Posts Tagged ‘ agriculture ’

Issue 110: Feeding Sydney

January/February 2010
Author: Christine Paul

The University of Western Sydney, in association with the UWS Hawkesbury Foundation, recently held its inaugural Hawkesbury Conference where the focus was on challenges that major world population hubs like Sydney face. Against a background of dwindling agricultural land and water supplies, increasing pressure is also being placed on farming systems – what, if any, are the solutions?

Recently, the NSW Government announced the release of 800 hectares of employment land in Western Sydney to create the Western Sydney Employment Area with a capacity for up to 16,500 jobs and expected to eventually accommodate some 40,000 workers. The initiative is touted as a great benefit for people living in Western Sydney and the north-west and south-west growth centres.

However, not all reaction to the news has been positive with critics claiming that the initiative will result in even more pressure on Sydney Basin’s capacity by taking away already diminishing agricultural resources.

‘Feeding Sydney’ was the topic of talks at the recent one-day interactive conference, held at the Hawkesbury campus of the University of Western Sydney (UWS).

Held at the University of Western Sydney, the conference attracted attendees from a wide range of academic and industry backgrounds.

Talks at the conference focused on the issues and challenges facing major population hubs around the world at a time when available agricultural land and water supplies are declining and there is increasing pressure regarding sustainability of farming systems.

A mix of academic and industry professionals also explored possible alternative food supply options together with issues of food security.

Professor Phillip O’Neill (L), Director of UWS Urban Research Centre spoke at the conference as did Dr Gavin Ramsay from UWS Hawkesbury Foundation.

Speakers at the conference included National Water Commissioner Chris Davis (centre) advisor to Federal Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong.

Professor Bill Bellotti, Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development UWS spoke at the conference, agreeing with Professor O’Neill that, based on food alone, it might be reasonable to conclude that agriculture in the Sydney Basin is insignificant.

Speakers included Professor Bill Bellotti, Vincent Fairfax Chair in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development UWS; Chris Davis, Commissioner of the National Water Commission; Professor Phillip O’Neill , Director Urban Research Centre UWS; Tristan Harris, G.M. Buying and Marketing, Harris Farm Markets; Mark Kable, Agricultural Director, Harvest Moon, Tasmania’s fresh vegetable specialists; John Webster, National Chief Executive, Foodbank Australia; and Dr Gavin Ramsay, Associate Head, School of Natural Sciences and Senior Lecturer in Rural Systems and Development UWS.

A grower’s and supplier’s panel discussion also provided a real world insight into the issues associated with the supply side of the equation.

Food security
Food security is determined by the food supply in a community, and whether people have adequate resources and skills to acquire and use (access) that food (NSW Health, 2003).

In the first plenary at the conference, Dr Gavin Ramsay gave a sobering overview of a possible future global scenario in his paper – Feeding the world: Pipe Dream or Possibility?

“The head of the international Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that if food prices remain high, there will be war and other dire consequence for people in many developing countries,” Dr Ramsay said.

He added that the problem could also create trade imbalances that would impact major advanced economies, so it is not only a humanitarian question.

“The issue of food security is growing. China is eyeing overseas land in a push to secure more growing areas for food. Chinese companies will be encouraged to buy farmland abroad, particularly in Africa and South America to help guarantee food security, under a plan being considered by Beijing,” Dr Ramsay said.

“Saudi Arabia is doing a similar thing. According to information from Pakistan Ministry of Agriculture, currently Saudi Arabia is in talks with Pakistan to lease an area of farmland nearly twice the size of Hong Kong in a bid to ensure food security.”

Dr Ramsay also pointed out that Gulf Arab states are heavily reliant on food imports and, spurred on by a spike in prices of basic commodities, have raced to buy farmland in developing nations to guarantee supplies.

In his paper at the conference – Feeding Sydney: A Secure Future for Food? – Professor Bill Bellotti also talked of the “unprecedented uncertainty and complexity surrounding our agrifood systems.”

“The future challenge will be to produce more food from a shrinking resource base with less GHG emissions. But can we do it?” he asked.

