re-localising food production

Climate change imperatives, water intensity and re-localisation of agriculture (2008).

Cam Walker

I was once cornered by a climate sceptic, who proceeded to tell me, at great length, that global warming was just an invention by us ‘watermelons’ because it gave us a way to scare people into accepting our green Stalinist agenda.

It’s a great conspiracy theory, and on one level it has an element of truth, but not in the way he meant. As global warming bears down on us, and as the science firms up around the fact that we will need to make dramatic reductions in our greenhouse emissions now, it is true to say that everything needs to be reconsidered, and that society must be re-formed, with sustainability at the core of our decision-making processes. At present we are still in the ‘tinkering’ phase, where techno-fixes, market-based solutions, behaviour change and weak international treaties are considered the main game.

There is a dominant thread in the climate change debate that sees a greener ‘business-as-usual’ approach as the solution, helped along by friendly companies, emissions trading, carbon offsets, ‘clean’ coal, ‘greenhouse friendly’ nukes and green consumerism. Those who are thinking more deeply are realising that we have moved past the business-as-usual phase, that yes, it does happen to be an emergency, and we need to profoundly re-assess almost everything we do. This includes the obvious things like energy production, energy efficiency and urban form (sprawling cities like Melbourne force most people to rely on cars), but also less obvious ones like our food production systems.

There are two key elements in any serious response to climate change: mitigation (achieving cuts in our greenhouse emissions) and adaptation, sometimes called resilience building (increasing our capacity to respond to the climatic changes that are coming). A growing body of evidence shows that diverse agricultural systems are more likely to cope with climate change than simplified industrial monocultures. One vivid example of this comes from 1998, when Hurricane Mitch ripped through Latin America. The countries with highly simplified agriculture, where commodities grown for export dominate the economy — like Honduras, which provides bananas and similar crops for North American consumers — were devastated. In contrast, diverse agricultural systems generally survive major weather events far more successfully.

In Australia agriculture has high exposure to the impacts of climate change, particularly in regions like the Murray Darling Basin, central Queensland and south-western Western Australia. The Australian government has acknowledged this threat and recently released the National Agriculture and Climate Change Action Plan 2006–2009, which looks into how to develop adaptation strategies to build resilience into agricultural systems. This begs the question of what well-adapted farming might look like.

There are many angles we can take when it comes to considering food production. Apart from climate change, there is the growing power of multinational food producers and sellers and resulting impacts on farmers and consumers; questions of fair trade; the peak oil phenomenon; water stress on a dry continent; and more. In Melbourne there is continuous debate around urban form, and the state government has tried to reign in sprawl through its 2030 document, although it recently released another large tract of land to unsustainable fringe sprawl. This policy approach of containment within an urban growth boundary is under relentless and growing pressure, squeezed between nimby-ites, people not coping with increased housing densities, property developers, at least one of the daily papers, and the Opposition. By and large, the green movement is silent on the issue, yet it should be one of the major supporters of sensitive urban infill and consolidation.

It is clear we must stop sprawl. Climate change, peak oil, social amenity, and loss of farmland, open space and remnant vegetation are all good reasons to do so. However, another significant aspect of urban form that is missing from the State government’s ‘2030’ vision is that of food production. While there have been a number of recent media stories about the rising costs of food, few commentators are drawing the link back to climate change. Once we also consider the phenomena of peak oil — that is, dwindling fossil fuel supplies — and the danger that a simple shift to bio-fuels will impact on food prices as these fuels start to compete for land, any debate of urban form must consider food security.

For the reasons above, we need to move towards a food economy based largely on seasonal, locally produced food. Eating local is definitely good for you, local farmers, your environment and your community. And one way of understanding the need for this shift comes from considering the ‘food miles’ of the products we consume.

The report Food Miles in Australia: A Preliminary Study of Melbourne, Victoria estimates the distances travelled for food items found in a typical Melburnian’s shopping basket and the resulting greenhouse emissions from this transportation. It reveals that food items with ingredients sourced from overseas, such as sausages, baked beans or tea, have seen more of the world than most people. In fact, the report estimates that the total distance travelled by twenty-nine of our most common food items is 70,803 kilometres, nearly twice the distance of the earth’s circumference. In the last issue of Arena Magazine Anthony O’Donnell wisely warned about placing too much emphasis on the idea of food miles alone. Yet there are sound ecological principles behind the idea of aiming to buy local. While we may be able to ‘back fill’ flights with freight, thereby reducing the ecological costs of moving food around the globe, this is also missing a fairly profound point — that we need to fly less, not find other ways to prop up an entirely unsustainable system of air travel.

As a general rule, as we start to support local production, we will help in the creation of thriving and diverse agriculture. There are so many dimensions to this: it might include community-supported agriculture, where consumers develop mutually beneficial relationships with farmers, with the flow-on effects of a developing sense of regional cuisine. We are already seeing this through the ‘slow foods’ movement. Diverse agriculture under local control, where farmers get a decent return for their labour, is more likely to be able to respond to the changed conditions that will come with global warming. Farmland becomes something of social not than just economic value, and hence less likely to be easily lost to continued urban fringe sprawl.

There is another aspect of agriculture that will also have to be considered before we develop truly sustainable food systems — water. Agriculture is responsible for 66 per cent of water use in Victoria. Some products require a lot more irrigation than others. In an environment with such scarce supplies of water as Australia it may be necessary to begin to label products for their relative water intensity. That way, every time we shop we will be able to judge products for their water intensity and compare producers’ water use practices. The label would take into account both the average water intensity of a product and a producer’s individual water use efficiency. This would encourage farmers to improve their irrigation practices for the water intensive products they are already growing, as well as to switch to growing foods that require less water. It would also give consumers considerable power to minimise their impacts and support water efficient farmers.

The idea of water intensity highlights the point made by Anthony in the last Arena: that we should not over rely on simplistic notions in the hope of achieving sustainable agriculture. To take one example to highlight the complexity of making sustainable personal choices: if we drink alcohol there is an argument that, on water intensity grounds, we should choose beer over wine. However, on average, beer consumes more actual land compared with grapes. So, it comes back to the basic common sense approach: buy organic and local where you can, and think through the implications of the other impacts that come with the product — who gets the profits, is it fairly traded, is it in season, is the packaging reusable, and so on. This all comes back to the fact that, despite our desire for simple and clear solutions to the environmental mess we find ourselves in, actually achieving just and sustainable systems of production will go far beyond a simple understanding of food miles or a ‘green tick’ on a product label.


Cam Walker is campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne. For information, including a ‘water intensity eating guide’, see the Friends of the Earth website: <>.


See also Food Miles in Australia: A Preliminary Study of Melbourne, Victoria, by Asha Bee Abraham and Sophie Gaballa, CERES.


Published in Arena magazine, April 2008


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