The Food Forest

(2011) Developing a national food plan

A submission to the Australian Government by Graham Brookman, The Food Forest, Aug 2011.

The development of a national food plan is a welcome initiative in a world with exponential population growth and a massive change in climate that threatens food security. The Government issues paper gave an interesting summary of where Australia has been in terms of food production but gave few insights into the way forward.

A food plan for our cities

  • Most Australians live in our capital cities so that is where Australia’s food security must be secured. Yet the cities are steadily covering the nation’s best agricultural land with single storey detached dwellings, roads and shopping centres.
  • Much of the population, particularly older Australians and the Y generation, are happy to live in apartments with very small footprints, including low rise developments. Adopting planning provisions encouraging such development and discouraging suburban sprawl would enable the densification of cities and help to create a viable and convenient public transport service and vastly improve community building, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions per head.
  • High quality communal greenspace can be provided in place of under-utilised front and back yards, garages and roads. Part of the greenspace would be dedicated to community gardens and urban orchards where recycled wastewater, compost from urban waste and facilitation from master gardeners enable interested residents to grow their own food and build community.
  • Storm water would be captured in rainwater tanks or in wetland parks where water is purified and injected into aquifers for later withdrawal and use for irrigation. This system captures high quality water that would have ultimately run into the sea, so reducing withdrawals from rivers and old aquifer water.With no help or encouragement from the Federal Government and with opposition from suburban developers this is already occurring in some local government areas. Salisbury Council, SA has significant expertise in waste water purification and aquifer storage and recharge (ASR) as well as facilitating composting.
  • In Australia over a thousand community gardens exist in which tens of thousands of Australians keep fit and provide themselves with food as well as building community. Many gardeners produce far more than they can consume themselves so community food swaps and weekend markets are being created across the suburbs.
  • National support for the community gardens movement should be provided such that state and local government, community garden coordinators and master gardeners can professionalise systems, increase gardening training and develop a network supported by appropriate waste and water recovery and public transport access
  • However the City of Adelaide has some 500 hectares of parklands immediately around the CBD, supplied with reticulated recycled water. Neither the land nor the water are used for food production. Many city residents are frustrated that they have no access to a patch of unshaded soil in which to grow vegetables and herbs.
  • A key aim of urban agriculture is to harness the immense capacity and willingness of millions of Australians to grow their own food.
  • It should be the right of all urban Australians to have reasonably convenient access to water and a piece of ground to grow food (there may well be nominal costs involved as per most community gardens).
  • Government at every level needs to have policy to encourage rational change to town planning such that the town’s own ‘waste’ water and nutrients go back into producing the town’s food.
  • It is true that more water will be shed from a city than can be used for food growing inside that city and that is why protected agricultural areas need to be established in peri-urban areas for the efficient utilisation of waste nutrients and water from the city (see my submission to the SA Government).
  • The city of Edmonton (Canada) recovers phosphorus and nitrogen as a concentrated fertiliser from its sewerage whilst Australian sewerage operations encourage the gassing-off of P and N during treatment so waste water can be discharged into the sea without causing catastrophic perturbation to marine systems, (but also causing massive greenhouse gas emissions and wasting the nutrients that could have gone back into food production).
  • Funding should be made available to improve the efficiency and recovery rates of sewerage treatment facilities and to design facilities that can be placed in strategic locations around cities to provide peri-urban farms and urban food production with sustainable inputs.
  • A significant percentage of Adelaide’s green waste is composted and reused in agriculture but most of it is transported inordinate distances to composting facilities and then to farms remote from the city.
  • All the city’s vegetable and fruit production input needs can theoretically be met by recycling the city’s nutrients and waste.
  • Funding should be made available to improve the efficiency and the recovery rates of the waste composting cycle.
  • Food produced near the city can be efficiently delivered to farmers markets which have the potential to return its full selling price to the producer rather than the small percentage paid by the major food retailers and their buying agents. This has the potential to return financial viability to farmers. Just one of the hundreds of farmers markets in Australia, The Adelaide Showground Farmers Market gives more than 120 food producers an opportunity to sell direct to the public and currently turns over more than $8M. It also attracts food tourists from around the world.
  • The Victorian Government has realised that it can reinject viability to regional areas by promoting the development of these markets and has provided some $6M over a 4 year period to this purpose. Other state governments have virtually ignored the movement and local governments generally make no provision for markets in their planning.
  • Important spin-offs of farmers markets include greenhouse gas abatement, fresh food and community building.
  • The federal government should provide a framework to assist the development of farmers markets nationally.
  • Australia’s university training of agriculture and production horticulture students (as distinct from agricultural scientists) has plummeted to well under 200 per year and the number of jobs for people with agricultural skills which remain unfilled or are filled by people with no appropriate training has risen to 100,000. The situation is critical in rural areas and national productivity is being lost..
  • Governments need to immediately create agricultural research, teaching and extension positions to provide encouragement for young people to consider agriculture as a career.
  • Given the price of Australian land and gross margins achievable in our unprotected agricultural system it is impossible for most young people to buy farm land. If Australia is to have a viable farming culture it must support young entrants to the industry or face a future of agricultural instability, foreign land ownership and lowered productivity. Canada has used the ultra low interest system of Landbank as well as agricultural subsidies and many other countries have systems to enable orderly renewal of land ownership.
  • It is time for the government to put its hands back on the wheel and model new economic devices to facilitate farmer renewal.
  • For those who think young people are not interested in food production it may be interesting to note that on any particular day there are some 20000 youngsters WWOOFing in Australia. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms and it is a labour exchange system used by most organic farmers and many conventional horticultural producers to get willing employees. WWOOFers are generally thought of as overseas visitors who are using the system to travel around Australia get daily accommodation, food and a local cultural experience in exchange for half a day’s work. But more and more young Australians are finding that it is the only way to gain the skills of organic growing in Australia and to be physically involved in sustainable food production.
  • It represents a massive vote of no confidence in the formal education system by the young people and in many cases an act of desperation by farmers to find affordable, willing workers.


