Peak Food and Urban Agriculture

Urban farm in Cuba
Image from

It’s been an interesting week for urban agriculture enthusiasts. On Thursday 21st July, Carolyn Steel presented the Melbourne State of Design Festival Keynote Address.  She gave a potted history of how cities were shaped around food production, and how the city authorities needed to keep a grip on food supply if they wanted to retain power. With the coming of the railway, cities were free of the traditional constraints of feeding themselves, and expanded rapidly. At the same time their population became largely disconnected from food sources, and control of the food supply was ceded to profit making enterprises. Now our children think that beef comes not from cows, but from Coles, we expect our fruit to be polished and perfect, and our food systems (which are controlled by a frighteningly small number of people) result in half the food produced being thrown away.

She didn’t have solutions, but started the conversations about how cities can now longer consider themselves separate from their hinterlands, and about food security, food production, and food distribution.

That conversation was for me continued on the following Wednesday (27th July) at an Arena Forum on Peak Food.  Yes, you read that correctly: Peak Food. It is the point at which food production must decline, because the current system that produces in such abundance is not sustainable: it relies on lots of fossil fuel (and we’ve probably hit Peak Oil), land that is limited, soil that it reduces in quality, and a predictable water source (and we’ve seen that with climate change, that doesn’t exist any more).

The solutions to the problem of Peak Food aren’t clear, but they revolve around making food systems more resilient, and probably require a reversal of the trends that started with the introduction of the locomotive that Carolyn Steel mentioned. We will need to produce more food locally; local often means urban, because that’s where most of us are. But it’s not just about transport: cities can also be more resilient to climate change, because of things like the amount of organic material that can be collected in a city to compost and grow in, the quantities of run-off water available, and the potential for rapid up-skilling that comes from a dense population.

YCAN’s Local Urban Agriculture working group also had their inaugural strategy meeting on the same evening as the Peak Food forum. We intend to do our bit to address the issues of Peak Food. Watch this space to find out how.