There are a range of peri-urban stakeholders with competing – and sometimes conflicting interests. Creating food-resilient cities means addressing these stakeholder priorities, pressures and concerns.
- Farmers need viable commercial conditions, a fair price for commodities, land security and a social license to operate.
- Residents need access to affordable and safe housing, access to jobs and social services.
- Planners need to make informed decisions to balance competing land uses while considering population growth, transport, and other needs in the long term.
- Food consumers need access to nutritious, diverse, safe, traceable and affordable food.
- Land, water and air need to be protected from both urban and agricultural pollution.
- Waste and resource managers need to cost-effectively collect, transport and process the city’s water and organic waste for new markets, such as fertilisers or energy.
Rising land values, diminishing returns and external pressures such as restrictions on operations are making it harder for farmers in peri-urban areas to maintain their livelihoods.
Indeed, all over Australia, farmers are walking away from their properties – or, at worst, taking their own lives – due to a range of challenges, including drought and climate variability, that make it difficult for farms to to remain viable and support farming families. Further, the high average age of farmers, and the difficulties of entering the industry faced by the younger generation of farmers, means that the number of farmers in Australia continues to decline.
The ABS reports that there were 19,700 fewer farmers in Australia in 2011 than in 2006, a fall of 11% in just five years – many of whom were forced to leave the land due to drought. Over the 30 years to 2011, the number of farmers operating in Australia dropped by 106,200 (40%), equating to an average of 294 fewer farmers every month over that period.
Although drought and climate impacts are not currently compromising the viability of agriculture in the Sydney Basin, the number of farms and farmers operating in the region has declined significantly. While a variety of factors are influencing this decline, it is commonly thought that the pressure to convert land to ‘higher value’ uses in peri-urban areas has led to this exodus from farming (Butt, 2013). Contending with rising input costs such as increasing fuel and fertiliser prices, declining incomes pushed down by supermarket monopolies and pressures from neighbours to change practices, many farmers have capitalised upon the opportunity to fund their retirement or move out of the Basin by selling their land to developers for residential sub-division.
For those wishing to remain farmers, new challenges abound as they increasingly come into contact with new residents of adjacent sub-divisions who do not like the sounds and smells of their neighbouring farms. Such interactions have led to increasing tensions and restrictions upon farmers’ activities, impinging on their ability to operate profitably. These restrictions can cause serious stress on health and strain on finances of farmers, who may already be contending with other concerns.
The 2010-11 Agricultural Census found that there were 135,000 farm businesses across Australia. The skilled and knowledgeable farmers who work on these businesses are ageing, with the average age currently 52, according to the National Farmers’ Federation. As Australian farmers continue to age, we face a challenge related to the loss of skills, labour and experience – and also land, as many farmers who own property close to urban areas will be understandably tempted to sell off their property to fund retirement.
Recently, there has been increasing pressure for farmers to develop new activities for city-dwelling neighbours to access and experience farm life, such as pick-your-own-fruit events and farmers’ market participation. These ventures present additional opportunities for generating income, and may provide opportunities to revive the connection between urban populations and their food system. As local farm-to-city networks are lost, there is declining civic engagement in the regional agricultural economy. Establishing new agribusiness opportunities that bring the urban community to engage with peri-urban agriculture could prove fruitful in reinvigorating these connections.
To address tensions arising between farmers and new peri-urban residents, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has just released a Right to Farm policy which it is hoped will strengthen farmers social licence to operate.
Prior to moving peri-urban areas many such residents are unaware, however, that agricultural production can be a disruptive activity. With its tractors, trucks, smells and noise, agricultural production that has taken place in peri-urban areas for many generations is seen as a nuisance by new residents, many of whom move to peri-urban areas for the quiet rural lifestyle.
This issue has led to many conflicts about land use. Councils, torn between trying to appease new ratepayers and trying to support agricultural industries, have attempted to rectify such issues using restrictions on the operations of the farms adjacent to residential areas, including constraints on hours of operations, types of fertilisers used and the amount of noise generated.
