In the very early days of the colony of NSW the city of Sydney was dependant on the productivity of the land in the Sydney basin. The success of the colony relied on the abundance of the agricultural activities conducted in its early days. It wasn’t all beer and skittles – things were pretty dicey for the colonists for a while there – but the Sydney basin (which includes the land on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range all the way up to Newcastle and as far south as Batemans Bay) provided for their food and fibre needs.
Today residents of Sydney live with an abundance of food. After all, we live with the ability to walk into a supermarket at any time of the day (or night) and access a range of foods from all over the world. But how much of that food comes from the agricultural land around us? Well, it turns out not as much as you think.
How much local food do we have access to?
The Institute for Sustainable Futures conducted the Sydney Food Futures research project in 2015 that mapped the agricultural productivity of the of the land around Sydney and discovered that in 2011 Sydney produced about 20% of the city’s total demand for food. However, that could drop to just 6% of total demand by 2031 under current plans for the city. They have reported their findings in detail at a dedicated website and have created several maps that clearly demonstrate the projected decline. At the end of last year, I worked with them to explore what consumers felt about this.
You did what?!?!
I hit the streets! I stood outside a wide range of retailers and asked people as they emerged if they had time to chat about local agriculture. I conducted 19 interviews with a wide variety of people from urban, suburban and peri-urban areas. I was working on putting together a wider study into consumer attitudes. Even though the interviews I conducted aren’t a complete research project in themselves they still yielded some interesting information about how consumers think about local agriculture. Because I work with producer groups in the Sydney basin this is something that intrigues and fascinates me.
What does ‘local’ mean anyway?
I started every interview by asking people what they thought about local food, how they defined it and whether or not they looked for it. I found that most people were happy to define local as “from Australia” – largely because they trusted the health regulations in this country, but were unsure how safe food was from other countries. Although for two of the participants ‘local’ meant “my backyard”. One person was described a 100km limit and another defined local as NSW.
This term ‘local’ was a bit wobbly (like the term ‘organic) however several participants used the term ‘local’ and the term ‘healthy’ interchangeably. ‘Provenance’ and ‘terroir’ are fairly well known concepts in the area of food studies, but to truly advocate for local agriculture it’s important to find a common language around what local means in order to properly communicate.
This comment from a woman from Richmond may hold the key to communicating the benefits of growing food locally:
“It builds that culture of healthier food and healthier living – it’s a good thing to get kids involved in seeing how things grow.”
Agriculture is Green
There is no doubt there are environmental benefits to well managed agricultural land but many people thought that agriculture was literally green:
“Give us some lush greenery where we can get our fruit and veg.”
This comment from lady in suburban Sydney reflects that thinking. Although this view may reflect a bias towards the kind of agriculture practiced in the north west of Sydney (where most of my interviews took place), it was still clear that people who did not interact with agriculture did not realise that it could be noisy and smelly work. People’s lived experience shaped their expectations.
It is interesting to consider that when they think of agriculture consumers might be expecting an idealised form of horticulture. Although this may not be realistic, this type of agriculture does provide the foods (fresh fruits and vegetables) that we need to eat more of and import less of.
No one trusts the planning process
What a typically Sydney thing to discover! Overwhelmingly people thought that a decline in agricultural productivity was something the ‘government’ (rather than the private sector or developers) had to address. Some were in favour of a national strategy and others wanted state or local government solutions. But no one trusted the development process to bring about an outcome that protected agricultural land. Several raised the idea that protecting agriculture didn’t necessarily mean keeping the land use the same, and most saw that density in housing would be a trade off for keeping the land productive. But as one resident said:
“There’s no point in having cheap houses if you are paying more for food.”
At least two participants thought the decline in Sydney basin agriculture represented the natural evolution of the city. One retailer pointed out that it could be a good thing for country areas of NSW who would benefit from a decline in agriculture in the Sydney basin.
We (heart) farmers
There was strong support for farmers. I did conduct this research at a time just after the ‘milk wars’ had received significant media attention and this was evident from some of the comments that I heard regarding support for farmers. However, there was a strong feeling that emerged that farmers were doing good productive work and could do with financial support to be able to keep doing this.
What about you?
Do you see value in having food grown locally? Do you prioritise local food? I’d love to know your experience of food and farming. Share you thoughts on the Easy Green Recipes Facebook page!