Loss of prime agricultural land in Sydney Basin to urban sprawl

SESL Australia

A field of grainIn a recent interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adrian McGregor, of McGregor Coxall, one of SESL’s clients, is quoted as saying that the NSW State Government’s Sydney Metropolitan Strategy proposes to allow as many as 400 000 new homes to be built on prime agricultural land (640 000 in all). The strategy fails to take into account the value of agriculture in the Sydney Basin, the vastly increased costs if we have to truck our food from further west, the impact of climate change and the increased likelihood of inland droughts.

If the strategy goes ahead in its current form, it will replace more than half of the remaining 1052 farms (totalling 2025 ha) with houses in the proposed Southern and North-West Growth Centres.

The strategy lists seven key strategies for development. Food isn’t one of them. What, then, shall we eat?

Value of Sydney Basin agriculture

A 2003 estimate (Gillespie & Mason 2003) put the value of agriculture in the Sydney Basin at $1 billion (thousand million), with a multiplier effect of 4.5: that is, it creates a total value of $4.5 billion. Further (Jarecki 2004, SFFA 2009), the Sydney Basin provides:

  • 80% of Sydney’s fresh mushrooms
  • 90% of Sydney’s fresh vegetables
  • over 90% of cut flowers sold through the Sydney markets
  • nearly 100% of Asian vegetables sold at the Sydney markets
  • a large amount of stone fruit, apples and oranges
  • most of Sydney’s fresh tomatoes
  • 1/3 of NSW’s poultry production
  • more jobs than any other single industry employer in western Sydney.

In addition, Sydney Basin farms return $5433 per hectare, 40 times the state average. Do we really want to give up all of this production and employment?

The cost of long-distance transport

If the strategy goes ahead in its present form and we lose most of the agricultural production in the Sydney Basin, we will have to import our fresh food from over the mountains and even overseas. Long-distance transport inevitably leads to increased costs, so we will be paying more. Additionally, importation of more fresh food from overseas will increase the risk of the introduction of destructive pests and diseases. Finally, if Sydney Basin agriculture produces 40 times the state value per hectare (on account of better soils and rainfall), then we could need up to 40 times as much land elsewhere to satisfy the demand, but as the inland dries up, this is looking increasingly unlikely.

As fossil fuels run out and prices rise, fresh food will become less and less affordable to many people if it has to be imported. The loss of locally grown food will impose a heavy burden on Sydney’s residents.

A possible solution

The SMH quotes Adrian McGregor as saying: “The most progressive and forward-thinking cities, like London, are doing work on food security because people realise that with the effects of climate change on rainfall and agricultural production on an increasing population, feeding cities … is going to be one of our biggest global challenges.”

As an alternative, McGregor proposes the “biocity” concept, in which local food production is considered as 1 of 12 essential components of a sustainable city: “The biocity is an urban planning model arising from landscape architecture and biological theory that proposes cities be reconceptualised as ‘urban biotopes’ that are supported by a myriad of interconnected ecosystems.”

For more information on biocities, go to http://biocitystudio.com/.

Maintaining food security

SESL recognises the importance of food security (having a stable supply of enough good-quality food for everyone to eat), and plans to contribute to the debate at the state level. We all have to find a way to accommodate both Sydney’s increasing population and continued local food production. If you would like to contribute too, or simply want to know more, please get in touch with us.

Further reading

Bellotti B. 2009 Jun 15. Food for thought. The Land.

Gillespie P, Mason D. 2003. Sydney Basin Industry Details. NSW Agriculture, Orange.

Jarecki S. 2004 Apr 7. Biosecurity impacts of Free Trade Agreement on local agricultural produce. Submission to Federal Senate Select Committee of the Free Trade Agreement. Hills Greens, Glenorie, NSW.

Jopson D. 2009 Oct 19. Warning on danger of building on farmland. Sydney Morning Herald.

Malcolm P, and Fahd R. 2009. Ground truthing of the Sydney Vegetable Industry in 2008. Report VG07073. Horticulture Australia Ltd.

SFFA. 2006. Sydney Basin agriculture … Local food, local economy. Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and Food Fairness Illawarra.

SFFA. 2009. A declaration from the events of the NSW Food Summit, 2009. Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.