“Food security is becoming a huge issue across the globe, including here in Australia. A recent study revealed that 22% of households in disadvantaged localities in Sydney experienced times when they ran out of food and the money to purchase more. Also according to figures from Foodbank Australia, a million children don’t get enough to eat so this is an alarming food security issue right here,” Professor Bellotti said.

Dr Ramsay explored the question of why food is such “a big deal”.

“The world’s population is growing, people are eating more food and often more expensive food (especially animal products). More expensive food uses more resources to produce,” he said.

“We also have to look at the nature of food. More than nutrition, it’s also about vitality and health. It’s also an incredibly important element in social activity. Then of course, it’s also very important for social status, for example, dining in an expensive restaurant shows others you can afford to.

“Also another important element is equity. In western society we eat differently from other parts of the world. We eat, for example, much more processed food and have much more resources available to us than in other parts of the world, particularly in Third World Countries so we’re talking about equity here,” he said.

Dr Ramsay cited several influencing factors responsible for the current world food crisis.

“Firstly, the climate seems to be changing. We are also running out of oil and are turning to biofuel production, effectively turning food producing land into land for houses,” he said.

“We are also destroying agricultural land due to inappropriate practices and we are running short of fresh water.”

In his paper Dr Ramsay also outlined the controlling factors behind the current international food system.

“Features of the system are that it is controlled by both public and private interests and a limited number of companies. It is controlled by the wealthy and is very production focused,” he said.

“Most of world’s population growth is occurring in urban areas of poor countries. These people are very food insecure – they can’t grow their own food. On top of this we are seeing huge changes in the patterns of food consumption, with a massive increase in the consumption of meat.”

Poor get poorer
“Many poorer countries are moving to become net importers of food not exporters. The number of food emergencies is also increasing from 14% to 27% in 2008. Resultant effects of these factors are that the poor and the vulnerable are hit even harder. In the areas I’ve worked in South Africa over 60% of the head of households were girls age 12. Most of this is due to the effects of HIV,” Dr Ramsay said.

“By 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet. What then are the implications for feeding tomorrow’s populations?

“All countries cannot be net importers of food. In fact, there are more countries than ever changing from being net exporters to net importers of food, therefore there will be an uneven distribution of food. Some will have too much, some too little.

“Those with too little will generally live in countries with poor governance and this has political ramifications as hungry, dissatisfied people are more vulnerable to political pressures and this will lead to a series of civil disturbances etc,” he said.

“If we cannot distribute food according to our needs now, will we be able to in 2050?

“In terms of food security, rich people (countries) who control resources (and manage them appropriately) are more likely to be food secure – but it is not guaranteed if they need to import food. However, poor people (especially the urban poor), will simply have no food security,” he said.

In his closing remarks, Dr Ramsay addressed his opening question of whether or not we can feed the world.

“It’s a possibility but it’s very much in the pipedream category,” he concluded.

Sydney’s food value chain
According to recent statistics, Sydney will grow from 4.2 million to 5.3 million people by 2030. These extra 1.1 million people will require 640,000 new dwellings with 160,000 of these to be built in the new north-west and south-west growth centres. Outside the growth centres another 60,000 dwellings will be constructed on greenfields lands. Then there is land needed for employment, which involves another 7,500 hectares.

In short, urban growth in Sydney has a large footprint.

“Beyond 2031 we know Sydney will continue to grow. Another million people by 2050 will mean a city in excess of 6 million people, which is large by developed world standards. And there may well be more after that. But these uncertain numbers are pretty much irrelevant,” said Professor Phillip O’Neill who presented his talk – Sydney’s food value chain: A discussion paper – to the Hawkesbury Foundation Conference.

Head of the Urban Research Centre (URC) at UWS, Professor O’Neill said the purpose of his paper at the conference was to “explore what we know about Sydney’s food value chain”.

“While some implications are drawn, its main purpose is to provide a knowledge base for further discussion and analysis,” he said.

“What we know is that Sydney’s food supply system and the basin’s agricultural lands are currently in crisis. The problem is that we know little detail about the crisis, its dimensions, its stakeholders, its impacts and its consequences. What we do know, however, is that there is alarming inattention by governments to the issue, let alone there being policies in the public domain for us to engage with.”

Professor O’Neill said that the task had been hampered by a marked lack of available data on the subject.

