This article was first published in the Palerang and District Bulletin, March/April 2008 edition, page 10.
Conventional farming is under pressure. A large proportion of Australia’s food producing areas are still in drought and facing continued water shortages, despite recent rainfalls. Climate change models predict that Australia’s dry conditions are likely to worsen over time, with more frequent El Niño events putting further stress on our water supplies. Add to that the increasing price of oil, and we may face a real potential threat to our food security.
Modern agriculture relies heavily on cheap oil to run farm machinery and for the production of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Many conventional agricultural practices also cause increased carbon dioxide emissions and are therefore a major contributor to climate change. Organic farming methods tend to be more sustainable up to the farm gate. Unfortunately, the relative environmental benefits evaporate when organic produce is shipped over long distances.
Food transport is a major source of oil consumption and CO2 emissions. In 1999 (the latest estimate available from the Department of Climate Change), agricultural transport accounted for approximately one quarter of total transport emissions in Australia. Current figures on Australian “food miles” are hard to come by, however, the Australian Conservation Foundation website quotes a number of international studies which highlight how typical everyday food items sold in our supermarkets will have travelled thousands of kilometres to reach your plate. No wonder then, that the rising oil price affects the cost of food on several fronts.
Luckily, food is also one of the areas where consumers can have a significant positive impact by making different choices. If you are keen to reduce the carbon footprint of your food, there is no easier way than becoming a “locavore”, that is somebody who mainly eats food which has been produced within a distance of a couple of hundred kilometres. It also means eating food that is in season. This may seem a strange concept to many of us as we have become so used to being able to buy everything all of the time.
However, this all-year round availability comes at a price, as the quality of many food items sold in large supermarket chains is compromised due to harvesting of unripe fruit and vegetables to extend the time they can survive being in transit from producer to consumer. Local seasonal food tends to be fresher, healthier and simply tastes better. We have forgotten how much joy there is in waiting in anticipation for the first fresh strawberries from the garden because we are used to having cardboard strawberries all year round in the shop. Or how wonderful it is to eat fresh asparagus while it is in season and then not touch another one until the next season comes around.
Growing your own vegetables can be the most efficient way to reduce the ecological footprint of your food. This is also the cheapest way of securing your own food supply. The Canberra Environment Centre (located at the corner of Lawson Crescent and Lennox Crossing on the Acton Peninsula, Canberra) runs introductory permaculture courses for those interested in learning more about setting up a water efficient and low impact food garden.
Farmers' markets and small local suppliers specialising in local produce are another great way to access the variety of food produced in your local area, and they are a wonderful way to get out and meet people.
There are a couple of dedicated farmers’ markets in our region, such as the Capital Region Farmers Market at the Exhibition Park in Canberra (held every Saturday from 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM) or the Wamboin Produce Market at the Wamboin Community Centre, Bingley Way, (held every third Saturday in the month from 9:00 AM to 12:00 noon, opening times may change in winter). Other regional markets also include stalls with fresh local produce.
A renewed focus on local food production is a good way to revitalise our communities, and the locavore movement has been gaining momentum overseas. The word "locavore" was chosen as the "2007 Word of the Year" by the Oxford American Dictionary.
Linda Cockburn, “Living the Good Life. How one family changed their world from their own backyard”, 2006
Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Our Year of Seasonal Eating”, 2007
Rosemary Morrow, “Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture”, 2nd edition, 2006.