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Razors Edge 2SER — interview

Razors Edge 2SER — interview

Listen to an interview by Annemarie Reyes, 2SER, on 31 August 2023, with Sustain’s Executive Director Nick Rose and Naomi Lacey, President of Community Gardens Australia (CGA) who discuss the food issues we face.

These two champions also discussed the upcoming Urban Agriculture Forum & CGA National Gathering in November 2023. 

They may even drop some hints on who will be speaking!

Thanks to AnneMarie for kindly supporting us, and conducting the interview on Razors Edge :: 7:00pm 31st Aug 2023.


INTERVIEWER: The Food Bank Hunger Report 2022 revealed that 2 million households in Australia have run out of food in the last year due to limited finances. This meant 1.3 million children lived in food-insecure households at the time. Meanwhile, Ozharvest says Australian households create about 2.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. And food waste is feeding climate change as it’s the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. I caught up with the President of Community Gardens Australia Naomi Lacey and Dr Nick Rose from Sustain Australian Food Network to get their views on these serious issues in the lead-up to their urban agriculture forum in Redfern. They’re launching in November. Can I find out which locations you’re joining us today?

NAOMI LACEY: Today I’m joining you from Cairns in far north Queensland. I’m Naomi Lacey. I’m the president of Community Gardens Australia.

NICK ROSE: And I’m Nick Rose. I’m the co-founder and executive director of Sustain the Australian Food Network. And I am in Naam, Melbourne, Wurundjeri Country. I’m from Gaddagland, New South Wales.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s amazing just from introducing our location, how big this issue has become, the whole topic around urban agriculture. I’ll start off with Naomi and then follow with Nick in terms of a bit of history, how it came about, and the whole urban agriculture movement.

NAOMI LACEY: So we can’t actually put our finger on what the earliest community garden, so to speak, was here in Australia, aside from the fact that our First Nations peoples essentially were the first community gardeners. They gardened in community for many, many tens of thousands of years in this country, which is great. There has been a real movement towards the establishment of more gardens in the last 30 years in particular. And the last 10 to 15 have been really quite strong and a lot of new gardens popping up all around the country. At the moment, we’ve got about 800 gardens listed on our directory all around the country. There are more gardens in Australia that we’re not even aware of at this point in time. People really want to join together in the community a lot more than they have in the past, and also really want to get in touch with where their food comes from and grow good, healthy, tasty food for their families.

There’s been a real change in the food that’s available to us through our supermarket, Duopeley in Australia, with the quality freshness and nutritional value of those food items that we can get from there, but just not anywhere near as good as what we can grow together in community.

NICK ROSE: So Sustain was founded in January 2016, building on earlier work that had been done by an organisation called The Food Alliance at Deakin University in 2009. The trajectory of that work was really supported by VicHealth, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, as the leading health promotion agency in Victoria.

So Sustain is a health promotion charity whose mission is to support Australians to live healthy and fulfilling and long lives and to reduce the burden of chronic dietary-related disease through a whole of systems approach. As Naomi mentioned when we’re talking about this subject it’s really important to remember that the First Nations peoples of Australia lived here and managed the land sustainably and fed themselves well for many tens of thousands of years. And the modern food system that we have in Australia, the modern agricultural system evolved, has really created a lot of distance between food production and people. And as we’ve sort of changed as a country over the last couple of hundred years, more and more of us are living in cities. In fact, we’re one of the most urbanized countries in the world. And the distance from agriculture and from what’s happening out in rural and regional areas, as well as the increase in fast food and ultra-processed food is creating a lot of problems, both in terms of the land, the soil, the way we manage our rivers and our waterways, and also our health as people and as communities. The burden of dietary health and mental health is really increasing in Australia.

So as Naomi mentioned, there’s so much benefit and importance in people knowing where their food comes from, and particularly having the opportunity to actually participate in the fundamental human activity of producing some of that food ourselves, knowing how to germinate seeds, knowing how to care for plants, harvesting that food and cooking it and having access to healthy food. It’s so important. And I think the last few years with COVID with the cost of living crisis, with all the demand on food banks now, and also with what’s happening with our climate is really bringing this front of mind for many people.

So this event, this Urban Agriculture Forum is something that we’ve been organising now.

The first one was in 2016. We did it again in 2018, 2021. Momentum is really building, sort of echoes what Naomi said about that. There’s more demand for community gardens, more people are interested in learning about growing their own food. More schools want gardens on their grounds. It’s flowing through to local governments and the next challenge is to get state government and federal government to get behind this as they have done in other places around the world. That’s really our mission.