“We know little about Sydney’s food supply system. The Urban Research Centre has systematically tried to assemble the story of the task of feeding 4.2 million Sydneysiders. But it has proved difficult,” he said.

“The pertinent question for us to ask today is why was this task left to a group like ours to undertake without funding for labour or data? This neglect by government of basic information gathering is inexcusable.”

According to Professor O’Neill, in 2006, there were just 6,300 agricultural jobs in the Sydney Basin.

“They are located where you would expect, on Sydney’s NW and SW plains and along the orchard and poultry districts of the Central Coast,” he said. “The NSW Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 1,000 vegetable farms left in the basin. The ABS estimates these produce 43% of NSW vegetable production (by value). Poultry producers are also significant, contributing 42% of NSW poultry meat output and 48% of its eggs. Mushroom growers are responsible for close to 100% of NSW fungi supplies.

“But that’s about it. In total, Sydney’s agricultural output is just 8.5% of the value of our state’s total agricultural output, and under 2% of the nation’s total. In other words, aside from selected higher value fresh vegetables, and poultry and mushrooms, the Sydney Basin’s contribution to Sydney’s food needs is as meagre as it could be before you would describe it as insignificant,” he said.

“When the growth centres and other greenfields lands are transferred to urban uses, the NSW Department of Agriculture surveys show that 52% of the basin’s remaining vegetable farms will be eliminated. When this happens, then the basin’s agricultural significance – at least in its present format – will be lost forever, after just 221 years of white man’s custodianship.”

During his talk – Feeding Sydney: A Secure Future? – Professor Bill Bellotti gave an illustration of the farm gate value of agriculture in the Sydney Basin.

“As we can see the farm gate value of agriculture is around $1m with poultry, vegetables and cut flowers accounting for the top production values in the area,” he said.

“Sydney imports more than 85% of its vegetable requirements,” Professor Bellotti said. “And only 3-5 % of our average food energy consumption is produced in the Sydney Basin.”

Professor Bellotti agreed with Professor O’Neill that, based on food alone, it might be reasonable to conclude that agriculture in the Sydney Basin is insignificant.

“However, this does not account for environmental, aesthetic, recreational, and educational values, which are important.

“When community development benefits are valued, a different answer emerges,” he said.

“In terms of irrigation in the Sydney Basin (around 8000 hectares plus) there are competing claims on land and water where farmers are shifting to non-food options, which are more profitable and carry less risk,” Professor Bellotti said.

Freshwater consumption in NSW 2004-05

“Water for irrigation is already scarce, and will become scarcer in the future. So the question is should we prioritise allocation of land and water resources to food?”

In his paper – Feeding Sydney: the Water Question, Commissioner of the National Water Commission, Chris Davies, told the conference that it’s probably going to get drier, and water for irrigation is going to be hotly contested.

He made several recommendations as to the best future management of Sydney’s water resources.

“In the case of irrigation for agriculture in and around Sydney, river and dam allocations will be resolved through WSPs,” he said.

“Recycled water has to be used close to its source, nutrients should be left in water, where possible and urine separation is worth looking at.

“Small-scale irrigated agriculture is possible where sewer mining is permitted from decentralised schemes. Also opportunistically, rainwater or stormwater can be collected,” he said.

Despite the challenges for agriculture in the Sydney Basin, in food and beverage manufacturing, Professor O’Neill said that the food value chain is looking very healthy.

“Here we find over 30,000 jobs, 4000 in beverages (juices, soft drinks and beer mostly) and 25,600 in food manufacturing,” he said.

Food retail
Turning to the food retail sector, Professor O’Neill gave an overview of the major factors at play.

“There are 57,000 food retail workers in Sydney. Retailing jobs follow the population, especially the suburbanised population, especially in the suburbanised malls in and among the suburbanised population, like at Castle Hill, Warringah, Miranda and Penrith. But everywhere else too,” he said.

“Four sub-sectors account for 93.000 jobs, exactly one half of all Sydney’s food jobs: growing food, manufacturing food and drink, and retailing. Remember, just 6,300 of these jobs are in agriculture, producing less than 3% of the value added along Sydney’s food chain.”