'Business as usual' will end in the next decades, particularly when conventional oil supplies diminish and Australia can either wait to be forced into austerity measures that create misery and civil disobedience or get onto the front foot and create sustainable cities that can go a long way to feeding themselves and providing a lot of public open space and useful things for people to do at all levels of society.

Rural agriculture will need every bit of skill and youthful energy that can be brought to bear on the challenges that lie ahead.

A society that forgets agriculture has truly lost its way.

Schematic Model of a sustainable city

sustainable city diagram

Addressing some of the specific issues raised in the Government background paper for a national food plan

Food security

  • It has long been accepted by farmers and agricultural scientists that it is their role to feed as many people as need to be fed. This is clearly a faulty view which has led to the over-farming of delicate environments, contamination of vital food production resources and the repeat, on a global scale, of the self destruction of past civilisations in the middle east.
  • The key to sustainable occupation of the planet is the limitation of population growth and the ultimate acceptance of a steady state economic model.
  • The fact that the Murray River recently failed to flow into the sea for 2 years is a fair indication of how close Southern Australia is to flipping into food insecurity.
  • Australia has long been a big food exporter but Victoria is now a net food consumer and Australia is heading steadily toward a point where the value of food imports will regularly exceed exports. With the extraordinary levels of migration the government has allowed over the last decade and the fecundity of the current population, the tipping point of the country into food insecurity must be considered.
  • The dogma that international free trade will solve food insecurity has been proven to be faulty over centuries. Billions continue to starve while others die of obesity in a world with relatively free movement of food.
  • Desperate nations have shown that they are prepared to stop the export of food (despite market forces) to ensure that their populations don’t starve.
  • Rational policies are required to set environmentally sustainable population targets in a world that is no longer rich with unexplored frontiers; the planet is both finite and overpopulated given the technology and capacity for rational organisation that humans currently have at their disposal. The excellent scientific study 'Feeding the Ten Billion' by Lloyd Evans, Chief of Plant Industry with CSIRO for seven years, demonstrates empirically that the planet’s capacity to turn sunlight, water and nutrients into food cannot sustainably continue to feed the World’s current population, let alone the projected population at the end of this century. Since he wrote the book climate change has moved faster than was predicted and it is likely that Australia’s food production systems will be so perturbed that our food production will drop significantly. The demolition of the national grape harvest last season is a good example of how a subtle change of climate can render an entire perennial cropping system unviable. The change in winter chill will make and apple production in most current production areas within a few decades.
  • The fact of peak oil is also likely to make agricultural production unviable in large areas of Australia, where crop yields per litre of fuel and fertiliser are low.
  • A ‘business as usual’ approach extrapolating from ABARE figures is not prudent.
  • The whole food system needs rethinking and massive effort needs to go into rebuilding the skills of our agricultural producers such that the nation can remain domestically food-secure in a world likely to be racked by extreme weather events, inevitable climate change and geopolitical insecurity.

