Food With A Future

Extinct: Teosinte is the only perennial corn (Zea mays ssp. mexicana)

Extinct: Teosinte is the only perennial corn (Zea mays ssp. mexicana)

Whatever they said to you at school, farming is the oldest profession.


Farming created a reliable surplus of food, and for the past 10,000 years or so all the fancy things we take for granted became possible: libraries, art, science. Settled society evolved as we left our hunter-gatherer cultures behind.

Right now, more people than ever before are dependent upon very few species of crop plant to feed us. Unlike our ancestors who used anything and everything that was useful, humanity now depends upon 30 species of staple crop plant. These staples have a very narrow genetic base and farming them industrially exposes them to increasingly resistant and widespread pests and diseases.

Last century the adoption of mass production in farming – the euphemistic ‘green’ revolution – resulted in the mass extinction of 87% of the traditional crop varieties developed by farmers over 10,000 years of farming.

Suddenly, dramatically, they were dropped in favour of crop cultivars that fit conveniently into mechanical farming. A classic e
xample of biodiversity erosion is India. India is now the world’s second most populous nation, used to grow 30,000 varieties of rice at the start of the 20th century. Different cultivars had been developed over centuries to suit every possible soil type, for highlands, lowlands, floodplains, saline water and there were a multitude of cultivars far more nutritious, easier to grow and far more resilient than modern forms – the so-called triumphs of modern science. Now, just 10 rice cultivars comprise 75% of all plantings in India.

The USA, where industrial farming began, has since 1900, lost 90% of all its vegetable cultivars. The USA became – and still remains – the world’s greatest producer and consumer of corn (maize). In 1900 the USA grew 434 corn cultivars, but by 1983 just 40 hybrids were being grown.

Globally, 85% of all apple cultivars have been lost in the past hundred years, and thanks to industrial farming techniques their nutritional value has been halved. Wild apple species are also threatened by extinction, mostly through habitat loss by land clearing for farming, forestry and urban development.

Wild genes of our crop ancestors are important for two reasons. First, they contain the original and best genes for fighting pests and diseases. Second because they form the most diverse gene pool that will ever exist.

Wild apples, like almost every other wild crop ancestor from corn to wheat, are inadequately conserved in the wild. The ecosystems in which they evolved are threatened by habitat loss. In the case of corn, genetically modified (GM) genes from GM crops grown in the Americas have escaped. All remaining populations of wild corn are now polluted with GM genes. Unlike nuclear waste – which gradually diminishes over thousands of years – genetic pollution is forever.

I wrote these notes back in 1997 when our global population was 5 billion. Now another 2 billion people also expect to be reliably fed. 
Few governments conserve traditional crop plants in the way that they conserve cuddly animals, like the giant panda, and that’s why organisations like the Seed Saver’s Network were formed.

‘Food sovereignty’ is a modern term, like ‘sustainability’. Food sovereignty can be defined as a nation’s self-sufficiency in food, where affordable staples are made available to its people irrespective of their age, personal wealth, or place of residence. Thanks to inadequate research and excessive lobbying by global agribusiness interests, Australia’s first ever National Food Plan, released by the federal government in May 2013, is a joke.

At best Australia’s first Food Plan represents a cheque to promote food exports and food exporting agribusiness, offering ordinary families nothing for sustaining an affordable, nutritious food supply. At worst the Food Plan guarantees to subsidise and promote the export of cheap food during an Australian  food shortage. Our government has guaranteed big export businesses will profit at the expense of poor  Australians during famine, preparing to duplicate what happened to the Irish during the Potato Famine.

The long-term outlook for Australian food sovereignty is not good. Our nation produces a relatively small food surplus in good years, mostly meat and grains. It’s sufficient to feed between 30-40 million people with hamburgers. Most of our exports feed the wealthy in the Middle East.

Our food exports are a small amount of food compared to current and predicted global population statistics.
 Australia covers 7.7 million km2, our fossil soils are infertile and 3 billion years old and they (generally) feed our current population of 22.4 million.

By contrast, the neighbouring island of Java covers 1.9 million km2, that’s 1.8 times the size of the state of Victoria. Java has young, deep, fertile, well-watered volcanic soils. Its current population is 138 million. In a good year, Java is almost self-sufficient in most staple foods.

Bangladesh is 1/12th the size of Queensland, however irrigated farmland allows that nation to harvest three crops in a good year. In a good year, Bangladesh can feed its 142.3 million people.

Bangladesh has 31 times the population of Queensland, a state that’s currently struggling to remain self-sufficient in dairy products.

As the global population rises, Australian food exports will always find buyers. But we won’t be able to grow enough to solve rising national AND rising global demand if we follow the course which agribusiness has dictated to Canberra. Ordinary Australians will suffer.

If this isn’t enough to sound alarm bells, our burgeoning population relies on just 30 plant species for our staple foods which is inherently risky.

To make matters worse, during last century 87% of all the cultivated varieties of crops became extinct, taking with them our ability to adapt and improve crops. What remains of these traditional cultivars and their wild ancestors contain the widest remaining pool of genes – the sort of genes that offer resistence to pests and diseases, and insurance against drought and flooding.

Australian food production is vulnerable to rising oil prices, imminent peak phosphorous, declining honeybee population, rising human population, ocean acidification, rising sea levels (eroding soil and contaminating coastal aquifers), loss of agricultural land to desertification, loss of agricultural land to mining and housing, the pollution of our fossil aquifers to coal seam gas extraction, spreading dryland salinity from land clearing and accelerating soil erosion due to industrial farming.

In addition, Global Warming is progressing far faster than anticipated and will alter agriculture far faster and more profoundly than many dare acknowledge. Last year we were talking about adapting so that our grandchildren would have a safer future. This year scientists indicate Global Warming is progressing faster and we are probably twenty years ahead of ‘schedule’. So change needed now is not  for our grandchildren, it’s for our children. It’s for us.

‘Localisation’, using Seed Saver techniques to adapt resilient, traditional crops to a warming world is critical to the future of sustainable food production.

We may take our local food gardens, local businesses and our local gardening clubs for granted, but they are our specialists, our networks, our hubs.

In our continually surprising climate, each and every food grower is a part of National Food Security. If big business and our federal government want to farm Australia to feed other nations, we must provide  our own food supply while the world is warming.

One of the best gardening tips I’ve ever had was from my father: “If in doubt, do what great grandad would have done”. Great Grandad William Coleby was a market gardener in Colchester (UK), selling  produce from his green grocer’s shop. What we grow in our gardens will become increasingly valuable, and our living larders support local food security. So keep growing, and keep practising. One day a friend, or a neighbour, might need a feed.

Extinct: Teosinte is the only perennial corn (Zea mays ssp. mexicana)

Extinct: Teosinte is the only perennial corn (Zea mays ssp. mexicana)


Introductory Notes to the illustrated talk ‘Sustainable Gardening – If in doubt, do what great grandad would have done’, presented for ‘The May Month of Learning’, Thuringowa Central Library, Townsville City Libraries, 31st May 2013.

These notes were drawn from project research conducted for the creation of:

* The ‘Rare & Threatened Plants Garden’ installed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, 1998, and

* extracts from my draft Food Plan for the Queensland Conservation submission to the Federal Government’s draft National Food Plan, 5th September 2011.

Suggested mood music to accompany the text, click on this link: ‘Dig for Victory’ by Public Service Broadcasting.

Copyright Jerry Coleby-Williams 16th May 2013