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Urban solutions to drought-induced food price increase

By Russ Grayson - posted Thursday, 3 May 2007

Faced with drought and the likelihood of higher food prices, it is time for state and local government to protect the urban fringe farms that supply our cities and towns with fresh produce and to recognise the value of food production in urban gardens.

Food crises are something we think of happening in developing countries. Suddenly, it seems, Australia is looking at its very own food crisis.

Politicking around the Murray-Darling water crisis suddenly became national news in mid-April with Canberra’s announcement that water allocations to farmers could be cut if no substantial rains fall soon in the catchment.


A further tactic in Canberra’s attempt to wrest control of water from the states, the prospect of higher prices for fruit and vegetables as production falls, in a region that produces something like a third of the country’s food, became national news.

The news should not have seemed so sudden. Jim Salinger, lead author of the Australian section of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that Australia is a drying country and large areas of the south and south-east could face continued drying. Now, with 78 per cent of New South Wales in drought, Salinger’s prediction of a reduction in cropping area in the water-stressed Murray-Darling is coming true.

Up goes the carbon

To cope with the projected production shortfall in fruit and vegetables, the federal government claims that Australia may have to import food, a move that would increase agriculture’s contribution to global warming - its “food miles”. This an estimate of the energy embodied in food - known as “embodied energy” - that is based on the oil used to make agricultural chemical inputs combined with the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel oils consumed during the production and transportation of foods.

Given the prominence of global warming as a political issue, the potential for food imports to compensate for a drought-induced fruit and vegetable shortfall to become permanent, rather than stop gap, would be a questionable outcome.

The value of local

The drought and the possibility of higher food prices highlights the value of urban fringe agriculture to the food security of our cities.

If the drying trend continues, those city fringe market gardens, orchards and poultry farms are going to become even more important, making it imperative that state and local governments act now to ensure their survival against the pressures of urbanisation and to introduce policy that sustains their continued economic viability. For Australia, this is a strategic issue because it has the potential to influence public health and livelihoods.


Sydney is fortunate in that it sources much of its fresh vegetable supply from urban fringe market gardens. Even though this still-viable farming industry might cushion drought-induced vegetable price rises, prices are still likely to increase as demand exceeds supply nationally.

According to the advocacy and educational organisation, the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, on only 2.5 per cent of the state’s land surface, the Sydney Basin produces 90 per cent of the city’s perishable vegetables, 80 per cent of its mushroom supply and 33 per cent of its poultry on farms that are mostly family owned and operated and average only 40 hectares in size.

On this $1 billion a year agricultural base rests a food marketing, processing and distribution industry that employs about12,000 and is worth about $4.5 billion a year.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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