During the 2011 Queensland floods, Brisbane, as well as regional centers, were perilously near to running out of fresh food. The central Rocklea market was underwater, and panic buying soon took place. Supermarket shelves were quickly emptied.
These events reveal the vulnerability of our urban food system. The slow-burning issues of climate change and resource depletion are more difficult to address, but it is still true that the risk of complacency exists in urban food policy.
Gardening is good for you. But does it play a role in increasing food security and resilience in urban areas? Maybe history will tell us.
Australian Research has been focused on recent urban farming initiatives. However, an actual experiment in gardening to ensure food security was conducted in Australia during the Second World War, more than 70-years ago.
Win the war by growing your own food
In 1939, Britain began to use the slogan ” Dig For Victory“, in response to severe food shortages. Two years later, Australia began a low-key campaign to encourage home food production.
In a 1941 survey of Melbourne households , 48% already produced some food. In the spacious suburbs of the middle ring, the percentage was up to 88%. However, in the densely populated inner cities the figure was lower than 15%. The majority of food production in households was found amongst middle-classes and working-classes with a high level of education, but less common amongst the poor.
In Australia, food shortages would be significant by 1943. The government responded by implementing a variety of measures including a massive “Grow Your Own Campaign”.
Home gardeners were encouraged to grow their own veggies through movies, radio broadcasts and public demonstrations. Posters, advertisements in newspapers, brochures, and posters all promoted the idea. This was done to reduce pressure on commercial food supplies, provide substitutes for food that is rationed, offer insurance against failures in commercial food supplies, and ease the demand for items like rubber and fuel. The municipal councils and the schools ran their vegetable production programs.
Around 1943, an advertisement for the ‘Grow Your Own Campaign’. PROV, VPRS 10163/P2
Although there are no reliable stats on the effectiveness of the campaign, anecdotal reports suggest that home food production has increased.
Wartime disruptions caused a shortage of rubber, fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides. Livestock, poultry, and fowl play an important part in the nutrient cycle in sustainable food production. However, cows and goats were excluded from many cities in the decades prior to the war. The competition was fierce for the local manure. Some gardeners would even wait for grocery-carrying horses to pass before they dug.
Artificial fertilizers are also costly and difficult to find. Blood and bone were not allowed to be used as organic fertilizer because it was used for commercial poultry and pork feed. Composting waste was an option, but it required time and expertise, and the nutritional value of compost for plants is limited.
Labor was also in short supply. Many people with the physical ability to do so had joined up in the military, while others worked long hours at war jobs. Few urban residents had the time or energy to dedicate to vegetable gardening. Women’s Land Army participated in urban agriculture, and the YWCA created a “Garden Army,” a group of women who planted and maintained community gardens on public or private land.
Lessons learned from the past
What can we learn about suburban food production’s ability to increase urban food supplies in times of chronic scarcity from this history?
As our city form changes, we must plan explicitly for this contribution.
Vegetable gardens, for example, need a space that is not too crowded with trees and has a reasonable amount of openness. It is for this reason that the middle-ring suburbs in Melbourne, which were spacious and open, were more productive than inner city Melbourne in 1941.
Knowledge, skill, and time are also required for sustainable urban food production. Many food gardens today rely heavily on bought seedlings and pesticides. Resilient gardens must have strategies to source essential inputs locally. For example, they can use seed-saving networks, composting, and local livestock. These gardens also require people who have the time and skill to manage them.
Vegetable gardening requires knowledge and skill. PROV, VPRS 10163/P2
This history inspires stories about self-provisioning by ordinary people, like the 56-year-old woman who ran a haberdashery-and-confectionery shop in Essendon in 1941 and produced all of the vegetables and eggs that she and her sister needed at their home.
Low-density urban areas in Australia offer a great deal of potential for resilient and sustainable food production. Our cities must invest in the development of skills and systems that will sustain this type of farming.
It is particularly important for low-income communities where scarcity of resources will be the most severe. The task is made more difficult by the displacement of farms from cities. Standard houses on smaller lots are also increasing in number. Poorly planned infill developments are consuming urban garden space.
It’s possible that we are not at the point where a “Grow Your Own Campaign” on the same scale as during wartime is needed. We would be foolish if we ignored its lessons if we wanted to increase the resilience and sustainability of our cities.