Such constraints are, however, placing further restrictions upon an industry that sees many businesses become unprofitable due to declining returns and increasing input costs. Improved community engagement and education may be the key to resolving such conflicts, as well as collaborative conflict resolution strategies to mediate suitable solutions.
Opportunities abound to allow peri-urban residents and farmers and co-exist. Peri-urban residents can provide a market for locally-produced goods, with farmers markets and farm gate sales being potentially lucrative alternative sources of income for farmers. Further, with education and engagement to improve food system literacy of peri-urban residents, these community members could become important advocates for the protection of our peri-urban agricultural regions.
Land-use decisions are typically based on the principle of ‘highest and best use’, which often means residential development is prioritised over agriculture
However, planners are placed in a difficult position in deciding the future of our peri-urban areas. Firstly, strategic planners are charged with finding suitable space for employment and housing to meet the demands of our city’s growing population. In a city with a population expected to grow by around 30% over the next several decades, this is no mean feat.
Secondly, planners are often forced to be largely reactive in the ways that they shape cities. Planners are not forcibly resuming agricultural land to turn into housing – indeed, in NSW they would not be allowed to do so – rather, they are asked to consider applications for rezoning or subdivision on individual plots of land. Rather, farmers looking to retire or get out of marginal businesses apply for their land to be rezoned for residential sub-division, and planners are required to consider these applications. A criteria commonly used to determine whether the rezoning proposal is fair is to use the principle of ‘highest and best use’ which says that land should be allocated for whatever use will return the most valuable economic benefit. In a housing market such as Sydney’s, ‘highest and best use’ will very often translate to ‘residential development’.
Planners need more detailed information about the potential impacts of the loss of agricultural production in the Sydney Basin in order to make informed decisions about the rezoning and development of peri-urban land. However, more needs to be done to ensure that agricultural land is viable and supported, to prevent farmers from subdividing land to get out of unprofitable businesses.
Food consumers are an important part of a sustainable food system, through the impacts (social, environmental, political, cultural and economic) of the choices they make, and the advocacy they may undertake.
However, many food consumers lack knowledge about how food gets from the farm to the dinner table and the implications that arise from this process. Food literacy, a term once used only to refer to knowledge regarding nutrition and food skills, is now used to encompasses this knowledge of where and how food is produced, who can access it (and who can’t), the implications of which food we choose to purchase, and what happens to it when we are finished with it. Increasing consumers’ food literacy arms them with the knowledge and skills to make positive food choices, increasing the sustainability and resilience of Australia’s food system.
Some food consumers are currently losers within the current food system, lacking access to affordable, healthy food, which can lead to health problems. For example, research has found incidence of households experiencing food insecurity ranges from 20%-50% in different low-income areas of Sydney. Food insecurity is an important determinant of population health. An inability to meet nutritional requirements can seriously compromise adults’ health and well-being and children’s development; a poor diet is estimated to contribute to at least 10% of the burden of disease in Australia. For some Sydney residents, an inability to access sufficient healthy food is a significant dimension of the social and economic disadvantage they experience. Local food systems have the potential to substantially increase the availability of fresh, healthy food as distance to market is a key determinant of the nutrient value of fresh food.
Opportunities exist to educate food consumers about the food life cycle and Australian food system generally, but also the specific benefits of – and challenges facing – peri-urban agriculture. Building this broader conception of food literacy into traditionally nutrition-based programs, introducing food literacy into school education, and tapping into existing networks of food consumers are just some of the many possibilities.
In addition to increasing consumers’ broad understanding of food systems, it is also necessary to provide the specific information that consumers need to make individual choices. For example, in order for consumers to choose local food, the traceability of food products need to be improved. Food labelling is one area where specific improvements can be made, at first voluntarily, and where required, through regulation. For example, the new country of origin labelling requirements will provide consumers with more information about whether and how much of their food is made in Australia compared to overseas. This has the potential for further developments to include regional information.