WE RARELY TALK sensibly about food – the throwaway line ‘food for thought' is about as close as we come to connecting thinking with eating. This isn't an attitude we can afford any longer. Our food production and distribution systems, and all the cultural practices that go with them, are facing some deep challenges. It's time we had much more thought for food.
Lots of things are going haywire. Ocean acidification and resource exploitation are ruining global fish stocks. Rapid urbanisation in the developing world is sucking the life from agricultural regions. Declining crop yields have large parts of the world on famine watch. And, idiotically, we're switching crops from food to biofuel production at a time of soaring populations.
Things are clearly out of whack in our food systems. And there's a much bigger whack that threatens to knock our entire food regime sideways. ‘Global warming' is perhaps not the best way to describe the threat. The renowned British environmentalist James Lovelock prefers ‘global heating' to describe the human-fired barbeque that is cooking our world.
Global heating is a diabolical challenge that undermines human food supply at a number of levels. First, it reduces that most vital precondition for food, water. Already in Australia, science confirms a permanent loss of catchment capacity in some regions. Worryingly, these include highly urbanised parts, including Perth and the hinterlands, and the populous south-east corner of the continent.
It also attacks food on other fronts: making land less arable; making local climates less predictable and thus less productive; and reducing biodiversity and future potential food sources. A recent international study predicted that if heating continues unchecked, global wheat production will drop by up to 27 per cent, and rice by 13 per cent, over the next forty years.
The climate slow-burn will steadily erode the human resources for food production. It is stressing Australia's inland rural communities, where interminable drought manifests in soaring suicide rates. A journalist from the property pages of a major daily told me a few years ago that inland farmers were quietly buying up land nearer the coasts, expecting to need to shift from untenable farms. Others will simply walk when things become intolerable.
In September 2009, the CSIRO chief, Dr Megan Clark, told an astonished National Press Club that ‘in the next fifty years, we will need to produce as much food as we have ever produced in the entire human history.' This, at a time of declining agricultural possibilities, much of it attributable to climate change.
A bleak assessment, but the optimists, or at least one known for his noisy buoyancy, had another view. Senator Bill Heffernan urged us to look to Australia's north as a new frontier of agricultural ambition. Among conservatives, Heffernan is notable for taking warming seriously. His cheerful antidote proved hugely newsworthy. The CSIRO doubts northern Australia's suitability for food production. But these and other expert objections were swept aside. Science, the senator was certain, could unlock the secrets of tropical productivity that have eluded us for a very long time.
WE'LL CERTAINLY NEED a great deal of human ingenuity and a good resource base to draw upon in the battle against global warming. I believe that ingenuity is much more significant than science – critical as formal expertise is, and will be – and that we have a resource base much closer to hand than the far north which is much more suitable for development in quest of resilience.
I refer to the ground you are probably sitting on as you read this, suburban Australia. This is where the overwhelming majority of Australians live and will do so for a very long time, whatever our urban redevelopment ambitions. The ‘fibro frontier', the ‘veneer frontier': it has many manifestations, but shares a few powerful and useful qualities that we should consider.
First, the vast suburbia of our metropolises and sea-change regions occupies some of the best watered and most productively ‘soiled' land we have. And climate projections suggest that they will continue to receive acceptable amounts of rainfall. Second, with the exception of more recent ‘small lot' estates, suburbia is a low-density greenscape with a lot of disorganised but potentially productive land.
There are obvious barriers to producing food in suburbia – it's a fragmented, privately owned patchwork, for a start. There's also the tricky problem of protected pests that thrive in our green suburbs: possums, crows and the like. The bush turkey that regularly visits our Brisbane garden loves to uproot anything edible. Possums eat our potted chilli bush with unfathomable (and happily unseen) results. But perhaps it's time to think of adding that other ingredient, human ingenuity, to the mixture of resource use. A reservoir of quiet innovation exists in suburbia. We discount it at our peril.