Our mission is to design and build better food systems. Our vision is an Australia whose towns and cities are edible and where everyone is healthy and flourishing, everyone being humans and all our non-human friends and ecological communities as well. And that’s what this event is about. It’s celebrating and acknowledging this really expanding field and educating, particularly people in local and state government in New South Wales about the opportunities and the need for them to get involved and really support all the community gardeners and urban farmers and grassroots action that’s taking place around the state.

INTERVIEWER: An issue that’s quite important now and mostly neglected is food waste and food shortages. How do you interact with this issue in the current work that you’re doing?

NAOMI LACEY: Food waste is just incredible what happens in our country with regards to that. We love the impact that community gardens have on food waste. They’re really good spaces to teach people about that. They’re also really good spaces for recycling what we do we can do with waste by returning it to the soil to then produce more food rather than sending it through to landfill.

So that’s a really big thing in Far North Queensland and seeing these gigantic trail loads of single bananas that you can pull up and grab a bag full of for a dollar because they don’t have the perfect curve and are literally going to go to waste and be dumped because they don’t suit what the supermarkets want to provide. Yet we’ve got people that are starving that don’t have access to this food.

So, I think Nick mentioned before, there is a real place for food banks and organisations like Oz Harvest that are doing a lot of that sort of rescuing of food that would otherwise go to landfill. But what we are trying to do with our work and certainly what Nick’s been doing with Sustain as well, is trying to teach people other ways that they can procure their food and to ensure food security for themselves and thereby not having food shortages.

A big part of that is also teaching people about how not to waste food. I think even shows like MasterChef over the last few years, teaching people how to use a whole piece of broccoli rather than just the little green fluffy bits on the end, the entire piece of broccoli is completely edible and really good for you. Community gardens are really great spaces for teaching people, with cooking workshops. So we’re very, very supportive of that.

NICK ROSE: It’s one of the tensions and contradictions of the food system in Australia and globally. It’s often said that because the world’s population is growing, we’re going to need to produce more food. And in fact, you know, some people have said we’ll need 50% to 70%, even twice as much food as we have today by 2050 to feed a growing global population. Yet at the same time, if you actually look at the food that is wasted and also the amount of land that is used to grow food for factory farming of animals. I’m talking here about the huge swathes of land in the southern part of South America, genetically modified soybean that goes to factory farming pigs and chickens. And then the land that’s also used to grow biofuels. So all the corn in the United States, for example, land, water and energy that could be grown for food, is used for cars. It’s not used for people.

So adding all that up, some estimates say that we are producing globally, enough food right now for 11 billion people. The food that’s wasted, the food that’s used for animal feed and the food that’s used for biofuels.

There are really big conversations to be had about our diets. You know, what are we actually eating? What should we be eating? What some people say, is a diet for planetary health, is a diet that’s nourishing for us and that’s nourishing for our soils and our ecosystems.

The issue is that the way the food system has developed, it’s been directed and controlled and the decisions have been made largely behind closed doors in boardrooms, most powerful agri-food corporations and supermarkets. They’re making those decisions for their own private interests, for the profit interests and the shareholders. They’re not making those decisions in the interests of the general well-being of humanity and the planet and that’s a problem.

That’s why we say we need a more democratic and a more participatory and transparent food system where we actually have conversations about these things and we don’t just take all this for granted. So I think it’s really important to have the conversation with that understanding.

So when we talk about food waste, for example, one of the issues is the aesthetic standards. We’ll be talking about fresh produce, vegetables and fruits. The supermarkets have their standards that they expect the farmers to comply with. The fruit is a certain size and shape and it doesn’t have blemishes and so on. which generates a lot of waste. And then I think that in the whole culture of convenience and takeaway food, the modern life that we have, a lot of us have just lost the skill and practice and habit of cooking food.

The old value of thrift is not a word that’s used much these days but a couple of generations back, people were thrifty because they had to be. I think back to World War Two, for example, people grew a lot of food in their gardens, there was the whole Victory Garden movement. They knew how to preserve food. They knew how to use leftovers and make stews, sauces and food preserving. Those skills are really important. We need them. We need to recover those skills. Yeah, there’s this big important question to be asked there. As Naomi said, with community gardens, with the urban farms that we’re supporting, composting is a really great thing to do. When food can no longer be eaten, don’t put it in the bin, compost it. Put it with worm farms, there’s a big movement now for community composting, there are biodigesters, there are new technologies that can help us to deal with that surplus food to recover those nutrients and for it not to go into landfill and tribute methane and greenhouse gas emissions.

So food waste is a big and important topic, but those are some comments that I would offer about it.

The other part of your question about food shortages, food insecurity, it’s a terrible situation in a world as wealthy and capable as we are, in a country as rich as Australia, that we have, by some estimates, 2 million or more people who are experiencing food insecurity. It’s morally and ethically unacceptable, in my view, and we should not tolerate that. We can do an awful lot better than we are doing.

