What urban sprawl means for Melbourne’s food supply

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As the world’s most livable city, it’s no wonder Melbourne’s population continues to grow at a rapid rate. With more people comes the need for more housing and, as such, our city fringe is constantly expanding.

But findings from Foodprint Melbourne – a collaborative research project between Deakin University and the University of Melbourne looking at food production on Melbourne’s city fringe – has uncovered some alarming statistics about the extent to which this population growth is threatening our food and vegetable supply.

So how can we facilitate a growing population and ensure there’s enough local food? Foodprint Melbourne Project Lead, Dr Rachel Carey, explains the implications of urban sprawl, what the research aims to achieve and what needs to be done to ensure an ongoing supply of local food.

What are the main findings from the Foodprint Melbourne research?

‘Melbourne’s city fringe foodbowl produces a lot of food – it currently has the capacity to meet just over 40 per cent of Greater Melbourne’s food needs, including over 80 per cent of the city’s vegetable needs. But by the time Melbourne’s population grows to seven million people in 2050, the foodbowl’s capacity to meet the city’s food needs is likely to fall to around 18 per cent and its capacity to meet the city’s vegetable needs to around 21 per cent. Melbourne’s foodbowl has the potential to contribute to a more resilient and sustainable food supply for the city in future, but it is at risk from population growth and urban sprawl.’

What are the implications of losing Melbourne’s foodbowl to urban sprawl?

‘If Melbourne loses its city foodbowl to urban sprawl, it will lose much of its supply of fresh, local foods. Fresh foods will need to be sourced from further away, which is not ideal for highly perishable foods like fruit and vegetables, which don’t travel well and require a lot of energy for refrigeration. The city’s vegetable supply is likely to be particularly affected, because around half of Victoria’s vegetables grow in the city’s foodbowl. Melbourne’s food supply is likely to be less resilient as a result, and we could experience more disruption to our food supply from the impacts of climate change, as well as increases in food prices.’

'Melbourne's foodbowl has the potential to contribute to a more resilient and sustainable food supply for the city in future, but it is at risk from population growth and urban sprawl.'

Dr Rachel Carey,
Project Lead, Foodprint Melbourne

What needs to happen to ensure Melburnians have access to local food and vegetables in 2050?

‘We need to increase the density of new housing as Melbourne grows, so that more people live in townhouses, units and apartments rather than individual houses on large blocks of land. We also need to introduce permanent protection for areas of fertile agricultural land on the city fringe so that farmland is no longer lost to housing, and we need to fix the city’s Urban Growth Boundary as a hard boundary, rather than expanding it every few years. As Melbourne’s food needs will increase by 60 per cent when it has a population of seven million, we need to not only retain the fertile agricultural land that we have left, but also identify areas of fertile soils around the city that could be brought back into production.’

Why can’t we just continue to push out the city fringe foodbowl to accommodate new housing?

‘Food growing areas have been pushed further and further out of the city over the past 60 years as Melbourne has expanded. The problem with continuing to use this approach is that new challenges now face our food supply – the availability of agricultural land is declining, water scarcity is increasing and there are new pressures from climate change. Australia has very little fertile agricultural land – our soils are ancient and fragile, and less than 6 per cent of the land is arable and suitable for growing food. Much of this land is on the coastal fringe where our major cities are located, and this is also where most of the rain falls. Our cities were settled in areas with fertile soils and good access to water, so we need to find ways of protecting these land and water resources for food production as our cities grow.’

What can Melburnians do to help sustain the city’s foodbowl?

‘The best thing we can do as individuals to protect Melbourne’s supply of fresh local foods is to buy food from the city’s foodbowl and to support the farmers that farm there. Try to find out more about where your food comes from and seek out local foods in season from areas close to the city, such as Werribee, Bacchus Marsh, the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. Farmers markets are a good source of seasonal, locally produced food.’

What do you hope your research will ultimately achieve?

‘We hope that the State Government will act to change planning laws and policies, so that Melbourne grows in future in a way that protects the capacity of the city’s foodbowl and maintains our source of fresh, local foods. We also hope to increase public awareness of the importance of protecting fertile agricultural land on the city fringe for our future food supply.’

Interested in a career in food policy? Find out more about Deakin’s Bachelor of Food and Nutrition Sciences.

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