Opinion

Carrot-astrophe! What crop gluts can teach us about our broken food system and how we can fix it

‘Carrots’ by phil Hendley via Flickr Commons.

Since early September carrot farmers in the east of Australia have been dealing with a ‘carrotastrophe’. Due to the worst glut in 25 years, carrot prices are so low that it is simply uneconomic to harvest them. Responses to this problem of oversupply have been creative and concerted – including inviting the public to harvest their own carrots for free – but large quantities of nutritious vegetables will, unfortunately, be ploughed back into the soil. This excess of carrots is just one of many vegetable gluts experienced across the world each year, with farms in India and North America adding to Australia’s 2017 tally, and contributing to the wastage of up to one-third of all food produced globally.

Despite their frequency and scale, crop over-supply events are not widely commented on in the context of sustainability and food security, where there is an understandable focus on the more urgent issue of food scarcity. With the grave hunger crisis facing the world, it is tempting to dismiss crop gluts as inevitable, relatively harmless and, by many, perhaps even a nice problem to have.  However, crop gluts should concern us, too, as they reveal some important lessons about our broken food production system and its implications for food security.

Lesson 1: large-scale production is a risky business

Currently, most of Australia’s fruit and vegetable supply is grown outside of our cities, increasingly by medium and large-scale enterprises, with a significant proportion of crops intended for export. Growers gamble on domestic and international demand, which fluctuate in often unexpected ways, as well as weather conditions, which are becoming increasingly difficult to predict as climate change worsens. It is a high stakes game: when these bets are lost, growers suffer financial losses, and as their livelihoods are threatened, so in turn is our food supply.

Lesson 2: re-distribution is not a magic cure

Although excess crops sometimes result in free and cheap food for local consumers, only a small proportion are successfully redirected, due to the costs and logistics of transporting and storing perishable produce. Even then, a bulk supply of one or a few types of surplus crops will not meet all the nutritional needs of those who are food insecure. Therefore, our current food production system fails us by producing more than enough for those who can access it, while leaving 1 in 6 Australians food insecure, and 11% of the global population suffering hunger.

Lesson 3: the high environmental cost of conventional farming

Conventional growing methods, including the use of industrial-scale fertilisers; pesticides; water, transportation and crop storage wreak a heavy toll on the environment through soil and land degradation; higher carbon emissions; impacts on water availability and quality, and destruction of biodiversity. Whilst these practices enable growers to achieve the high yields that often lead to over-supply, they contribute materially to climate change, which in turn causes crop failures and shortages.

How can ‘growing local’ help?

Securing our food supply and reducing food waste are complex challenges faced by humankind. There are no easy solutions, but moving some of our fresh food production to small-scale urban farms could potentially help. If we grow more fresh produce, through community and small independent farms, within the world’s increasingly populated urban areas there is potential to:

  • reduce crop gluts and food wastage by linking supply more closely with local demand and lower the incidence of malnutrition (Cribb, 2017) by making fresh fruits and vegetables more available, especially to those who are currently unable to access or afford them;
  • make better use of urban land space, and reduce ‘urban heat islands’;
  • strengthen the resilience of our cities to extreme weather and political events, by making them more food self-sufficient and enhancing social cohesion;
  • improve psychological and physical health through better nutrition, access to green spaces, more exercise and a greater sense of community (Brown & Jameton, 2000);
  • cut carbon emissions by reducing demands on industrial fertilisers; transportation; storage, and water resources; and
  • free up some of our precious and scarce land resources currently used for industrial farming, and provide potential opportunities for re-wilding those lands to improve biodiversity and sequester carbon (Cribb, 2017).

However, local food production is not yet widely accepted as a definitive solution to malnutrition and food insecurity, and it is unlikely that it will be sufficiently productive to completely satisfy the food needs of urban populations (Santo et al., 2016).  Moreover, it has been shown that many urban farming initiatives continue to socially and economically exclude racial minorities and people of lower socio-economic status (Santo et al., 2016), though well-implemented projects show some potential for revitalising distressed neighbourhoods by enhancing access to food and building job skills and social capital (Vitiello and Wolf-Powers, 2014).  It should also be taken into consideration that a move towards localism would raise some serious transitional issues, especially for medium and large-scale growers.

We need to make a fundamental shift in the way we grow and consume our fresh produce. Small-scale urban farming may not be a perfect or complete solution, but its potential to improve global food security and environmental health make it both a worthy and a compelling pursuit.

References

Brown, K & Jameton, A. (2000). Public Health Implications of Urban Agriculture. Journal of Public Health Policy, 21(1), 20-39.

Cribb, J. (2017). Surviving the 21st century:  Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How we can Overcome Them. Canberra, ACT: Springer International Publishing.

Santo, R., Palmer, A., & Kim, B. (2016). ‘Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture.’  John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, May.

Vitiello, D., & Wolf-Powers, L. (2014). Growing Food to Grow Cities?  The Potential of Agriculture for Economic and Community Development in the Urban United States. Community Development Journal, 49(4), 508-523.


Belinda Bradberry is a student in the Master of Sustainability program at the University of Sydney. She holds Bachelors degrees in Business and Law from the Queensland University of Technology and a Masters degree in Public and International Law from the University of Melbourne. A former international corporate and telecommunications lawyer, Belinda is now pursuing her passion to work in the field of environmental sustainability, food security, health and community development.