is going into its summer and our country is dying from heat and the disappearing seasons. Country towns have or are about to run out of water.

Last week, I was in Byron Bay, in northern NSW, and I heard reports about how, while a local farmer was away, several hundred thousand litres of water were stolen from his water tanks. Another indicator of how tough things are getting is how few insects are hitting vehicle windscreens. The insects have disappeared because the trees and plants are gone and pesticides are poisoning the insects.

Disappearing water in Queensland’s Darling Downs has cut the 24,000 dairy farmers there to less than 330 in the state.

The Murray and Darling rivers, which once supported about 40 per cent of our agriculture, no longer flow;  look at the catastrophic opening images of ABC’s Australian Story about Kate McBride, a farmer there who is rallying other farmers to stop the corruption and government incompetence killing the rivers.

But, even without the greed and fraud that’s emptied the rivers, the end of Earth’s seasons has, in the past 20 years, cut 40 per cent of the rain and water that used to be in the rivers, as the graph below shows.

Enough data, already.

Here are some affordable and easy solutions we can turn to in the absence of government action. These solutions can work in cities, towns, farms and remote places. They help build communities and understanding.

First, a new region-specific Climate Guide called Climate Kelpie offers Australian farmers information to help them reduce their business risk.

Second, citizens must plant millions more trees in the next two to three years while the weather is still here to grow them.

To ensure trees stay alive in the hotter, drier and extreme weather in Australia, the data shows we need to plant at least 100,000 to 800,000 trees a day in our cities and farms, beginning this year.

Plant a tree today outside your house and keep planting them, day after day – make tree planting a daily ritual.  Don’t ask the council, just do it.  If they cut it down, plant another one and get your neighbour to plant one, too.

Thirdly, to grow local soil to grow local trees, plants and food get your local council this year to amend its rates to offer a nil waste fee for property owners who do not put out food waste for the council to pick up. Council waste fees should rise according to how much waste residents generate.

Phone, write and pester your local councillors and council staff to change the rates.

In Sydney City Council area where I live the sliding scale of fees would look like the ones shown in the image below.

This UN says stopping food waste is a key strategic solution.

Fourth, lets grow food in the street outside our house.

Since 2008, in Chippendale, we’ve grown over 1000 fruit trees, herbs and edible plants in about 20 city blocks (Sustainable Chippendale).  But they provide only a small amount of the food the local population eats every day.  I get most of my food from the local farmers’ market 10 minutes walk away.

Growing our own food puts us in touch with the planet and the seasons. Even growing small  amounts of food creates understanding, community and the generous spirit we need in these increasingly tough times.

I can get food from local farmers through a food box service, Ooooby, which brings food boxes to my place and gives half the money for a food box to the farmers. But that service depends on fuel to transport the food.

Fifth, turn your left over food into soil to grow food.

There’s a terrific new, simple way to grow soil to grow food, which I’ve proven at a café at Bondi Beach and outside my house on the road verge. It’s called a Subpod.  Buy one today and left over food will never leave your house.

I’m doing these things today, and tomorrow and all the days ahead. I invite you to do them, too. It’s easy!

Finally, we may think that the deaths from starvation these last few years of over 85,000 children under the age of five in Yemen is irrelevant to us but their plight – drought mixed with war over resources – will be ours unless we do simple things now; even so, these actions are just my best guess and unlikely to prevent famine here.

Yes, I remember the unexpected floods, the food drops to our farm and now I expect starvation to visit my city street. But I garden daily, and seek to grow my spiritual and practical resilience.

In 1996, Michael Mobbs disconnected his Sydney terrace from mains water, sewerage and electricity. He now uses the sun for power, and the rain for water, and no sewage or stormwater leaves his sustainable house.  Data about buildings, waste, energy, water and food are in his blog. With four people, house energy and water bills are less than $300 a year. Designs and other projects are in two books, Sustainable House, and Sustainable Food

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