October 26, 2015 1.29pm AEDT

If you’ve eaten any of the new season’s asparagus recently, it probably came from Koo Wee Rup, a small town 60 kilometres to the south east of Melbourne. Koo Wee Rup produces over 90% of Australia’s asparagus. The region has perfect conditions for asparagus growing, and its ancient peaty soils have a reputation for producing some of the best asparagus in the world.

Koo Wee Rup is just one of many food growing areas on the urban fringe of Australia’s state capitals that make an important contribution to the nation’s fresh food supply. The foodbowls on the fringe of cities like Sydney and Melbourne are some of the most highly productive agricultural regions in Australia.

But as these cities expand to accommodate rapidly growing populations, fertile farmland on the city fringe is at risk due to urban sprawl.

Melbourne Foodbowl at 7 million infographic Foodprint Melbourne project

Melbourne’s foodprint

Early findings from a new study of food production on Melbourne’s city fringe highlight the impact that continued urban sprawl could have on the supply of fresh, local foods in Australia’s cities. The Foodprint Melbourne project is investigating the capacity of Melbourne’s city fringe foodbowl to feed the population of Greater Melbourne.

The research explores the capacity of Melbourne’s foodbowl to feed the current population of 4.4 million and the predicted future population of around 7 million in 2050. The project also investigates the city’s “foodprint” – the amount of land, water and energy required to feed the city, as well as associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Early project findings indicate that Melbourne’s foodbowl currently has the capacity to supply a significant proportion of Greater Melbourne’s food needs across a wide variety of foods, including poultry, eggs, red meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables. The city’s foodbowl can supply just over 40% of the food needed to feed Greater Melbourne, including over 80% of the fresh vegetables consumed and around 13% of fruit.

However, we can’t be certain exactly how much of this food is currently consumed in Melbourne, because food freight isn’t tracked within the state or between Victoria and other states.

Food in 2050

By 2050, 60% more food will be needed to feed a population of around 7 million in Greater Melbourne, but if the city continues to sprawl at its current rate, then it is likely to lose a significant amount of farmland, and the city’s foodbowl will only be able to meet around 18% of the city’s food needs, including just 21% of the fresh vegetables consumed and 3% of fruit.

One of the long term impacts of this loss of capacity in Melbourne’s foodbowl is likely to be higher food prices, due to the increased costs of transporting and cooling foods over longer distances. Many of the foods produced on the city fringe are highly perishable – foods such as leafy greens, broccoli, mushrooms and berry fruits. These foods have historically been grown in market gardens on the city fringe close to consumers, and they require energy-intensive refrigerated transportation to reduce spoilage.

Another likely impact of reduced capacity in the city’s foodbowl is increasing vulnerability in Melbourne’s food supply. Both global and local food supplies are becoming more volatile, with significant impacts from climate change. Droughts, storms and floods are increasingly likely to affect our food supply. To maintain a stable and resilient food supply in the future, cities need to have the capacity to source fresh foods locally, as well from national and global sources.

Eat local

Australia produces a large surplus of some types of foods, exporting around 60% of all food produced. Australia has an enviable capacity for food production, but our perception of the nation as a land of plenty masks vulnerabilities in future food supply.

Less than 10% of Australia’s land is suitable for agriculture, and only a small proportion of this land has the type of soil and water access that is appropriate for growing fruit and vegetables. Much of it is on the coastal fringe of Australia around our major cities.

As Australia’s cities expand to accommodate rapidly growing populations, urban sprawl could mean that locally grown fruit and vegetables become scarcer in future. Cities such as Melbourne and Sydney need to plan now for how to feed their growing populations by introducing measures to protect their urban fringe foodbowls.

One of the ways that we can all contribute to protecting our city foodbowls is by buying from the producers who farm there, what Michael Pollan calls “eating the view”. It can be difficult to know where fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are from, but farmers markets and local vegetable box schemes offer a way of buying locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Foodprint Melbourne is a joint project between the Victorian Eco-Innovation Laboratory at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University. These early project findings have been released as an infographic, and a full report will be made available in November 2015. For more information, see the project website.

