Food in the age of unsettlement

I HAVE THREE personas: designer-educator, sustainment theorist and forest farmer. The farmer came first. My grandfather was a market gardener who taught me to grow vegetables before I went to school. More than half a century later, I'm still doing it. The garden at our farm on the ranges of southern Queensland supplies the kitchen all year round and produces commercial quantities of sweet potatoes, chillies and wild hibiscus.

The wild hibiscus is a thread connecting much of what I have to say here. It comes from Africa, where it is known as karkade. It is a deep-rooted plant able to survive with little rain. In countries such as Sudan, it's a staple: the deep magenta calyx, the bit that looks deceptively like a flower, is dried to make a soft drink and tea high in vitamin C; the leaves are used as a salad base; the seeds are ground for flour; the stems are dried and used as kindling. It is sustainability realised.

Around the world, wild hibiscus is used in herbal teas, and many Australians are familiar with it as rosella jam. More recently, the calyx has been bottled in syrup and used, like cassis, to turn champagne pink. Most of our crop goes to market, but we also supply the Sudanese community in Toowoomba with dried calyx.

What I teach, the things I design, what I think about and where I work: all are connected, and all address sustainability.


TO BE SUSTAINED, to sustain others and the world around us depends on creating and maintaining sources of nourishment. For many people in the developed world, this is assumed. For most people in Timor-Leste and the rest of the developing world, gaining nourishment – by growing it, trying to find work to earn money to buy it, or simply stealing it – is a struggle every single day. Somehow, global food problems never get sufficient recognition. As soon as a big issue comes along – climate change, the global economic crisis or the so-called war on terror – it is pushed into the background, yet food security is embedded in these and many other issues.

It has been estimated by Josette Shearan, the head of the UN World Food Program, that to feed the projected global population of more than nine billion by 2050, food production will have to double. Climate change and increased global tensions are likely to produce huge increases in the number of displaced people searching for food. The food riots in more than forty countries in 2008 were a glimpse of a likely future.

By 2009, according to United Nations figures, more than a billion people were hungry – more than ever before – with greater than two-thirds of them living in the Asia-Pacific. Despite epidemics of obesity in many countries, the annual global per-capita intake of food is decreasing. The more agriculture is ‘liberalised' in a ‘free-market' system, the more ‘high-return' crops are grown, the more food prices rise and the more people go hungry. When you ‘live' on one dollar a day or less, as most of these hungry people do, even a small price increase can make the difference between a meal a day and a meal every other day.

Working in Timor-Leste, you see the reality of these facts in so many ways. You encounter so many malnourished people on the street every day; note the arrival of the Red Cross hospital ships sent, in part, as a response to the nation's enormous infant mortality rate (not least due to the unavailability of food, especially in some of the rural areas); and you are aware of families getting up in the early hours of the morning to work to earn a few additional cents before starting their lowly paid ‘day job'. Working in Timor-Leste, I see these problems compound: irregular meals, combined with a poor diet, result in a weak immune system and increased susceptibility to disease.

That a nation may be rapidly industrialising does not mean all, or even most, of its population is well fed. Vandana Shiva – the physicist, author, director of the Research Foundation on Science, Technology and Ecology, vice-president of Slow Food International and chair of an international commission on the future of food – notes that there are more hungry people in India than in Africa. Although India has enjoyed more than 9 per cent growth in GDP, half its children have severe malnutrition. About half these children will die before they turn five. The global financial crisis further reduced incomes and increased unemployment. Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, estimated that it increased the number of hungry people by about a hundred million. Echoing Malthus, he sees in food shortages a ‘serious risk for world peace and security'.


THERE IS NOT just lack of food, but insufficient money to buy it. Hunger and poverty cannot be separated. As the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote nearly forty years ago: ‘Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilisation.'

World food prices are likely to continue to rise, and to take a terrible toll. It is estimated that in the three years to 2006, two hundred thousand Indian farmers took their own lives (some by drinking insecticide) as high seed prices, indebtedness and political pressures – driven by market liberalisation, and the need for greater productivity and profit – pushed them beyond despair. The farmers borrowed money to buy expensive high-yield seed, rainfall was low and crops failed. Many farmers lost their land as a result, but not their debt.

Many poor nations prioritise earning foreign exchange over responding to local food needs. Negative economic and ecological forces are set to converge, and inequity is expected to worsen. There is a crisis of cultivation, especially in the developed world. The cost of food production continues to increase, while investment in research and development declines and agricultural profit margins shrink. This drives down wages in developing countries where industrialised agribusinesses prevails – and climate change is likely to worsen the situation.

Climate change isn't simply linear, cause and effect; it is a complex set of relational processes. The atmospheric life of greenhouse gases is long – even if emissions are significantly reduced in this century, the problem will remain for a long time. Deep ocean temperatures play a major role in the global climate system, acting as a thermostat, and influencing ocean currents and weather patterns, and would take a long time to change. Global warming is reducing soil moisture; increasing evaporation means that more rain is required to recharge the soil to support viable levels for cropping, and deep-rooted plants succumb to stress and become more vulnerable.