A nutritious and safe food supply meeting consumer needs

  • Consumers are in fact being ignored when they tell the Government what food they want or need. They say that they need to know what is in the food they buy. Is it too hard to put the truth on labels? Is the Government too much influenced by the big players in the food industry to make this happen or does it feel that consumers are all too stupid to understand and make judgments about food production systems?
  • The European Union has thought through these issues and I recommend adopting their new labeling system.
  • Clear food labeling with full disclosure of all ingredients including any GE ingredients needs to be mandated by government
  • Australia has been one of the dogmatic supporters of genetic engineering and has poured an inordinate amount of effort and funding into GE research for 20 years with no discernible payoff. Normal plant breeding has almost ground to a halt as funds have been withdrawn or diverted, leaving profit-driven companies to determine the future of food. A return to breeding food without GE will avoid many long term health problems that are showing up in populations that consume GE food which contains high levels of substances (generated within GE plants) that act against insects, fungi and bacteria. Some acute health effects of GE foods will also be avoided. Plant breeders using GE foods with unnatural quantities of various vitamins could get back to producing a wide range of productive, well adapted natural foods from which people can construct full and healthy diets.
  • Publicly funded plant and animal breeders should be collecting genetic resources from across the globe to produce new breeds and varieties that will allow Australia to adapt its agriculture to a changing climate. An example would be to produce new pistachio cultivars that can flower normally despite our warming winter temperatures. As a pistachio grower facing the unviability of cultivars available in (a rapidly warming) Australia I will be happy to purchase some.

A competitive, productive and efficient food industry

  • The free market dogma has given Australia the duopoly of Woolworths and Coles who have driven farmers from the land by reducing profit margins for producers to miniscule levels and requiring them to use every technical device available to maximise yields. The average commercial broccoli crop grown during warm weather in the Adelaide Hills is sprayed with biocides approximately 30 times to meet the cosmetic standards of the supermarkets. Yet the few farmers who survive, producing food that is of dubious health benefit and at high environmental cost, still draw modest incomes. Imported food gives no relief from this pattern as the same players dominate the field.
  • The rise and rise of farmers markets globally (some 700 farmers markets exist in California) demonstrates the dissatisfaction of the public with the food monopolies and their old, over-packaged, environmentally expensive food and their contemptuous treatment of food producers.
  • Regulation of the food industry by governments has failed to deliver a healthy industry for consumers or food producers. The average farmer is now approaching 60 years of age and carries a debt of almost half a million dollars. Rural communities are losing hospitals, schools, football clubs and confidence.
  • Governments have also failed to maintain orderly urban development to protect productive land and have allowed uncontrolled speculative buying of land by overseas investors, driving up land prices and destroying the fragile rural communities that have long provided employment, food and export income.
  • As transport, the building of roads and costs of fertiliser become more expensive through the exhaustion of cheap oil supplies it will become more important to produce food in and close to cities. This will require policy changes in the zoning of land particularly at the local and state government level.
  • Research and innovation and extension in organic farming practices (that are compatible with urban locations) should be seriously funded.
  • Where there is ambiguity about the potential for future urban development on rural land, speculators (often absentee owners) will drive land prices too high for viable farming, and often leave the land idle. There are many examples from the USA and Europe showing the effectiveness of agricultural ‘preserves’. These issues should be incorporated into planning as a matter of urgency at national state and local government levels
  • Protected agricultural areas should be declared to keep our best agricultural land and most viable rural communities intact.