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  • Perhaps...but the savagery of Coal Sea Gas industry suggests that if there's a bigger buck in it, land and what it grows does not matter...nor do the people who inhabit it.

    George Bender's recent suicide underscores how serious and tragic this fight is. We won't  be able to stop the developers taking up fertile soil unless we can Lock the Gate.

    I don't think it is a population problem so much but a planning, transport and profiteering one. Just as the major players sign up for CSG, they also commit to untrammeled development.

    The irony is that those who seek a 'tree change' often times serve as the front line colonisers of the urban sprawl that follows in their footsteps. 

    In the seventies Bracken Ridge was a rural hamlet before becoming the fastest growing suburb in Australia. Thereafter, Harvey Bay took over the mantle for a time...In the eighties the Goss government embraced the migration from the southern states and rejigged development protocols to house , what he called, 'rust belt refugees'.  

    The primary shift in Qld population was from interstate migration.

    Bye bye Redlands land.

    Sydney stretches to the Blue Mountains. Melbourne to Ballarat. Brisbane to the NSW border and beyond. Ninbin is now a suburb of Coolangatta.

    In the seventies and into the eighties people came north because Queensland housing land was cheap as it was a city surrounded by undeveloped farm land close in. Why stay where you are and be brutalised by a larger mortgage?  

    Cast you mind over the suburban architecture as you consider the Brisbane built up landscape. Pre-war.(West End) Fifties (Northgate)...Sixties (Banyo)...seventies (Chermside) suburbs and then BANG! New burbs one after the other. While Joh Bjelke Petersen keenly sponsored the developers (eg: the Gold Coast) -- especially in terms of the CBD. What has followed since has been a massive industry without planned infrastructure. 

    A great example is the new Brisbane airport which drowned wetlands and a township (Cribb Island) but allowed the building height in the Brisbane CBD to rise. (In the early 80s the SGIO tower was still the tallest thing in Brisbane and you could see the townhall from most spots in the city.) Then with its re-location, the new airport sentenced an array of burbs to its flight paths  and noise corridors...but the CBD went up and up and up...and still a good portion of it is unoccupied

    At the same time no train line was built to the Gold Coast for yonks,and the southern urban train lines weren't connected to the northern network until the 1980s. Today the new trainlink being built to Redcliffe is a speculators' wet dream. In comparison the line to Shorncliffe was built and extended(from Northgate) in the 1890s...despite a few hundred along its route.

    • When the lease runs out on the Brisbane airport they can build a fast train to Amberly and move the Air force further inland  and build on the airport which is some of the best land next to the bay  move the city center there and they will have a cruise ship terminal in Brisbane. 

      • Hypothetically...but as the dispute my township is having with the the local council -- MBRC -- suggests, with sea level rise the airport land will be inundated. If you check the storm surge maps a lot of settled Brisbane is going to be drowned, at least very occasionally,  before the end of the century. The rate of sea level rise may vary but it doesn't look good.

        So that 'limit to growth' is being factored in and with current re-zoning in play, councils are being forced to withdraw low lying land from a development option.

        Aside from along the coastline, consider the Brisbane River valley...In that mix, is the option of flash flooding at any contour -- such as what happened around here on May 1st this year. 5 people drowned and there was massive traffic chaos. 15 kilometres inland.  Incredible disarray . 

        In that mix, probably due to earthworks for the new Redcliffe train line -- a section of Deception Bay  that had never drowned before, quickly flooded. 

        You'd have to call this a crisis -- even an emergency -- not only in terms of housing but support infrastructure...and transport.

        Relocating the airport -- necessary as it will prove to be -- also leads to issues as the ongoing dispute in Sydney over Badgerys Creek relocation indicates.

        We've been setting up a evacuation centre at the local school as part of a disaster management plan..and the sick joke is that fortunately when push comes to wet shove, we'll have the school garden on hand to feed the refugees! 

