State of the Nations panel at Hort Connections

Cities to become new food production zones in the future

Farming is on the verge of a major revolution, where food will be grown in urban areas and cities, using recycled materials.

Julian Cribb, one of Australia's leading science communicators and journalist, was a guest speaker at the State of the Nations panel at Hort Connections, alongside AUSVEG CEO James Whitehead, PMA AU-NZ CEO Darren Keating and Dr Jimmy Botella from the Universtity of Queensland.

Mr Cribb encouraged farmers to stop talking about horticulture and agriculture as industries, and rather bring them under the word "food". He added that the world as a whole is heading into a water shortage, which will impact five billion people in the 2020's and radical change is needed.

"Food is going to undergo a fantastic and dramatic revolution," he said. "Part of this is that half of the food production in the world is going to move off farm and back into cities. This is because cities trap half the world's nutrients. We have to recycle those nutrients. You are talking about agritecture, you are talking about hydroponics, aquaponics, you are talking about new ways of using sunlight. At the moment, rooftops are free. I have an architect in London who said the city can meet 80 per cent of its fruit and vegetable needs, just on its rooftops - and that doesn't include small allotments."

He says that humans only currently consume around 250 of the potential 27,000 types of edible plants in the world, which creates enormous potential for growers.

"We haven't even begun to explore the earth in terms of what is good to farm and what is good to eat," Mr Cribb said. "So there is an incredible increase in diversity coming down the line. (Farmers) should be thinking I have got a rural farm, but I want to start investing in this city technology. I want to start talking to architects about how I recycle water within a building, how we recapture the nutrients in that building and what sort of chain we build. Do we need to introduce insects and so on?"

While Mr Whitehead says he can see the potential for expansion and growth in production in Australia, it does not come without challenges.

"It requires capital and requires people to take risks," he said. "That is hard, with our Australian culture based on the family farmer. That's why I see equity coming in, and people saying if you don't do it, we'll do it with you or do it regardless."

He added that there is a challenge for Australia to grow food that is competitive in terms of pricing, especially compared with food that is imported.

"We are a trading nation, we want access to overseas markets and we need them to grow our businesses," Mr Whitehead said. "You can't ask the overseas markets to grow and keep your own markets closed. So the only answer that I can think of is that you need a product that is, in every bit, as good as your competitor, whether that is down the road or on the other side of the world."

Another challenge for farmers, according to the panel, is wastage. While companies are becoming more creative in the way they turn products that don't sell into secondary items such as carrot vodka, it is also up to the consumers to value the product more. One reason fruit and vegetables are often wasted are because they are so cheap to buy, which is also hurting farmers.

"Farmers go through technology revolutions all the time, they are quite capable of doing it," Mr Cribb said. "But it must not be driven by these giant food companies who want to screw the price of food down. We have got to get the price of food up, so farmers can farm sustainably; look after the water and the trees and biodiversity. Just pushing up yields does not solve the problem of food. You get more nutrition out of a small farm than you do from a big broad acre farm."

Mr Cribb also pointed out that three quarters of people are dying because of diet related diseases and horticulture could play a prominent part in this revolution. The panel agreed with his view that dieticians have a role to play with farmers in growing the fresh produce that can play an important role, and researchers that can potentially add nutrients into new varieties of food without affecting the taste.

While Mr Keating says private enterprise a role to play in pushing the health food message, rather than lobbying the government for reform.
"I would much rather see business get it right, than government to get it right," he said. "There is a strong case, we can look at the relationships that businesses are forming - they are kind of skipping the government. They are running across multiple countries, setting up their supply chain. You are seeing supply chains where people are wanting to have more trust and understanding of where the product came from. So to a degree the government is becoming a little irrelevant in it."

Another factor driving consumption is marketing, which Mr Keating says stretches beyond the old form of simple advertising these days.

"The power of the consumer to have a gigantic conversation, that we're not even a part of all the time," Mr Keating said. "You look at everything from Masterchef to Instagram - it blows the doors off the discussions that are being had in Canberra and other capital cities. Marketing is huge because it is not just a way of communicating with the consumer what they are eating. If you look more broadly it is that there are really good messages are out there about eating more fruit and veg, but people are just not getting it. So there is new work coming out now more about how you feel."

Dr Botella told the audience, that it is important for farmers to keep on top of technological advances, and adopt these new ways of doing things sooner rather than later.

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