Household consumption
“The concentration of employment in food services is reflected in what Sydney households spend their food money on. The standout spending category for Sydney households is meals eaten out and take away food. The next largest spending category is alcoholic beverages. Together these two categories constitute 38% of total household food and beverage consumption, or about 36 times what Sydney spends on its own fresh vegetable output,” Professor O’Neill said.

One implication of our spending so heavily on the higher value added food products and services – that is, where the actual food content makes us an increasingly small portion of what you buy – is that for the overwhelming majority of Sydney households, consuming fresh vegetables grown in Sydney is not an affordability issue. Rather, we choose, or are led, to buy food in other forms.

Professor O’Neill summed up his presentation, emphasising some major points:

“Clearly, Sydney-sourced fresh food attracts a meagre share of value flows in Sydney’s food economy. Sydney’s fresh food agriculture is threatened not only from diminished access to land and water resources, but also from its poor leverage over food industry value creation and distribution and poor leverage over Sydney households’ food spending patterns,” he said.

“Secondly, in the food market, agriculture has little market power and little capacity for competitive returns. But in the residential land market the food agriculturalist has significant market power and enormous capacity for high returns. Locked out of the food value chain, land-owning farmers instead choose, or are led, to the extraordinary gains available from selling rural lands to those who convert them to urban use.

“Much can be gained in understanding by analysing the food chain in terms of it being a competition between powerful players for the substantial consumer dollars on offer”, he said.

“That said, there is also much to be gained in understanding the food chain by analysing household consumption expenditure and householder food consumption habits. Sydney households in general are not poor. Their potential market power is enormous.”

Future scenarios
Professor Bellotti outlined three strategies for meeting future demands of population growth on Sydney’s food supply.

“The first scenario is the “Passive: Go with the Metro Strategy”. Following this strategy would lead to a further concentration of our food supply chains into a few major corporates and a loss of connection between food consumers and food producers,” he explained.

“Producers would also be forced into a global or national market, receiving low profit margins.

“The second is what I term the “Activist” strategy, which covers many different grassroots community movements,” he said.

“Basically, an activist rejects conventional agriculture, often striving for a high degree of food self-sufficiency.”

A third future scenario is the “Deliberate” strategy.

“This is where food security is taken seriously,” Professor Bellotti said. “It would involve a nationwide coordinated response to the challenge of food security.

“This strategy requires actions at all levels of society from national, state, local government levels to corporate Australia, communities and individuals,” he said.

Of the three strategies outlined, this one provides the best solutions to creating a healthy environment, farms, food and people and is underpinned by an integrated policy, science and practice.

“Food is the great integrator – healthy ecosystems are linked with healthy farms, healthy food and healthy people,” Professor Bellotti said.

“Government at all levels will focus on future food security (supply, access, affordability) while food consumers will be a driving force for change.

“We need to shift from being passive to becoming active food citizens – a citizen who not only has a voice in how their food is produced, but who also may be active in producing, purchasing and preparing their food,” he said.

“Part of this shift would see a strengthening of the relationship between food consumers and food producers, more direct food supply chains and a greater recognition by urban populations of their dependence on rural communities to supply their food needs.”

Issue 97: Floral arms race seduces insects

November/December – 2007
Author: Anne Gaskett

During National Science Week, ANNE GASKETT reported compelling evidence that native Australian orchids use their colour, shape and fragrance to seduce male insects. Her ground-breaking research has important implications for the control of agricultural pests.

Australian orchids are engaged in an arms race, using sensory overload to seduce male insects. Macquarie University PhD student Anne Gaskett has discovered just how they do it. Her work is important to the conservation of orchids and the control of economically important agricultural pests.

Gaskett has been analysing the smells, colours and shapes of flowers from an insect’s perspective. She has found that orchids mimic female insects so well that male insects cannot resist mating with them and accidentally ferrying pollen from plant to plant.

“I have accumulated the first compelling evidence of an ongoing and escalating arms race between orchids and their unwitting insect pollinators,” Gaskett explains.

“Over generations the insects learn to avoid having sex with orchids, and this means only the most persuasive orchids reproduce, which drives the acceleration of orchid subterfuge.”

The Australian bush is rife with such sexual deception, Gaskett says, as native orchids lure pollinators with false promises of romance.

