From the farm to the fridge: thinking holistically
Growing up in the city, as a little girl I gave little thought to the origin of the food served up on my dinner plate each night. Considering that 9 out of 10 Australians live in urban areas, I am prepared to assume that the majority of us still remain largely disconnected from the source of all our food: farmers. As a major agricultural exporter, Australia feeds not only its own population but also some 50 million people in other countries, making a vital contribution to the world’s food supply. With the global population exceeding 7 billion, the need to protect farming land and improve food security has become even more critical. At the same time (as asked by Arianna Marie Coleman in her article The Great Land Rush), how do we regulate and prevent destruction of the environment? Part of the answer lies in sustainable farming, as well as in the daily choices we make as consumers.
Case Study: Tim and Karen Wright, holistic management farmers, Uralla
Tim and Karen Wright are holistic management farmers in Uralla, New South Wales, whose family has lived on the farm for 60 years. They are one of 3 case study farms participating in the Northern Tablelands Project, predominantly funded by the federal government’s research body Land and Water. They first began making changes to increase sustainability about 20 years ago, when the cost of production prompted them to consider in what ways livestock could be used to enhance the biodiversity of the land as well as productivity.
By allowing their sheep and cattle to migrate (as do wild herds) using a grazing plan, the Wrights allowed the land to be fertilized and then recover naturally, restoring ground cover (native trees and grasses) from 70% to 100%. In addition, they significantly reduced the cost of production. For example, by allowing livestock to migrate they were no longer vulnerable to worms and other diseases, which often result from keeping animals in small enclosures. Consequently, due to the planned grazing, they significantly reduced the need to fertilise the soil, spray weeds, buy hay during drought periods, or drench their livestock.
They also increased water retention and the carbon content of the soil as a result of laying down more humus/carbon, highlighting the important role sustainable farming can play in carbon sequestration. By increasing sustainability, the Wrights demonstrated it is possible to improve both biodiversity and productivity, increasing their stock from 7000 DSE (dry sheep equivalent) in 1980 to more than 20,000 by the late 1990s. As emphasized by Mr Wright, the key lies in adapting ourselves to suit the environment, rather than changing the environment to suit ourselves, as “Mother Nature always wins.” Indeed, this is something that indigenous Australians have practiced for millennia, a worldview we could certainly learn from.
What are the main threats to the sustainability of farming in Australia?
According to Mr Wright, the biggest threat to the sustainability of farming in Australia is poor decision making and lack of education. He believes that decisions such as the Carbon Tax are not addressing the whole issue – he says, “if you want to look at things holistically, you need to examine the whole tree, from the tips of the leaves to the roots. Think vertically and laterally.” He goes on to give the example of health expenditure – many politicians propose more hospital beds as the solution, while not enough emphasis is being placed on prevention, healthy food and healthy lifestyle.
He is also concerned by the lack of education of most farmers – he estimates as little as 1% of all farmers make it to tertiary level. This is largely due to the lack of farm management courses available at universities and unreliable government funding. Mr Wright believes there needs to be a greater awareness of the benefits of applying holistic management principles, “which consider all segments of the orange.” At the same time, there is a skills shortage in the agricultural sector, as fewer and fewer young people are interested in pursuing farming as a career, preferring more lucrative industries such as mining. This is hardly surprising, considering the hardships farmers face trying to make a living in the driest continent on Earth, ranging from drought, salinity, acidic soils, and lack of social services.
What needs to be done to ensure long-term agricultural sustainability and food security in Australia?
Mr Wright believes the most important and undervalued factor to improve the long-term sustainability of agriculture is education. Farmers are custodians of the land, and as such need to be taught how to take care of it. The wider community also needs more education on healthy food and permaculture, starting from schools right through to tertiary, “so people are connected more with the whole food cycle.”
As consumers we can play an important role in enhancing sustainability by choosing to buy locally grown produce or growing vegetables ourselves. Grow Local, a campaign run by the Queensland Conservation Society encourages communities to support local farmers through initiatives such as Food Connect (which deliver fresh produce to suburban homes from local farms), and support the development of backyard and community gardens. The benefits are numerous, ranging from reduced carbon emissions (associated with transporting and storing food); fresher, more nutritious produce; and more income for farmers. Indeed, numerous studies report that buying locally or directly from farmers can dramatically increase a farmer’s income.
The way forward: thinking holistically
The issues facing our nation and our regional communities in Australia are many, but perhaps none so is more important than finding sustainable ways to produce food and fibre. As demonstrated by the Wrights, sustainable farming can play a significant role in enhancing biodiversity and productivity, and hence long-term food security. As such, the government should invest more funding into programs that educate farmers and support them in holistic management. The decisions we make as consumers can also directly impact on the well-being of farmers, communities and ourselves. As so aptly described by Dr John Williams from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, “So often that which is essential to us, that which we cannot do without…is the very stuff we take for granted. So it is with our food, our fibre, our water and the healthy ecosystems on which all of life depends.”
I pledge to no longer down my dinner without a second thought as to where it came from. Thank you, farmers, for sustaining us!