This again comes back to prioritizing food as a basic human right, and that’s not a slogan, that’s actually an international human rights law that this country signed up to way back in 1976. I’m talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which stated that everybody has the basic right to an adequate standard of living, which includes housing and food.

We signed up to that as a country over 40 years ago and we’re failing our citizens, we’re failing our people and we need to prioritize food as a basic right, as a basic public good and not simply as a private commodity that is primarily there for exchange and profit. This is a total reframing of the conversation about food in its role in our society and culture.

INTERVIEWER: How do you find ways to engage the community more, especially post-COVID, when people became more conscious about the climate crisis, issues to do with food waste and food shortages? How important is your work in community engagement and community action?

NAOMI LACEY: Yeah, look, I think it’s pretty much the cornerstone of our work with Community Gardens Australia. And I think Nick would probably say the same thing with Sustain. It’s a huge part of what we do in engaging with the community and constantly trying to increase that engagement and that rapport we have with people from all walks and all sectors.

A really big part of that is what we’re doing with delivering the Urban Agriculture Forum and Community Gardens Australia’s National Gathering at the NCIE this November.

That’s a big part of our work where we’re really trying to put forward all of the latest and greatest, the cutting edge research, the programs that are working, the amazing things that people are doing in this space and giving them a platform with which they can share that information with others. We’re really trying to engage with governments and developers for this forum to encourage them to come along and learn new ways of doing things and learn what’s working and what we could be doing and how we could be doing it better from all of these experts in this space that are there to share that with them.

We’re really hoping that that’s going to have a big impact and get more people involved and keep the word spreading. This is essentially what we do as an organisation, is to try and get that word out there and to keep on spreading it. In so many different aspects, at Community Gardens Australia, we’ve just recently with the assistance of the City of Launceston, launched an online recipe community where people can share recipes and teach each other.

Nick said before, a lot of people have lost the ability to even cook simple food for themselves. This is one way we’re trying to get people back to that, provide them with a great space where they can find great recipes relative to their region and with the foods that are growing at that time of year, and doing exactly that.

Obviously, we have quite a presence on social media as well, where we’re sharing stories all of the time, and we’re actively trying to encourage more gatherings of people in the community gardening space regularly. We’re looking at being able to hold next year, state gathering in every state and territory around the country just for community gardeners in that space to be able to share and come together and to keep things happening and keep people interested. So yeah, a really big part of our work. It’s fundamental.

NICK ROSE: This is a community-led movement and one of the great things about working in this space in food systems and urban agriculture is that there are so many entry points for people to get involved it’s so easy to go and visit a community garden, even particularly in your own space at home, you know, to grow food at home, which many, many people are doing.

In COVID, we did the pandemic gardening survey, which we had over 9000 responses in one month in July 2020, right across the country. People spoke very movingly about how vitally important it was to them at that time of heightened anxiety and fear to have the space to be in a garden to grow their own food and have some measure of control over what was going on in their lives at that time.

So that stands as a powerful testimony to the vital importance of these activities. I would say, you know, as Naomi mentioned, the whole purpose of this event that we’re doing together, the Urban Agriculture Forum and Community Gardens Australia gathering at Redfern in November is a major opportunity for people in Sydney who are interested in learning more to come and be part of, you know, we’re expecting 250 plus people over two days at that event at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. So, come along if you can.

On Sunday, there’ll be tours, walking tours, bicycle tours and bus tours to perhaps as many as 20 plus community gardens and urban farms in around Sydney. That’s another fantastic opportunity to make connections and to learn more about what’s happening in the in the Sydney region and surrounds.

The whole month of November is Urban Agriculture Month. This is the third time that we’ve done this as a nationwide celebration of this movement around Australia and that’s an open invitation for anyone anywhere to to host a tour of their garden, to do a workshop, to have a talk, whatever it might be, a cook-up, and have these conversations and share what you’re doing in your local area and get involved in that way.

So those are just some examples, community engagement is fundamental. I would also say in terms of the other major aspect of our work, which is policy development. We’ve done a number of urban food strategies, food security strategies and policies with local government. We always engage extensively with community members. We have stalls in high streets, we do community surveys, we do interviews, we do focus groups, and we do workshops. We really give community members every opportunity to meet with their fellow residents to have these conversations and to make their views, voices and perspectives known in this process of shaping our food system.

So yes community engagement and community action are absolutely fundamental to everything that we do and it is crucial to the further expansion and success of this movement.

INTERVIEWER: Naomi Lacy is the President of Community Gardens Australia and Dr Nick Rose is the Executive Director of Sustained Agriculture Food Network and ending that interview.

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