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Urban food knowledge: does yoghurt grow on trees in cities?

2012 is the Australian Year of the Farmer. This initiative aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the role Australian agribusiness plays in food security, technological innovation and the nation’s…

Where does it all come from? Wendy Copley

2012 is the Australian Year of the Farmer. This initiative aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the role Australian agribusiness plays in food security, technological innovation and the nation’s economy. According to its manifesto it will also “remind city folk of the importance of our farmers, fostering greater connection and understanding, encouraging all of us to look for, to purchase and to appreciate Australian produce”.

Attempts to achieve this seem to be warranted given that the source of basic foods remains a mystery to some young Australians. Recent research found 27% of year 6 students think yoghurt is a plant product. One-third believe cheese can only be made from cows’ milk. The authors of the study, produced by the Australian Council for Education Research, claim that this knowledge gap is partly fuelled by a widening divide between our nation’s urban and rural communities.

The disconnection from our food has only strengthened as people around the globe have moved from the countryside to the city. Since 2008, more of us have lived in cities than in rural areas. These shifts in population mean that fewer people around the globe are actually involved in food production.

Urban sprawl has been gobbling up fertile land around the world, including in the Sydney food bowl. Easily accessible cheap food in cities, primarily provided through supermarkets (interestingly, Woolworths is one of the foundation partners supporting the Australian Year of the Farmer), has freed people from the constraints of their own food production.

In other countries, city dwellers are closer to the source of their food. AAP/EPA/Mak Remissa

Of course, there are benefits to not spending all day in the field; but we may have gone too far the other way. Carolyn Steele argues in Hungry City that our disconnection from food production has made city dwellers overly reliant on food trucked or shipped increasingly vast distances. Julian Cribb points to the unsustainability of these practices. He asks whether cities will be able to feed themselves if transportation, or the oil supply it relies on, is disrupted due to natural disaster or political instability.

To avoid the “coming famine”, Cribb calls for more efficient urban agriculture initiatives. So, in the Year of the Farmer, perhaps we should be focusing on the innovative ways in which farming can be incorporated into city life.

Children could be an important part of building that knowledge. If we want our children to know where their food comes from; if we want them to be motivated to care about the lives and livelihoods of farmers; if we want them to take seriously the environmental impacts of their food choices; and if we want them to know more about how their health is affected by the way food is made, perhaps we need to rethink the place of food production and provisioning in cities.

Urban food production where city dwellers are daily involved in, or directly confronted with, the food system may be the key to a more secure food future. Rather than seeing food as a product of our “rural cousins”, by getting involved in food production and processing, city dwellers could more effectively engage with the food system as a means of protecting our future food security.

We could improve the knowledge of our cities' young people through direct involvement in food growing and cooking. This may include keeping goats in school farms, setting up more city farms (where animals are kept) and getting communities more actively engaged with these.

Growing veggies is a good start, but kids should know even more about where food comes from. travelskerricks/Flickr

This is not as simple as growing vegetables. Half of the year 6 students surveyed had been involved in a school vegetable garden. When asked directly about fruit and vegetable products, their knowledge was quite reasonable.

However, the report only refers to two questions on this issue: 95% knew potato chips were from plant products; 55% recognised that banana, cheese and bread in their lunch boxes were from farms (but 24% did not identify the bread as a farm product).

School kitchen garden programs come in many shapes and sizes, and it is unclear from the ACER research which specific school kitchen garden programs the children were involved in. For example, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program has been found to increase children’s knowledge of the relationship between food and its production. We don’t want to criticise the hard work of those involved in such programs, but it’s possible not all kitchen garden programs have such a rigorous plan.

Perhaps children’s food production education would be more effective if it was better supported by the surrounding community, or if it also got kids involved in producing animal foods, such as cheese, yoghurt and even meat. Vegetable gardens make an important contribution, but until kids are involved in processing foods, they’re not likely to know where processed foods come from.

But many city dwellers lack the knowledge and capacity to engage in farming and processing enterprise. This knowledge has been lost since we all became so reliant on the industrial agriculture system; we should talk to the experts - the farmers - so we can get it back. We don’t just need more urban agricultural initiatives, including food-producing back, front and median-strip gardens, school kitchen gardens, community gardens and city farms. We also need a transfer of knowledge from rural farmers. We need Australia’s farmers to be intimately involved in the development of innovative and efficient urban agricultural practices to assure our future food security.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    Thanks for the article Bethany and Joanna.

    I am a proponent of better education about agriculture. A lot of the big issues in agriculture in the last few years have not come from within the industry, but from external and mainly public sources. The levels of ignorance on basic issues of production show that the wider community needs to understand agriculture better so that ignorance doesn't drive policy or political changes.

    Also, I have a few city friends that grow their own food quite successfully. But it took them a lot of knowledge a practice to do so. I'm all for domestic garden produce, but we do need to have it well informed with science and not some gardening show - to quote a venerable plant nutritionist "I disagree with them on every topic I've studied."

  2. Clytie

    logged in via Twitter

    When I was growing up in a city, everyone had rellies on a farm somewhere. You visited them and got involved.

    There has been an enormous demographic shift in the past 30-40 years, IMNSHO almost as significant as the Industrial Revolution.

  3. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    Thanks for the article. I am very interested in urban organic food production. (In my mind, it has to be organic, especially in urban areas because of the high population densities.)

    You talk about getting children involved in projects. That is a worthy goal but I would sugest that we need to go further and get everyone involved, including the various levels of government (as facilitators) to really turn urban agriculture into a worthwhile project rather than just a feel-good lifestyle choice.

