‘Putting sustainable food production into context’; Jerry Coleby-Williams, Patron, National Toxics Network Inc.

Key aspects of sustainable food production

Key aspects of sustainable food production

‘Putting sustainable food production into context’ by Jerry Coleby-Williams, Patron, National Toxics Network Inc. 

At the Meetings of the conferences of the parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, Geneva, Switzerland, 24th April to 6th May 2017.

“There is no economy without food.

I am here to tell you that industrial chemicals – pesticides and fertilisers – are unnecessary for food production.

The food growers I mix with are interested in reducing the cost of operating a farm. They are not interested in spending money unnecessarily on industrial chemicals or fossil fuels.

The growers I work with are the opposite of industrial monocultures, they create productive, resilient landscape mosaics.

Such growers are interested in increasing productivity and profitability of their business by reducing the operating costs of food production.

No farming system is more productive than a mixed, one hectare family run farm. This is the best and most productive system our species has invented.

What matters most to sustainable food production is context.

What is occurring in the Arctic will reshape global food production.

Methane gas, released by a rapidly warming Arctic, heralds the end of industrial food production because this greenhouse gas will warm our climate so much and so fast it will end definitive seasons.

Within ten years of the first ice-free month in the Arctic we can expect 6-8C of warming, and this will mean the end of clearly defined seasonality. As seasons become ‘greyed’, seasonal food production will end.

Great Barrier Reef: 60% bleached and ecologically dysfunctional in 5 years

Great Barrier Reef: 60% bleached and ecologically dysfunctional in 5 years

Natural systems tend to accommodate environmental stresses up to a tipping point, beyond which systems rapidly collapse. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a prime example. Sixty percent of this reef bleached in a five year period. Most of this reef is now ecologically dysfunctional.

This methane positive feedback loop is not acknowledged by the Paris Treaty. It is one of twenty positive feedback loops currently in operation, none of which are recognised by that treaty. The consequences of feedback loops for food security are not recognised by a single national food security policy.

These environmental changes will not occur evenly. They will impact faster and harder on the Northern Hemisphere because that is where most of the land occurs and land warms faster than oceans. These changes herald the twilight of industrial monocultures.

As one farmer in Central Queensland recently said about rain following drought in an article published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “It’s too late for a summer crop and it’s too early for a winter crop…”.
 Monocultures will not end with a bang, they will end with a whimper.

The future of food security will depend on family run farms, market gardeners (like me) and domestic food growers, because this kind of grower is more flexible, more responsive and very unlike the monolithic, ecologically impoverished, industrial monocultures. Monocultures are productive and food is cheap when nature is benign. Unlike monocultures, we are the nimble, the quick and the resilient.

We ignore the following key aspects of sustainable food production at our peril:

* A culture of forgetting – we forget our horticultural history;

* Declining crop diversity, both in the range of species grown and in the genetic diversity within each crop;

* The oversimplification and impoverishment of systems of food production;

* A reluctance to apply the precautionary principle where using the least toxic solution in crop protection comes first;

A culture of forgetting horticultural history occurs as the spotlight focusses on progress and moves forward with it. How did our species manage to produce food before the invention of bee-killing and bird-killing neonicotinoid pesticides thirty or so years ago*?

We have forgotten lessons already learned and forgetting is a form of uninvention.

Rare and threatened plants display, Sydney Botanic Gardens

Rare and threatened plants display, Sydney Botanic Gardens (1998)



Declining crop diversity is a risk. It is risky for humanity to depend on just twenty different crop species. It increases the risk when crops, especially hybrids, lack genetic diversity. It is even more risky to rely on a narrow range of crops when countries are, in effect, changing their climates.

I am a cropping systems engineer. I have a sound working knowledge – not just book knowledge – of 15,000 plants of economic value, and I have cultivated plants in four different climate zones (cool temperate, dry temperate, warm temperate and subtropical).

Declining genetic diversity within crops is very risky, because this reduces their resilience to pests and diseases and reduces their reliability in different soils and less hospitable, less predictable weather.

The rediversification of systems of food production to cope with accelerating climate change implies we need research, however this is not true. Much of it has already been done. The Australian National University (ANU) has completed research into 300 family farms across the states of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Professor David Lindenmayer at ANU is a first point of reference.



The precautionary principle in chemical use is vital. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, which I managed between 1992 and 2003, is Australia’s oldest scientific organisation. The garden occupies the first site in the country to experience European farming methods and runoff – silt, chemicals and other pollutants – drain directly into world famous Sydney Harbour. Now Australia’s most heavily visited public open space, the gardens have accumulated many of Australia’s most complex pest and disease problems. In every sense, this land is ‘ground zero’ for the impact of western industrial horticulture since settlement in 1788.

Yet it only took five years for scientific and horticultural staff to convert this 30 hectare open space to biological (organic) management. This achievement was never publicly announced because the Hon. Bob Debus, then the NSW Minister for the Environment, privately likened biological farming as being a ‘religion’ and declared in conversation ‘there is no place for ‘religion’ in the NSW public service’.

Despite the botanic gardens never officially declaring it had become organic, all the systems were in place and practised to a large degree by staff. Integrated pest management eventually became official policy, continual improvement was endorsed, and the use of least toxic chemical first was advocated.

