Lazy and harmful: the case of Sydney Basin agriculture

Fighting to keep Sydney’s agriculture clearly has visual benefits. Photo: Amy Rathbone.

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.

Ed Biel can see the city skyline from his Oakdale orchard. Photo: Amy Rathbone.

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.

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4 responses to “Lazy and harmful: the case of Sydney Basin agriculture

  1. Great article Amy! Hard hitting and more importantly: it’s true…. Apathy from Government and the public sevice has allowed the Sydney Basin to nearly fill itself with concrete, tiles and humanity. The reason Government has done nothing to halt this tragedy is that the nearly five million souls in ‘The Basin’, are equally apathetic. With some exceptions, most sydneysiders take the environment of the cities outskirts for granted. Unlike Europe and The U.S., who have been pro-active in encouraging farmers on the city doorsteps to remain, through incentive programs, local brands and even the dreaded subsidy. We have been content to see the steady demise of agriculture and maintained a do nothing attitude. We have been content to see supermarkets import cheap ‘subsidised’ food from all over the world. Food which travels huge distances – even within Australia, in preference to locally grown food which is seasonally available.
    Zoning land for agriculture is only WISHING it to be used for agriculture. iT IS ONLY PROFITABLE PRODUCTION that will MAKE it be used for food production. Please, if you value your food — and your environment— demand that pro-active steps like AEC’s, A Sydney Local Brand, and other incentives be used to assist farmers to stay.
    If you want a barren ‘green dessert, surrounding Sydney; full of weeds, feral animals and pests, then be content with what government has done in the past – nothing – and let a few token agriculure zones salve your conscience. When the predicted global food shortage occurs – do you think cheap food imports will continue into Australia???

    Support Sydneys Farmers – demand Sydney Produced food. Demand AEC’s. Shop at genuine Farmers Markets or independent grocers…..do something!!!

  2. “Who wants to live on crappy, infertile land?” – ALL developers in Sydney.
    This isn’t something that affects us now. Like most environmental issues, it’s something that’ll affect our kids and grandkids.
    Our short-sightedness (or laziness) will be seriously detrimental for them.

  3. There was a time when daily life was all about hunting,gathering and growing food.For a brief time in history that has disappeared as people now have an abundance of food (or so called food).So we build houses and mine the most fertile areas and import food.At some point being able to grow and hunt your own food may again be important,that is why food security is on the minds of everyone around the world except Australia,we have never experienced a famine in our brief history.The question I ask is “If there was no food available to buy today, could you hunt gather or grow your own food ?” I suspect most people in Sydney and regional cities would answer NO !

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