  • Protection of the agricultural environment is being progressively compromised, particularly by allowing more imported raw foods into Australia. Each new pest or disease that arrives destroys the livings of farmers by increasing production costs and reducing production. Cheap imports also reduce farm viability and compromise the development of sustainable seasonal cuisine.
  • AQIS is severely under-resourced and has let a stream of pests and diseases into Australia over the last 10 years. Just one recent arrival, the Asian honeybee, has the potential to destroy 50% of the nation’s food crops through displacement and weakening of European bee colonies. The bee will destroy our honey industry and has already lost the nation its capacity to export bees to the USA. As an island Australia has the opportunity to enforce quarantine and enjoy the massive advantages of freedom from destructive pests and diseases.
  • Permission to import foods and other goods that compromise our biosecurity should be withdrawn and AQIS systems should be significantly boosted.

Sustainable food industry

  • There is no point in the Government propping up regional communities with occasional grant schemes or hardship benefits if the national economic settings are destroying agricultural viability. Almost half of the farm families in the country remain solvent only through extremely long work hours, frugal living and the dedication of one of the partners to earning the entire living for the family off-farm. Farmers and lobbyists complained loudly enough about their terms of trade through the 90’s to convince urban people that there were no careers in agriculture and very few farmers were encouraging their children to return to the farm. They were sent away to uni to study anything other than ‘ag’. High rates of farm suicides and accidents have continued and there is virtually no farm voice left in the public perception.
  • Today, despite the ageing of their parents, the children of farm families have continued to stay away from food production and a life devoid of financial reward. There is no point in printing glossy brochures about ‘careers in farming’ unless the economics are changed. Farmers in Australia are still not competing on a level playing field internationally and rather than take up the insulting Government exit packages offered during the drought ‘just die on the job’.
  • Just to give an idea of the direct subsidies other western farmers receive, full time American farmers averaged $AUS75B (over $150,000 per farm) and European farmers almost $AUS60B (over $AUS100,000 per farm); there are also a range of other embedded subsidies in the economic framework of these jurisdictions.
  • Farmers are unable to afford reasonable wages and conditions for employees because of the lack of profitability in their businesses. A new approach to engage Australians in growing their own food is required rather than going down the pathway of creating subcultures of ‘guest workers’ who fail to integrate into the Australian culture and ultimately become a sub-class with a capacity to cause civil problems.
  • Dryland salting, erosion, stubble burning, exhaustion of water resources, over-fishing, clearing of bushland and extinction of species are all encouraged by poor economic settings and lack of policies for landscape maintenance.
  • Prices for virtually all farm inputs will rise under the carbon tax and the viability of any ‘carbon farming’ scheme is unknown
  • Australia’s simplistic attitude to the rural economy is surely due for serious thought.
  • Social and economic models around the world should be considered in adopting wise domestic and international social and economic models for a sustainable food future. Scandinavian systems are well developed.

Maximising the benefits of trade

  • While Australia’s economy relies heavily on exporting non-renewable minerals and coal (for people in other countries to burn or refine), agriculture seems like a very minor player in our economy but if the Government really wants to talk about environmental and long term economic sustainability, agriculture becomes a totally vital and massively important part of a sustainable economic future both domestically and in international trade.
  • If our governments allow agriculture to languish under one-sided ‘free trade agreements’ and exploitation by retail giants, closes research centres and allows the university sector to essentially shut down the teaching of agriculture the economy will be in poor shape when the mining sector strikes hard times again.