I was recently discussing the Queensland flood with a friend who is involved in the Transition Towns movement. How, she wondered, can small-scale local sustainability projects which encourage people to grow and share food, have any positive effect in the face of a natural disaster? The floods which inundated Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, the Lockyer Valley, low-lying bits of Brisbane and numerous small towns and vast regions must have also washed away a lot of local sustainability projects and community gardens. “I guess”, she concluded, “that when it comes to disasters, there is nothing we can do except take what comes and then rebuild.”
Cyclone Yasi compounded the food issue this week by completely destroying something like 90% of the north Queensland banana crop and much of the sugar and dairy industry of the region. Apart from a small part of northern NSW, we rely on the region now flattened for our supply of bananas and sugar – these are not the sorts of things we can grow in suburban backyards in, say, Canberra (although I am currently experimenting with growing a pineapple in a greenhouse, but that’s another story). Despite the inevitable protestations of one Bob Katter MP, we may be eating imported bananas for some time to come.
True enough that Transition Towns and other local food initiatives in the areas affected by Yasi and the flood will be just as badly off as everyone else. Transition Towns is a movement that started in the UK about 10 years ago to encourage and assist communities to address the effects of climate change and peak oil through local sustainability. Central to the concept is the development of a local ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’ (EDAP), which looks at ways in which local communities can reduce their collective reliance on fossil fuels. One of the ways communities are putting EDAPs into action is by growing as much food as possible locally. Local food is characterised in a social and economic context by farmers’ markets, community food baskets and community gardens, which are taking the place of reliance on supermarket and long-distance delivery chains for fresh produce in Transition Town communities. But when a natural disaster strikes an entire season of local food will be destroyed. So is it back to the supermarket for vegies?
Yes and no. Certainly, in the areas worst affected by the floods and now the cyclone, it will take time to rebuild backyard and community gardens (pictured is Brisbane’s Northey St City Farm during the flood) and realistically, where people have lost an entire house they are probably not likely to be too worried about their garden in the short term. Although a relative of mine whose house was almost entirely submerged in the Brisbane suburb of Rocklea told me that his yard is now full of rich Lockyer Valley silt so he’s looking forward to having a great vegie garden when he rebuilds. I guess there’s a silver lining after all.
Local and backyard gardens are, by their nature, seasonal. As I write this, the mutant zucchini plant in my backyard vegie plot has run its course, the tomatoes are nearing the end of the harvest and I’m starting to think about planting broad beans and propagating brassicas for the winter harvest. It takes a single season for a productive food garden to be restored and for that season, yes, people in affected places will be relying on outside deliveries for their fresh produce.
However, the real strength of Transition Towns-style initiatives and local food-growing is not in the areas that have been affected but in the areas that haven’t. During a recent trip to Brisbane it was somewhat confronting to see supermarket shelves bare of fresh produce. Brisbane’s salad bowl is the Lockyer Valley but the sight of bare shelves shoots home the full implications of that. This is where local food growing is a vital part of surviving whatever nature chooses to dish out. Community gardens, Transition Towns and other local sustainability projects will be a major part of ensuring that the people who were not directly affected by the disasters are able to continue to source their food locally. Where possible and practicable, they can also assist neighbouring areas that were flooded or destroyed with supplies of local food that has not had to travel from interstate in refrigerated trucks.
I know people who have dismissed Transition Towns and similar sustainability initiatives as ‘neo-hippy’ or ‘utopian but unrealistic’. It is in the aftermath of something like what we have witnessed in Queensland over the past month that local sustainability really comes to the fore. Brisbane is a big city and only a relatively small part of it was underwater. Where people are growing their own fruit and vegetables they will not be paying for overpriced supermarket produce. Where neighbourhoods and communities are sharing backyard food, they will be socially and economically more resilient than those where individual households are paying through the nose for a tomato or a lettuce.
Oh, and you can grow bananas in Brisbane backyards. The bunch that was hanging over my mother’s back fence from next door and which her neighbour generously said she could have, has, I am reliably informed, suddenly become a lot more attractive.
More about Transition Towns Australia (blogger based on the Sunshine Coast) here
SE NSW Community Network here
City Farms and Community Gardens network here