17 September 2012 – Urban sprawl and new government policies in NSW and Victoria are contributing to food insecurity and the looming food crisis.

In Victoria, the Baillieu government is preparing to extend suburban Melbourne to vegetable growing areas and relax rules around the subdivision of farmland. Victorian planning minister Matthew Mr Guy has revoked a regulation put in place by the previous Labor government that made it tougher for farmers to subdivide farmland for housing. Under Labor’s planning rule, any excision of land could not compromise the sustainable use of natural resources, including productive farmland. That’s gone now.

In New South Wales, the urban planning strategy has focused on developing established areas of Sydney but the O’Farrell Government has indicated its willingness to alter the development mix and fast track  supply of greenfield sites on Sydney’s fringes.

Coal seam gas is compounding the issue with the NSW’ government’s Strategic Regional Land Use Policy which gives the coal mining and coal seam gas industries the right to mine across the state. That would also affect food production.

The new rules do not quarantine any part of NSW from exploration or mining applications, despite the demands of farmers and conservationists.
While people talk about food security, there is a big push for energy security coming from the other direction thanks to rising fuel prices.

Coal seam gas provides energy security, plus it offers a big export opportunity for LNG Gas which will put gas into the stoves, heaters and hot-water services of Shanghai and Seoul. Australia will become a big player in that market.

At the same time, developers are expanding into new areas. So all up, we’re looking at a case of food security versus energy security and opportunities for developers.

It’s a critical issue. While climate change is getting all the press, food could become an even bigger problem.

In his book The Coming Famine Julian Cribb warns that we are headed towards global food shortages in the next 40 years because of scarcities of water, good land, energy, nutrients, technology, fish and, significantly, stable climates. You can add to that population growth, consumer demand and protectionist trade policies.

“The coming famine is also complex, because it is driven not by one or two, or even half a dozen factors but rather by the confluence of many large and profoundly intractable causes that tend to amplify one another,” Cribb writes. “This means that it cannot be easily remedied by ‘silver bullets’ in the form of technology, subsidies, or single-country policy changes, because of the synergetic character of the things that power it.”

Farmland is not so plentiful
The world is running out of farmland. Advanced farming depends entirely on fossil fuels likely to become scarce, supplies of nutrients for farming have peaked and fresh water resources are finite. With global warming, up to half the planet faces regular drought by the end of the century. Storms and the kinds of floods that have devastated Pakistan and Queensland are tipped to become more frequent and intense.

The planning changes we’re seeing now are compounding the problem. As human geography expert Jonathan Sobel told University of New South Wales magazine Tharunka:

“The nature of Sydney is that it’s in a basin surrounded by mountains and the vast majority of it is being paved over by suburbs. The most recent development in terms of the north west and south west corridors is actually going to pave over a significant proportion, something of the order of 50 per cent of existing market gardens, which produce about 90 per cent of Sydney’s fresh vegetable food.”

To this end, Federal Agricultural Minister Joe Ludwig released the National Food Plan which warns us that with the global population heading towards nine billion, world demand for food is going to increase by 77 per cent in 2050. The green paper outlines the main areas where new policies are needed, including exports, market access and land use, which takes in planning and councils.  It seeks input on a number of issues including land use, canvassing ways we can ensure Australia’s land is used sustainably, how competing land use interests are balanced, and how foreign investment reflects the national interest.

The Wall Street Journal reports, the Chinese are now targeting Australia’s food sector, its farms, from “gate to plate” as they seek to meet rising food demand at home and capture more expertise from Australia’s companies and farmers. All this comes at a time when interest in our resources sector is facing a slowdown because of what’s happening with commodity prices.At the same time, the Victorian Local Governance Association has put out a report demanding a bigger role for local government with municipal food security scans incorporated into Municipal Public Health Plans, Community Planning, Corporate Planning and Strategic Planning. Land use planning would also figure prominently.

“There is a need for more integrated, long-term planning for food security as core business for the whole of government,’’ the VLGA says.

What seems to make the problem is public apathy. As the rural media points out, a national survey conducted by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance found 60 per cent of people had not heard of the term “food security”. Indeed, they did not know even what it meant. It also found 65 per cent were not worried about the future of Australia’s food supplies over the next 50 years. That’s despite multiple threats posed by climate change, coal-seam gas exploration, increasing soil salinity and loss of farmland to urban sprawl.

So while the Gillard Government’s food plan is a step in the right direction, we have a situation where developers and the coal seam gas industry are pushing for more expansion, Australia is looking to attract overseas investment and people don’t seem to care one way or the other. The real test of that highly acclaimed food plan is yet to come.

Clearly what’s needed are changes in planning laws to create more food security. As professor of urban management and planning at Griffith University Paul Burton points out, we will need to start growing food inside the cities. That might mean changes to zoning rules.

“By growing more of our food within our cities and in their immediate peri-urban hinterlands we can become less dependent on these vulnerable supply lines,’’ Burton writes. “Urban agriculture takes many forms, from growing herbs on our balconies and veggies in our backyards through to small-scale but high-yielding commercial production on the urban fringe.

“It includes keeping animals such as chooks, goats, or bees as well as small-scale food processing and the recycling of food waste. Finally urban agriculture can involve new ways of and places for selling food, from farmers and producers-markets to food-swap meetings. It’s unlikely that we will see a major shift in the way that we buy most of our food, but these new local alternatives are becoming increasingly popular with an ever wider group of people, helping to build alternative supply lines and strengthening urban resilience.”

But he concedes there is a big problem here: competition for land use. And let’s be clear about one thing here, the stakes are high. Cities would change if we were to start growing our own. Planning and development opportunities would be transformed. The question is whether food insecurity will force us to do that.