The body representing 10 western Sydney councils has accused the federal government of ignoring its plans to stop the nation’s biggest city from gobbling up its farmland, risking a disastrous loss of crucial fresh food sources.
”The failure to take seriously the need for long-term agricultural land in the Sydney basin will have disastrous consequences for our food supply,” Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC) president Alison McLaren said.
”The federal government needs to realise that agriculture is not just the domain of rural areas.”
State government research estimates the Sydney agricultural industry is worth between $800 million and a $1 billion annually, with 10 per cent of total NSW produce coming from 1 per cent of the state’s agricultural land. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows more than 8500 people are employed in the Sydney industry.
Cr McLaren said WSROC’s attempts to get a response from the federal government about its Urban Adapt program – aimed at ensuring the continuity of fresh produce to Sydneysiders – had failed.
About 30 groups and institutions, including state departments, are working on the plan despite the lack of federal involvement.
She called on federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke to immediately pledge to work with WSROC and other bodies ”to secure the food supply grown in western Sydney”.
The Sydney region grows about 15 per cent of the state’s vegetables, according to NSW Primary Industries research. It produces at least 80 per cent of ”perishable” vegetables – defined as those that are fresh, have not been processed and have a short shelf life – for NSW. These include Asian vegetables, capsicums and chillis, celery, parsley, basil, coriander, mushrooms and silverbeet.
It is also the state’s most important area for producing chickens, ducks, turkeys and eggs.
But an internal NSW government analysis has predicted that two Sydney areas earmarked as growth centres to house 1 million more residents by 2036 will cause that production to plummet.
Planned development in the south and north-west growth areas will lead to a possible 29 per cent drop in vegetables grown and a 35 per cent drop in poultry meat produced.
”Over 50 per cent of NSW’s vegetables are grown in the Murray-Murrumbidgee region, where water availability is becoming a significant issue,” says the document, produced by the state department governing agriculture.
”According to Professor [Ross] Garnaut, the rivers in the Murray-Darling basin could deteriorate to a trickle by 2050 as a result of climate change. Sydney has good agricultural land and may also have better rainfall than inland as climate change occurs. The capacity for Sydney to continue to provide vegetables should be increased – not reduced.”
Urban Adapt would weigh up how much farmland should be kept on the city fringe and whether there should be new farming zones along motorways, WSROC executive director Jeremy Goff said.
It would consider how to source food when climate change made the Murray-Darling and Murrumbidgee food bowls less viable. And rising fuel prices would increase the cost of freighting food.
Possible new intensive farming greenhouse technology to allow growing food close to the city and a blossoming movement in community gardens were also on the agenda, Mr Goff said.
The aim was to ensure that fresh, equitably priced food will still be available to Sydney people and those in the west in particular.
Most of the city’s vegetable farms were set to disappear over the next 20 years as housing development marched across the south and north-west, he said.
David Brunckhorst, director of the Institute for Rural Futures director at the University of New England, said plans must be made to extract the maximum benefit from what little good soil and rainfall areas we have: ”In this country we have very few and they are very precious.”
The Murray-Darling basin had gone down the drain while much of our topsoil had blown away, he said. Farming on city fringes and in rich soil around the Great Divide must be nurtured, and homes could be built in rocky areas.
Mr Burke acknowledged the importance of food being grown locally but would not answer questions about Sydney’s farm land being rezoned. Nor would he say whether the federal government should intervene to protect Sydney’s agricultural land.
”The food eaten by people in Sydney already comes from all over the nation,” Mr Burke said.
NSW Primary Industries Minister Steve Whan said there were ”plenty of good reasons to ensure food should continue to be grown here in the Sydney basin”.
”The region has the advantage of a mild coastal climate, with a range of suitable soils and access to reliable water supplies, transport, labour and markets,” he said.
with Kelly Lane