My message to this conference is this. If Australia’s oldest, most heavily used, and most complex horticultural landscape can be prepared for conversion to biological systems of

In 2000, Australia's oldest scientific organisation almost became organic

In 2000, Australia’s oldest scientific organisation almost became organic

management, so too can any horticultural landscape anywhere.

The United Nations recognises that access to a healthy diet is a human right. Since climate change is altering the biochemistry (nutritional value) of the crops we grow, the health value of the food in our diet has, and is, altering.

I put it to you that if a healthy diet is a human right, it is also a human, animal and environmental right to provide access to the safest methods of crop protection, animal husbandry, and prioritising solutions which are both the least expensive and safest.

I come from four generations of English farmers and market gardeners. I can reach back through 150 years of family horticultural tradition. I know that botanical pesticides, like nicotine soap, were effective long before multinationals ended their use so they could claim a global monopoly on their synthetic, bee-killing and bird-killing neonicotinoid alternatives.

Milk, coffee, bicarbonate of soda, vegetable oil, vinegar are safe and effective for crop protection

Milk, coffee, bicarbonate of soda, vegetable oil, vinegar are safe and effective for crop protection

It is a human right to be able to use human foodstuffs to manage pests and diseases. Foodstuffs such as caffeine (in coffee, used to control slugs and snails and weeds), bicarbonate of soda (used in cakes and for controlling foliar fungi and for altering soil pH), cow’s milk (horticultural fungicide), vegetable oil (spraying oils, like sunflower oil, for suffocating pests) as well as traditional botanical pesticides. We know how effective neem oil is, but why was nicotine soap, a botanical extract from the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and used against chewing and sap sucking pests, discontinued in favour of synthetic neonicotinoids? 

Traditional horticultural solutions must be front and centre in national food security policy, national agriculture policy. Growers and the public must be aware of and educated in their use, not just exposed to the consequences of applying the latest, most fashionable toxic industrial poisons.

My affordable, sustainable market garden and home – ‘Bellis’ – in subtropical Brisbane is an example of how powerful small, intensive food production can be. In tropical Indonesia, with its young, fertile soils, my 813 square metre property could feed a family of five and earn a cash income.

I have a 300 square metre food garden and, on average, I have 100 different fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and medicinal plants available for use. I garden with Australia’s fossil soils. I have proven that 100 square metres of good soil can feed one person all year round if it can be supplied with a minimum of 7,000 litres of irrigation water a year. This garden supplies a surplus of food to three and earns me a cash income.

Seed banks are not as safe, democratic or reliable as we are led to believe

Seed banks are not as safe, democratic or reliable as we are led to believe

My property produces three times as much renewable electricity as it uses. My roof is my power station and it collects my drinking water supply. My sewage system uses ultra-violet light and bacteria to convert washing and sewage water into liquid fertiliser for toilet flushing and irrigating my crops. I am the only person in Queensland that uses wastewater for food production.

My property uses well composted, freely draining soil, contouring, raised beds, sub-surface drainage and porous paths to slow stormwater down so it soaks in and moves vertically through the soil profile. Hardly a drop of stormwater, nutrients or sediment escape my land.

In extended drought I can sustain food production using one litre of recycled sewage water per square metre per day, plus natural rainfall. In 2009, I won a national Save Water Award (Built Environment category) for demonstrating this.

By demonstrating to the Queensland State government how many plants can be successfully grown with recycled waste water, the government modified and expanded its advice to growers.

During dramatic summer floods in SE Queensland in 2011, 2012, 2013, my property soaked up rainfall. Not a strawberry fruit was lost.

In March 2017, over twelve hours, ex-Cyclone Debbie dropped 219mm rain on my property. Every drop soaked in.

Bellis: an affordable, versatile model of sustainable power, water, genes and food production

Bellis: an affordable, versatile model of sustainable power, water and food production

The key infrastructure that makes my property work are solar panels, a wastewater system, a rainwater harvesting system, a nursery, water sensitive landscape design. The key crops are diverse, non-hybrid landraces which are being acclimatised.

In wealthy, first world Australia, my property is regarded as a domestic food garden, however the model is very flexible. It could be up scaled to suit a housing division, a town or a city. It is a template for a living gene bank, a production nursery, it can supply the local community or local farmers with planting stock. The model is affordable and can be adapted to suit a variety of purposes and extreme weather events.

As we enter the world of methane-driven climate change – the Age of Climate Consequences – I want you to know that small growers and traditional methods are powerful, nimble, quick. When the weather is unfavourable, they are more adaptable and dependable than the monolithic monocultures would like you to believe.

Triple your harvest with NSW-bred 19th century non-hybrid corn

Triple your harvest with NSW-bred 19th century non-hybrid corn

Jerry Coleby-Williams RHS, Dip. Hort. (Kew), NEBSM
Patron, National Toxics Network Inc. (Australia)
Director, Seed Saver’s Network Inc. (Australia)
‘Bellis’, Brisbane’s affordable, sustainable house and garden

Sustainable Food Production Presentation
, Geneva, 27th April 2017

* ‘Forgetting‘, The Organic Gardener magazine, Autumn 2002 edition, ABC Publishing, Australia;