Gaskett has been studying the hardworking orchid dupe wasp (Lissopimpla excelsa), which is fooled into copulating with not just one, but five native tongue orchid species (Cryptostylis) in urban and regional Australia. All the tongue orchid species mimic the female dupe wasp, but to the human eye they look quite different.

By using modern technology to study the physics of the colours of the orchids and the female insects, Gaskett has revealed that they are identical when viewed by male insects. The flowers are also shaped to mimic female insect bodies.

To the human eyes the female wasp looks orange and black and the orchids are pink, maroon and orange-red. However, receptors in human and wasp eyes are very different. Unlike humans, wasps see ultraviolet light. When Gaskett used a spectrometer to study the wavelengths of light reflected from orchids and female wasps, she was amazed to find they were virtually identical.

“The smell is the most important thing for attracting the insect,” she said. “But the colours say this is the source of that alluring fragrance.”

Gaskett is now looking at the impact of the chemical components of orchid perfumes directly on wasp antennae, to understand what makes these fragrances irresistible.

“The key to the orchids’ success is bombarding young male wasps with an extremely compelling sensory overload of irresistible sex signals,” Gaskett explains.

Studying these intimate interactions addresses big questions about nature and evolution and highlights the millions of other unknown interactions crucial for a sustainable and healthy environment.

“These insects might be fools for love, but their role as orchid pollinators makes them indispensable.”

Gaskett’s next step will be to analyse the seductive orchid bouquets to discover which elements mimic the female wasp pheromones.

So what led Anne Gasket down this research path?
“I’ve always enjoyed getting out and investigating nature,” said Gaskett. “In the past, I’ve focused on animals, studying projects such as Antarctic fish diet around Macquarie Island, and spider mating and sex pheromones.

“When I was designing my PhD research I wanted to expand into botany and learn lab techniques useful for applied research in the future. I wanted a topic that would involve local community groups and enthusiasts plus travel and fieldwork opportunities, and avoid nocturnal animals – I didn’t want to be up all night!

“Studying orchids suited all these requirements and since Australia has most of the world’s sexually deceptive orchids, I thought I was well placed to use local native plants to discover interesting results with some global impact,” she said.

To study the orchids’ scents, Gaskett borrowed techniques from agricultural studies for identifying pest insects, usually very specific sex pheromones.

“If you can identify and make synthetic versions of the pheromones, you can use it as bait to trap male insects so they can’t reproduce or get into the crops,” she said.

The identification procedure is called gas chromatography – electro-antennography. It involves sampling the scent of an orchid, or a female of a pest species, and using gas chromatography to break the scent down into its separate components.

“You attach an antenna from the orchid-visiting insect or pest species so that as the scent is separated, it also blows across the antenna. You can detect when the antenna’s chemoreceptors fire and, therefore, which components are attractive to the insect,” Gaskett explains.

“I’ve used this project as an opportunity to promote and improve my skills with these techniques so the future might see me working in a much more applied capacity.”

Gaskett was one of 16 early-career scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. Her work has been funded for three years by a 2005 American Orchid Society Fellowship.

For further information contact:
Anne Gaskett
Ph: 0401 009 328

About Fresh Science
Fresh Science is a national competition that identifies new and interesting research being done by early-career scientists around the country. Their stories are released to the media before, during and after National Science Week, which was held in August.

Sixteen scientists were selected from more than 80 nominations. They were flown to Melbourne for a day of media training after which they presented their work to the media, school students, the general public, scientists, government and industry over the course of three days.

Described by some as a boot camp in science communication, previous Fresh Scientists have attracted national and international interest resulting in hundreds of media stories, including national television news. Details of previous winners, their press releases and media coverage can be seen on the Fresh Science website.

Now in its 10th year, Fresh Science is a national event, which brings together scientists, the media and the public. It is designed to:
– Enhance reporting of Australian science
– Highlight and encourage debate on the role of science in Australian society
– Provide role models for the next generation of Australian scientists.

If you are a scientist who was awarded a PhD less than five years ago, have a significant peer-reviewed scientific achievement and think you can tell an interesting story in everyday language, then check out the selection criteria on the Fresh Science website for the 2008 Fresh Science competition.