        Here folk are very aware about how far any section of land is above sea level. It's beginning to effect some peeps' insurance premiums.

        And lo! who backs the biggest coal mine build in the world?

        • Redcliffe train line why did they not elevate the line and protect the environment like you see in US.Like when they built the gateway bridge   over the golf course at Eagle Farm.

      • You may live to see it Jeff and I hope that you do! Sounds eminently sensible. Cribbie might have been pensioner's paradise but there was a lot of food grown on that flood plain I believe which is now under tarmac and concrete.

  • Why don't governments disallow developments on fertile land? Especially where there have been a history of productive market gardens. One such place is in Brisbane is Redland Bay. The land is incredibly productive and it's loss to housing will be tragic. There are lots of places where development can take place where growing anything is difficult. I know from experience that the shallow infertile soils around the south of Logan would be no loss to gardening. We have over 5 acres, but keeping even 1 horse in food in dry times is impossible without supplementary feeding. The land is very poor, but certainly suitable for housing, where the concentration of efforts in small housing blocks would be achievable. Areas like Sunnybank, Calamvale, and Mt. Gravatt which have great soil and used to be market gardens have long since been built out. Surely governments should have the foresight and intestinal fortitude to ban such places from any use but agriculture.  

    I know that most members live north of Brisbane and I'm sure that you can all identify similar poor and rich soil areas on your side of the city. Areas which should be treated according to their farming value. Once the land is built on we have to go further and further out for growing and food miles comes into play. As well as a lack of rain away from the coast.

    It seems common sense to me but when the almighty dollar is at stake common sense seems to be left behind in it's wake.

    • You're right about common sense, Roger! Foresight is something we are better at as 20-20 hindsight (or speaking personally anyway). The foresight of earlier councils which made the major roads around Redcliffe 4 lanes - it's unheard of anywhere else in Brisbane. I never cease to marvel at them when driving down Klingner, Mcdonnell, Victoria and associated roads.

      We in Australia often suffer from the 'there's plenty of land' syndrome. Look at the map, 20 million people and 'of course' there's plenty of land. In theory. Big trap for people overseas not knowing the conditions here is to suspect there's buckets of land for everyone. Big trap for Councils when 'developers' come knocking. 'Developers' should be re-named 'Destroyers'. Yet all of us live on land once bush even farmland was once bush.

      In 20-20 hindsight, growers should have been (and should still be) compensated for excessive rates to encourage them to stay and farm. Yet the farmers may see their land as their superannuation and who could blame them.

      I've spent most of the 50+ years I have lived in Brisbane on the south side. I know some of it quite well especially Redlands which even had its own cannery. We sat back and tut-tutted, no one did anything to stop it back in the late 60s-early 70s when the carving up of Redlands started. It's 'Salami tactics': a 'slice at a time'. You don't see what's happening until most of the land is gone to housing and roads.

      Community gardens are a start as is our own backyard farming. Other larger-scale solutions such as vertical growing, roof-gardens and the like will be needed to take up the shortfall of local food. And who knows if that will be enough, anyway.

      • Totally agree Elaine, I believe that generally people do not live in the same house for a long time anymore, same goes with land.  Our land and house has been in this family since early 1950's, in the days where everyone knew everyone.  They all had vegie gardens out the back and fruit to share around, chooks and pets.  This property was an original very productive farm and was reported in newspapers around 1900 as being a large farming area.  Unfortunately most of the old residents have sold out and property developers have swarmed in on the large blocks, quickly split them up and removed the old and put in new, usually 2 houses on each block.  The area is now being developed closeby into units.   These farms supplied pineapples for canneries in the area e.g. Butt's cannery and we had Huttons Bacon factory nearby.  The Carseldine area had another fruit and jam cannery.  The big Northgate Cannery is no longer what it was.  This seems to be the future for us, but I strongly believe that the government should proclaim certain areas as food bowls and prevent their demise.

  • A problem for all of Australia and the entire world. We need to slow population growth. Reverse the trend of taking more land for houses. Grow more food at home.

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