Traditional and sustainable farming practices retain soil moisture by maintaining the soil in good condition and reducing the exposure of broken soil to the sun. Industrial agriculture demands increased productivity, and relies on irrigation to retain soil moisture. As a result, it can require up to ten times more water to produce the same amount of food as ecological farming practices. Agricultural irrigation demands large dams, alteration of river flows and groundwater mining, with adverse ecological consequences.

The problems of industrial agriculture extend beyond its impact on the land. Dependence on large quantities of fertiliser and an extensive transport and distribution system requires a great deal of fossil-fuel-based energy. Agriculture is the second-biggest carbon emitter after road transport, representing between a quarter and a third of greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN estimates that a fifth of this can be attributed to the emissions required to feed and transport livestock, which consume almost half the world's grain production. As the American food writer Michael Pollan pointed out in his open letter to ‘farmer in chief' and President-Elect Barack Obama, in the New York Times of 12 October 2008: ‘When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis – a process based on making food energy from sunshine.'


THE REALITY OF this in a place like Timor-Leste is stark. The urban fabric is damaged and neglected, as is the infrastructure. Many power lines were removed as the Indonesians withdrew, and people reverted to cooking with wood. Poverty made this fuel the sole option. Consequently, the trees around towns and cities are stripped, some die and soil erosion sets in, topsoil is lost and the ability to grow food diminishes. Unsustainable agricultural practices are deeply embedded, which makes change slow and even generational.

Food has to be localised wherever possible, and economists need to factor in environmental costs along with traditional profits. As Vandana Shiva points out, ‘more than 25 per cent of climate instability is being caused by unsustainable farming'. When transportation and related industries are included, the figure increases to 35 or 40 per cent. Industrial agriculture ‘displaces small peasants, creates poverty and bad food'.

Ecologically responsive farming can address emissions, poverty and food quality, and provide significant employment opportunities – food production begs to become a major sustainable industry, including in nations where many people have abandoned the land. This should not mean a return to basic subsistence farming, but rather the co-operative development of sustainability by appropriate rotation and high-organic-matter farming methods that deliver a liveable income and quality food. The bias will need to shift from food processing to primary food production.

Although cities cover a mere 2 per cent of the planet's surface, they command nearly three-quarters of its extracted resources and are where most of the world's people now live. Almost all cities could produce much more of the food their residents need, better manage and utilise their organic waste and storm water, and more productively manage vegetation. According to the UN Development Program, in the past twelve years urban food production has more than doubled, and now accounts for almost a third of the world's food production. Necessity, not choice, has driven this. It is a response to inadequate, unreliable and irregular access, a lack of purchasing power or employment.

The situation is global: in greater Bangkok, nearly two-thirds of the land mass is under cultivation, with almost three-quarters of the population involved in growing food, mostly in their spare time. Figures are similar in Moscow and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that two-thirds of urban and peri-urban households in developing countries are involved in urban agriculture, a trend that benefits women and children, saving time and money and improving child health.

Timor-Leste is still underdeveloped – there are scraggy chickens, pigs and goats everywhere. Some urban food crops are grown, but not many: much more could be produced. Urban agriculture needs to be a part of the nation's urban regeneration.


WHILE SUBURBAN FOOD production in the developed world tends to be dominated by ‘alternative culture', it is not a marginal issue for most of the world's people. Urban food production has been the subject of a world summit, global forums, numerous international round tables and declarations, as well as countless events concerned with organic waste and water usage, resources and conservation. It is supported by government and non-government organisations and research centres worldwide, has a considerable body of literature, and is serviced by a number of dedicated websites and publications – not least the substantial Netherlands-based Urban Agriculture Magazine, published three times a year in six languages.

In times of conflict, when a nation's food supply and security are under threat or restricted, food production, particularly urban food production, increases significantly. During World War II, food grown in backyards, public parks and urban wastelands provided much of the food for the population at home in Britain, the US, Australia and other countries. If that method were applied today, it would drive an enormous amount of land use toward horticultural innovation. Vertical farming, which combines intensive methods such as hydroponics with the surface-area cultivation of certain crops on multi-storey buildings, is already underway.

Initiatives like this could make cities better, healthier and more sustainable places to live and work. Intensive urban agriculture is environmentally more sustainable, and can lead to positive urban development: it can generate small and large businesses, contribute to urban design, assist waste management, consolidate and build community, provide training and work opportunities for the unemployed, and improve health through increased exercise and better diet. It can also aid climate-change adaptation – green roofs reduce the heating of thermal mass, and a cooler city means a smaller energy load.

Urban agriculture can also contribute to developing the knowledge and skills that will assist in coping with unsettlement: a potentially powerful learning environment for the urban population from infancy to old age. (It would, though, need proper regulation and micro-management to prevent ‘green chaos' and cattle roaming the streets.) In the coming age of unsettlement, millions of people in cities around the world will be exposed to civil disorder and looking for food. If the patterns associated with climate change continue, where and how people work and live in the city will alter radically. Ultimately, the degree of destabilisation will be determined by how we plan to adapt, and how we act on those plans.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review