Pure, unadulterated laziness—some would say it’s human nature. It’s hitting snooze on an early morning and finally collecting the motivation to write an opinion piece almost on deadline. Laziness is harmless, right?
But then “industrial fatalism” is thrown into the mix. Simply put, industrial fatalism is laziness. Not simply put, it’s an attitude that accepts as politically or economically inevitable the complete degradation or erosion of something or somewhere. When industrial fatalism and say the urban displacement of Sydney’s agriculture are put together, we arrive at an attitude that it’s too hard, it’s too difficult to keep agriculture within the Sydney Basin.
An academic team from the University of Technology, Sydney recently looked into the pollution of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River by agricultural chemicals. They narrowed in on the “responsible” agencies and what they were doing about it. Now, I put “responsible” in quotation marks because what they found was, although the different government agencies’ responsibilities were set out on paper, very little measurement or monitoring was going on. Dr Roel Plant, who co-wrote the article, attributes it to the problem’s position. “There is a general sense that this farming region is at the very fringe of urban Sydney which will eventually be subsumed by urbanisation.” Basically, the government and populace are too lazy to halt it.
Retaining our urban agriculture is of economic, social and strategic importance. It’s one of the State’s food bowls, producing seven per cent of agriculture in NSW on one per cent of its agricultural land. It provides 90 per cent of Sydney’s perishable vegetables, as well as a large proportion of our mushrooms, poultry and orchard-grown fruit. Urban agriculture contributes to a sustainable, food-secure city. And we’re not exactly food secure here in Sydney. Rather, an Australian National University survey revealed four per cent of Australians have been forced to turn to emergency food assistance. We’re struggling as is, so it’s a wonder how we’re going to fill the 1.3 million extra mouths projected for 2031.
It largely began in 1968. The Sydney Region Outline Plan wanted to downgrade Sydney’s agriculture to make way for housing. So Sydney’s growth corridors were established. Under Whitlam in the 70s, the Macarthur Growth Centre’s population increased by 40,000 alone—around and on top of existing agricultural land. For decades, housing was more important that the retainment of Sydney’s agriculture.
In the last decade there’s been some change. The 2010 Sydney Metro Plan establishes urban agriculture as something to be valued. Which is all well and good, until it simultaneously outlines that at current urban sprawl rates, we’d need to slate 850 square kilometres of land for housing, or half of the remaining non-urban, non-National Park land in the Sydney Basin. The government outlines it would like to spare 500 square kilometres from development, which is great but under the current say something, do nothing policy, is it achievable?
I say it is. Finding and implementing practical solutions may not be palatable to the NSW Government but they exist. A “Sydney Local Brand” would increase consumer demand in Sydney for local produce. It would thus pressure retailers to stock Sydney-grown food, bringing the dollars back to our farmers.
Sydney orchadist Ed Biel proposes another idea—the creation of an “Agricultural Enterprise Credits Scheme.” The scheme would reward farmers for producing food in Sydney with development credits. Developers can then purchase these credits to increase the size of already approved developments. Farmers get more profit; developers get more profit. It’s a win-win. Or a win-win-win—the average Sydneysider benefits from access to more offices, shops and residential buildings.
But until such a solution is in place, Sydney’s farmers will continue to flee the land. Part of the problem is profitability. Demand for scarce land has driven property prices up. Urban land is more valuable as housing. Supermarket price wars have pushed the prices farmers receive for their produce down. Our farmers count themselves lucky if they operate at break point. There’s no economic incentive to stay.
The other part of the problem is political proactivity. Those with the loudest political voice receive the attention. Sydney’s horticulture is highly fragmented. 80 per cent of vegetable growers in the Sydney Basin are from non-English speaking backgrounds. They can’t or won’t engage with our regulatory and political systems, and thus have little representation in land use planning. Neither problem has been truly addressed—Sydneysiders are either unaware or don’t care. Perhaps it would be different had our agriculture been comprised of the “True Blue Aussie” farmers and charismatic wheat and dairy industries out west.
It’s not enough to accept as inevitable the urban displacement of Sydney’s agriculture. Food security is a palpable issue for Australians, 90 per cent of which live in cities. Industrial fatalism hurts people and it hurts farmers. And there we have it: laziness that’s harmful.
If you like this story, maybe you’ll also like Amy’s feature story on big development biting into urban agriculture in the Sydney Basin.