I recently completed postgraduate research on urban food production. The research area was limited to within a 70km radius of Melbourne CBD. The data collection period ran from July 2012 to July 2013. This was deliberately designed to capture inter-seasonal yield. In all, 15 households took part in the research and each participant contributed 12 weeks’ worth of data.
The collective plot size was 1,096 square metres, with a total yield of 388.73 kg worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey and meat. A total of 1,015 eggs were also recorded. The study found that backyard food production was capable of producing a great diversity of edibles from common kitchen garden herbs to less commonly cultivated fruits and vegetables, as well as less commercially available varieties like amaranth, apple cucumber, acorn squash, butter squash, babaco, cape gooseberry, edible canna, elderflower, gem squash, loganberry, nettle, oca, orache, purslane, rat-tailed radish, viola flower, warrigal green, white mulberry and yacon. In total, 101 different types of nuts, fruits and vegetables were generated during the study period.
Another notable feature was the diverse food growing technologies and practices employed by the participants. One exemplary backyard was established in 2008 using permaculture principles. Measuring 80 square metres, this particular backyard featured more than 30 fruit trees in addition to over 70 varieties of medicinal plants and herbs. The total yield from this backyard over the 12-week period was 50.23 kg.
Of the 15 participants, 11 practiced permaculture design principle in their food growing habits. This involved an integrated approach of no-dig, raised beds for food growing, the use of compost and/or worm-farm castings for soil improvement (and the use of animal manure for those engaged in poultry or fowl raising), companion planting for organic pest management and rainwater harvesting.
The type of produce was broadly segregated into 19 categories. “Beans” included a wide variety: broad bean, French bean, string bean, etc. Similarly “Citrus” covered grapefruit, lime, lemon, orange, etc.
Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects as a dietary supplement, is widely practiced in parts of Asia and Africa, but it is not so common in the Western world. One participant raised tenebrio molitor as part of his backyard food production activity.
All participants reported a surplus of between 10 and 25 per cent, which was shared among friends, family and neighbours, or distributed through local swap and share network.
Participants were also asked about their reasons and motivations for growing food in their backyards. Their responses can be broadly categorised into five main groups:
- health and nutrition, including taste and freshness,
- ecology and environment, e.g. issues like GMO-free and organic,
- food security and self-reliance,
- cost, and
- pleasure and enjoyment including lifestyle and spirituality.
Of the five categories, ‘ecology and environment’ ranked as the top motivation at 80 per cent, followed by ‘food security and self reliance’ at 73.3 percent, while ‘health and nutrition’ accounted for 66.6 per cent.
For the participants who highlighted ‘environment and ecology’ reasons, some of the concerns mentioned were food-miles, GMOs, peak oil, climate change and stewardship. As one of them noted:
You appreciate food more when you know where it comes from and have seen the amazing process of it growing. Home grown has the best flavour and freshness and I prefer to be eating seasonally. I believe there is more health benefits from eating local produce. I love the reward and enjoyment of growing things, of creating an edible ecosystem. Nature is really very generous. It is expensive to buy organic and you can be sure food is sage – GE free and chemical free.
The premise of the study is the capacity of urban backyard food production and its potential to address food security issues in Melbourne. Admittedly, this is a highly selective study and somewhat limited in scope. But with its polyculture and biodiversity, urban food production is a thriving activity with productive outcomes. Food production in urban areas takes many forms and as the study illustrated, it is supplemental and not complete self-sufficiency.
For cities to be resilient it is critical to address the issue of food security/vulnerability. The central concern here is to explore the many possibilities and potential for restoring the food shed closer to where it will be ultimately consumed, i.e. local neighbours.
For those interested in reading the thesis, it can be found here (32mb PDF).