The suburbs are often wrongly miscast as anti-environmental, which is ironic, as Australian environmentalism was conceived and hatched there. There is plenty of evidence that the environmental sensibility remains, slumbering perhaps, but ready like all sleepers to be awakened by the right cause. Think of the stunningly effective response of suburbanites in South-East Queensland during the terrible drought of 2000-07, which took our third-largest conurbation to the edge of possibility. With resolute state and municipal leadership, householders were able to reduce per-capita water use to the lowest levels in the developed world, and crisis was averted. As my Griffith University colleague Geoff Woolcock points out, the suburbs rescued the situation. We may now ponder the legacy of this and other responses to urban water crises in Australia. Many residential properties have adapted permanently to the need for water conservation. Tens of thousands (more?) of households now have independent access to on-site tank water. This must amass to a substantial new catchment capacity in the cities. Presently it's used to keep lawns green and roses blooming, but it could easily service a new suburban food endeavour.
We've been there before. In fact, until relatively recently, our suburbs were highly productive food regions. In simpler times, the dictate of self-sufficiency was carefully maintained. The Queensland sociologist Patrick Mullins demonstrated that even up until the 1960s, a very substantial proportion of produce consumed in the cities came from suburban backyards: chooks, vegies, fruit that became preserves and jam. And the rest was mostly sourced from the immediate hinterlands of the cities.
In Harvest of the Suburbs (UWA Publishing, 2006), Andrea Gaynor documents the long history of suburban self-sufficiency. Labour was often divided along gender lines: dad tended the vegie plot and the fruit trees, and mum the chooks. In times of stress – such as war or depression – the suburban soil was tilled harder, and with great success. We were not unique. James Lovelock recalls that in Britain during World War II, ‘a great surprise...was the discovery that the output of food per acre was four times greater in gardens and on allotments than it was on farms'.
Another argument in favour of suburban agriculture is the need to de-carbonise food. We need to radically reduce food miles to reduce the energy used by the economy. We must, in short, stop burning the food before it reaches our mouths. A low-carb(on) diet must become the norm, not a fad.
The suburbs beckon a new, comprehensive makeover which will make them fit for food production. This means dispensing with those unbending critiques of suburbia which neglect its vast latent potential to aid climate adaptation and social resilience. The CSIRO's Ian Holmgren writes, ‘"Suburban sprawl" in fact gives us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients, and we live in ideal areas with mild climates, access to the sea, the city and inland country.'
Yet leadership is lacking. There is little discussion about cities, other than their role as the sites of ‘shovel ready' infrastructure projects. The states, which carry principal responsibility for urban management, have snookered themselves with inflexible visions of the compact city, freighted with much impotent anxiety about the ‘sprawling' suburbs overwhelming the food bowls that once marked the edges of the cities. At the municipal level, things are more promising but also patchy. Community gardens are flourishing, yet are unlikely to become a major source of food supply.
We need new metropolitan commissions to independently manage the cities, and guide us through the unfolding climate and resource crises. Such a model would be far removed from the venality and occasional villainy of state politics. It would develop a coherent approach to urban food production.
THERE ARE OTHER barriers to suburban agriculture that we must ponder. Given the new, diverse social structure of contemporary suburbia, we cannot simply return to the former system. Women are at work, not minding kids and chooks, and we all work more intensively these days. Who will tend the plots?
Perhaps part of the answer is to end our hand-wringing about population ageing and recognise the grey, and largely fit, army that might be willing to undertake a new type of gardening. Equally, food production in schools, as Stephanie Alexander has advocated – potentially tens of thousands of school gardens – would provide a new focus for education and involve children in nurturing and consuming healthy food.
There is a host of pesky sundries that have to be addressed: private-property rights, public-liability issues, health and safety concerns relating to non-organic produce, safe storage of water and the like. These details will bedevil us unless they are addressed through legislation, help for householders and, above all, municipal guidance. Councils should be the everyday managers of suburban food production, and provide community exchanges for the sale and trading of produce.
In generations past, quiet necessity brought the ‘harvest of the suburbs'. It ended with our brief flirtation with fantasy, when we believed ourselves utterly freed from Nature and released to the freeways of boundless gratification. A fire in the heavens now glowers over us. This is the real barbecue-stopper of our times.
We've tried running away from Nature for a long time, and look where it got us. It's time to come home and tidy up our own backyards. I'm certain that we'll be surprised and reassured by what's possible.