    Cuba revolutionised it's food production a long time ago through urban agriculture due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shortages of oil that caused for them. You can read my article about that on my blog:

    I have only one small point of contention and that is, bread is not a farm product. Bread is a manufactured product from a bakery, two steps removed from the farm gate.

  4. Lorna Jarrett

    Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

    Growing food in urban / suburban settings isn't just a useful way for city people to contribute to the nation's food production (especially of the sort of vitamin-laden greens etc. that don't travel well), it also has the potential to contribute massively to physical and mental health - and social cohesion, given that community gardens are a popular solution to urban food-production.

    As a science teacher, I think that one of the most important things kids can learn is not only where food comes…

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  5. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Do teens know any of the technology behind their cell phones? Do the authors? Judging by their qualifications, probably not. And why were both pictures in the article meat related? Why the focus on animals?

    If you want people to understand meat production why not take them to see a broiler shed and get them to count the birds who can't walk properly during the last couple of weeks? Why not visit a piggery and have them understand why 60% of sows need replacing each year. Why not have them travel…

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff, It's perfectly possible to live without mobile phones, computers, cars and most of the technology we use but don't understand. Food is pretty much at the top of our basic needs.

      I noticed the focus on animals too - I think the reason is that, as the authors note, most kids are already involved in veggie growing.

      However, I think your basic point is a very important one. Most people, if they were aware of how farm animals are usually treated, would be horrified. Would they stop eating…

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  6. Bethaney Turner

    Assistant Professor in International Studies at University of Canberra

    Thank you for your comments Geoff. We, along with Lorna, also think the points you raise are extremely important. They are linked to one of the key problems the article is hinting at: our growing disconnection from the food system as a result of industrial agriculture. It is a disconnection which means that the plastic wrapped meat people buy has no link to the animal it came from, let alone the conditions in which the animal was raised. This is a major problem which also contributes to a lack…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Bethaney Turner

      I'd agree. If people are more aware of the way food is produced then they are more likely to support higher prices that will allow better production methods.

      The declining terms of trade are a huge driver of intensification and factory farming practices. If people would pay more for basic food stuffs, then this would be less of a constraint and allow better methods to be financially sustainable.

      I always liked the example of cage eggs vs. free range vs. barn laid (ignoring the charlatans in their labelling practices). Pay more, chickens live better, eggs taste better. Win, win, win.

  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    How many farmers know that this is the year of the farmer? What special efforts are the farmers' organisations making to mark the year, if any?

    Not surprising that kids don't think bread is produced on a farm as mostly it isn't. Old fashioned teaching and kids' projects that show where the basic foods come from and how they're processed to allow safe consumption, storage etc are well within the resources of any school . A bit of basic biology can also be picked up on the way , for example why do cows produce milk? Where do calves come from? Corny? you bet but could stand kids in good stead. Plenty of teachers might baulk at the idea of having some animals at school- what happens in the hols??? Already can be a problem with the class lizard etc.

  8. Joanna Henryks

    Assistant Professor, Advertising and Marketing Communication at University of Canberra

    Thanks for all the comments. Yes - we do agree with those pertaining to bread. Whilst we are aware that bread is not a farm product in and of itself - it is made from (most often) from wheat which is grown on farms. The ACER report suggests that children could not relate the bread to a product that may have started life in some form on a farm and that is our point: that we are so disconnected from food we are not always aware that a common food product such as bread actually started life as wheat (or some other grain).

  9. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Thank Bethaney for your response and Lorna also. I'm still trying to work out the goals of Year of the Farmer and of "reconnection". It would be good if people who have the space to grow food would do so ... fresher, cheaper, less food miles. Most of what I've been eating for the past fortnight has been out of the garden but WHAT you eat is far more important than where it comes from. I could live on vegan food air freighted from anywhere on the planet and have a lower greenhouse footprint than…

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  10. Jude Fanton

    Director of Seed Savers' Network

    Gardening can be a magical experience for children. They love to help out and delight at ripening berries, blooming sunflowers, gathering up lemons for lemonade and collecting seeds to replant.
    Most adults can recall happy times spent in the garden when young, learning how to plant seeds and stake tomatoes,
    an experience often shared with our parents and grandparents. Many of us remember the exquisite taste of homegrown food – in contrast to the bland taste of many supermarket fruits and vegetables…

    Read more
  11. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    One further comment needs to be made about the mechanics of any such scheme ... if it involves animals. How will they be killed? Is this an experience people want for children to "connect them to their food". If not, then why not? There are a few good reasons why not. Killing something like a goat can go horribly wrong, recent footage of workers bludgeoning escaped animals to death is an example of what happens when animals breach the chain of restraint at a slaugherhouse. Anna Krien's "Us and Them…

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  12. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Sigh. It seems no-one can mention farming without a huge outpouring of vegan and anti"industrial farming" verbiage. Such crusading just ignores the fact (which might be sad from some people's viewpoint, but it's still a fact ) that the vast majority of humankind wants to consume animal products ( Indian vegetarians definitely included) and will continue to do so. The other fact is that huge urban conurbations rely on modern farming for most of their nurtrition however many tomatoes or herbs some can grow in potplants or a small strip of soil out the back. Let's have a rest from the self-righteousness!!

    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to wilma western

      If you think that your taste for meat outweighs an animals pleasure at being alive, I doubt I can change your mind. But the long term sustainable level of per-person CO2eq emissions is about 1 tonne and the standard Australian meat based diet is 4-6 ... before energy, transport and everything else. So I can quite reasonably say that Australians and all other meat based eaters are using far more than their share of the planet's resources and will have to change whether or not they give a damn.

      For details:

  13. Marian Macdonald

    logged in via Twitter

    The Art4Agriculture program is a really good example of educating school children about Australian ag. It can be done!