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Food and sustainability

Australia’s food bowels

Australia has a reputation for good weather, healthy lifestyles, fresh food and a high quality of living. Not least in its biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. However, growing urban sprawl around both cities, and associated high rents for agricultural land, are putting increased pressure on local farmers  . If left unchecked, this process could have negative implications for the quality of life of the cities’ inhabitants.



Agricultural land around Sydney currently produces around one fifth of the city’s food , while that around Melbourne can produce up to 41% of its needs. However, two recent studies--Sydney’s Food Futures  and Melbourne’s Food Future —found that this could alter dramatically if current trends are not reversed. 

The studies produce stark estimates of what current policies would lead to. For Sydney, these include that the area would lose 90% of its fresh vegetable production, 60% of its total food production, and that the Sydney basin would only be able to meet 6% of the area’s residents’ food needs, from 20% currently. In the case of Melbourne, the study predicts that the area would only be able to accommodate 18% of the city’s food needs by 2050.

The scale of the decline projected by the studies is quite dramatic. Although the food could be sourced elsewhere, this would mean transporting it over greater distances, and sacrificing freshness. At the heart of this lies the issue of food sustainability, which is addressed in the 2016 Food Sustainability Index(FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit  with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition. 


Local issues, national priorities 

The three pillars of the FSI – sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges and food loss and waste – all link to the debate about the future of agricultural production in Australia. Overall, the country came 8th out of the 25 countries measured in the FSI. This is one of the lowest rankings for a developed state, suggesting room for improvement. 

Even though Australia scores strongly on food waste and loss (ranked 2nd in the world), nutritional challenges were identified as a particular issue for the country. Australia ranks 16th in the nutritional challenges pillar, well below other developed countries such as France, Japan and South Korea. This suggests that a focus on healthy diet is a key priority for the country’s policymakers. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have warned about growing rates of obesity in Australia   with current figures indicating that 63% of adults are overweight or obese .

Ensuring a large amount of operational agricultural land close to major urban centres such as Sydney and Melbourne would help to tackle this issue. If urban sprawl continues to claim agricultural land, and the share of the city’s overall food needs supplied by local producers continues to decline, the amount that residents need to pay to eat a balanced, nutritious diet is likely to increase. Producing food close to market reduces transport costs, and negates the risk that higher energy prices will push up food prices. So-called “food deserts”—areas where there are very limited options for purchasing fresh food—are already reported to be quite common in Sydney, notably in the west of the city . In these areas, health problems related to a lack of fresh vegetables and fruit, such as type 2 diabetes, are more common. 

Nutritional centres 

Guaranteeing a stable supply of fresh goods close to major population centres is also central to curbing food loss levels (defined as the mass of food production intended for human consumption that is lost during the production, post-harvest and processing stages). Although Australia is a strong performer on this measure in the FSI, pushing agricultural production further away from population centres could change this. Food that has to be transported over greater distances is liable to suffer a higher rate of loss. This is particularly the case for perishable goods. If grown close to market, the loss from these products can be reduced .  In addition, transporting goods over greater distances means higher carbon emissions. 


Getting ahead

All is certainly not lost. The Sydney’s Food Futures project argues that there is still time for policymakers to protect agricultural land close to the city, and asserts that there are plenty of viable measures that policymakers could put in place to support this. Moreover, the study finds that sustainable strategies to integrate food production with other essential services could actually lead to an increase in food production in the area, and create jobs for local people. 

However, this will require a concerted effort from government. A key point of reference for policymakers could be the Milan Urban Policy Food Pact, signed by 138 cities in 2015 (including Melbourne, but not Sydney). The outcome is a plan aimed at reducing food waste, encouraging healthy eating, and ensuring the sustainable purchase of food in an urban context. 

More broadly, these issues are relevant to Australia’s commitment under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 . Six of the 17 SDGs deal specifically with issues related to food. In particular, SDG 3 (“to ensure health and well-being for all, at every stage of life”), SDG 12 (“to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”) and SDG 15 (“to promote, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems”) all have directly relevant implications for the urban sprawl and loss of agricultural land around major population centres.  

(this article has been published first on the blog http://foodsustainability.eiu.com/)
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