Why we need to make room for food

8 March 2018
Every year we lose two million hectares of land to urban sprawl. With Sydney’s property market booming, an expert panel explained why we need to make room for the production of nutritious food.

The world is producing more food than ever before. As a result of agricultural intensification following the end of WWII, more food is produced today than is needed to feed the entire world population and at prices that have never been so low.

Despite this, one in six Sydney-siders still experience food insecurity and don’t have adequate access to sufficient quality or quantity of affordable food.

An expert panel discussed the challenges facing our food systems during a Sydney Ideas at the University of Sydney last month.

Co-presented by the Sydney Environment Institute and the Charles Perkins Centre’s Healthy Food Systems Node, the panel was chaired by Professor of Food and Nutrition, Robyn Alders.

“Since World War II, the problem has shifted from ‘Do I have enough food to eat?’, to ‘Do I have enough nutritious food that will sustain me?’” said Professor Alders.

“Sydney, as with virtually all major cities, was established on the best farming land to support food production for the first European settlers.  Between 1788 and now, we’ve seen arable land in Australia decrease to around 6.5 percent and urban sprawl is partly responsible for this decline.”

What can Sydney learn from British Columbia?

Sydney can take many lessons from British Columbia, Associate Professor Lenore Newman from the University of Fraser Valley told the audience. In 1973, the British Columbia New Democratic Party government established a collection of agricultural land strictly for farming purposes, called the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

“When the land was first acquired, a lot of farmers invested in crops that take generations to build up; crops such as blueberries and hazelnuts,” said Dr Newman.

Covering around 47,000 square kilometres of private and public lands, the ALR is one of the earliest cases of using regional zoning laws to create permanent farmlands in Canada.

Growing our own food will not only help us to value the work of farmers, it might just help us to keep obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes at bay.
Professor Robyn Alders

“It took some time to see results, but now the farmlands, which only account for 0.2 percent of Canada’s farmlands, account for over four percent of the country’s GDP.

The benefits of the scheme aren’t solely economic. British Columbia’s food scene has exploded, with restaurants and cafes now more likely to source local seasonal produce from the farmlands.

Dr Newman said many of the 200 farmers on the ALR rely on the Vancouver farmers’ market to sell their produce, which turns a profit of around $8 million every year.

“When you create a food place, people start to love their farms. Once people start to love their farms they have to make room for food.”

Historically, making room for food hasn’t been an easy task. Crops account for 14 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“The introduction of agriculture around 10,000 years ago enabled the establishment of fixed settlements laying the foundation for today’s megacities,” said Professor Alders.

“As human populations grow and more of us move into urban areas, growing at least part of our food through urban agriculture will be increasingly critical.

“And the good news is that growing our own food will likely not only help us to value the 24/7 work of farmers, it might just help us to keep obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes at bay here in Sydney.” 

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