Tag Archives: Coffs Harbour

The Networked World – The Connected Food System

The networked world is here

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 9th February, 2013

The National Broadband Network has arrived in Coffs Harbour, and soon all of us will have access to super-high speed internet services. Amongst other changes, the NBN is expected to significantly expand the scope for home-based working and tele-commuting, via high-definition and reliable video-conferencing.

The NBN is a further major step in the construction of an increasingly networked world. According to Harvard University’s Cyber Law Centre, ‘ever-evolving and increasingly powerful information and communication technologies have fundamentally changed the nature of global relationships, sources of competitive advantage and opportunities for economic development’ (www.cyber.law.harvard.edu). Humanity is on its way to becoming ‘an increasingly interconnected network of individuals, firms, schools and governments communicating and interacting with each other through a variety of channels’.

While the implications of a globally interconnected humanity are, to put it mildly, mind-boggling and (as yet) barely understood, the value of effective business and community networks are well known. Richard Pirog, a leading thinker and practitioner in the field of local and regional food systems development in Iowa and Michigan in the US, identifies four key roles that food business networks play:

–          Information and knowledge hubs

–          Catalysts for co-operation – building trust and capacity across organisations

–          Magnets – leveraging funding to do the work

–          Scouts – be at the cutting edge of new ideas and innovation

Successful networks don’t just emerge out of the ether. They are consciously designed, created and nurtured by the individuals who comprise them. Pirog uses the acronym TEAMS to capture the components of successful networks as:

–          T: trust and transparency, shared goals, servant leadership

–          E: enjoy work, participate and collaborate, get and give

–          A: achieve goals

–          M: master content, continuous learning

–          S: structure the network, agree on ways to work together, give a clear indication of value to participants, and provide consistent communication

The tradional, long-standing and successful model of business networking in Australia are the Chambers of Commerce. They have done an outstanding job over many decades in providing services to their members, and facilitating relationships.

Coffs Harbour and Bellingen are however about to host a new business network. The Wholistic Business Network (WBN) is, according to its co-founder Frances Amaroux, ‘an international network of highly-inspired people involved in creating a world to which people want to belong’.

The WBN was created  in Sydney  12 years ago, and has since spread to Brisbane, Melbourne, Newcastle, Byron Bay, Perth, Auckland and Ubud, in Bali. Frances told me that she wanted to create a mid-north coast chapter after moving back to Bellingen following several years’ away; and noticing that, while there were many individuals and businesses working in the ‘cultural creative’ spheres (arts, environment, complementary medicine and therapies, etc.), ‘there was no umbrella organisation that brought all these people and businesses together.’

The aim of the WBN is to ‘bring together people doing innovative and leading edge research and practice’, with the longer-term vision of ‘creating vibrant healthy businesses and communities’, in order to ‘make a happier, healthier and more conscious world’. Their four focal areas are creating connections, researching and supporting sustainable lifestyles, informing and raising awareness about health and sustainability, and ‘building an international community of like-minded peoples’.

The WBN functions through holding monthly business networking events, which in our region will alternate between Coffs Harbour and Bellingen, with invited speakers. While these meetings have a business focus, non-business people are very welcome. I am very pleased to be the speaker for the inaugural event in Coffs Harbour this coming Wednesday, on the topic of networks as the ‘wave of the future’.

The first mid-north coast WBN will take place on Wednesday 13 February, at the Coffs Harbour Professional Centre, Level 1, 9 Park Avenue, at 7.00 p.m. Cost is $20, for more information contact Frances Amaroux on 0414 810 148 or Vanessa Lewis on 0414 448 884.

Garden of Eden at Coffs Jetty

Garden of Eden – Garden by the Sea

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 13th October, 2012

For the past 21 years, Wayne Kirkland and Mary-Ann Crowther have been living with as low an environmental footprint as it’s possible to have – on a yacht, travelling up and down the east coast of Australia.

For the last few years they’ve been coming back to Coffs, and now they’ve so fallen in love with the place, that they’ve taken over the lease for the Galley café and burger bar at Coffs Harbour jetty.

Wayne and Mary-Ann are passionate about sustainability and treading lightly on the earth, but it’s not about preaching to people. As Wayne told me, ‘I live by the philosophy of just show people how to do it’.

And now, with the help of Steve McGrane, Matt Downie and some willing volunteers from the Combine St community garden, Wayne and Mary-Ann are showing their customers, and the people who work, live near and visit the Jetty, just how amazingly productive a 6m2 veggie garden can be.

Steve McGrane (left) and Wayne Kirkland


This wasn’t a case of turning the first sod. Rather, it involved clearing out some pretty massive rocks, on the café side of the breakwater. Underneath was some gravel and fairly barren soil, laced with salt spray.

But Wayne wasn’t deterred, because he knew Steve had a very cunning plan. After years of research and trial and error in his own gardens, Steve has developed a special no-dig garden, layered lasagne-like with ’17 secret herbs and spices’, as he likes to say.

Actually, they’re not so secret. They include lucerne; sugar cane mulch; blood and bone; bags of comfrey, tansy and other leaves;  various manures; molasses (‘very important for the microbial action’); wood chip; and mineral rocks (calcium and phosphate). With the exception of the lucerne, everything’s organic.

The Garden by the Sea – early stages

The results are truly impressive. The garden is barely six weeks old, and Wayne and Mary-Ann have been eating out of it for three weeks. As Steve explains, the porosity of the mix, and the rapid action of the microbes in breaking everything down and making the nutrients available, allows the roots to grow very fast, producing very rapid growth above the ground. More than that,  the nutrients ‘aren’t leached out of the system, because the microbes hold them in suspension’.

The end result is both a super-healthy and productive garden right now; and even better, it ‘will be more fertile at the end of this growing season that it was at the beginning.’ That’s something, because what’s already growing is impressive enough: rows of broccoli, beetroot, kolrabi, lebanese cress, leeks, onions, chillies, tomatoes, a pumpkin vine, two varieties of sweet potato, several types of basil, parsley, lettuce, chinese greens, choko, taro, kumara, and flowers for companions.

The Garden - up close and personal!
The Garden – up close and personal!

The food tastes sensational, and because it’s so rich in minerals, it is very nutrient-dense.

In the next phase, Wayne will put in native wildflowers and grasses, ‘to attract the birds and bees’. He’s already got a resident blue tongue.

As for the salt, everyone told Wayne he could never have a veggie garden by the sea. He’s proved the doubters wrong, through ‘a bit of love and care, and keeping the salt spray off it – I just come and gently hose the plants down when there’s been a bit of spray, and that keeps them fresh.’

Wayne and Mary-Ann are delighted with the garden, and so are their customers. ‘People love it, they sit here and look at the plants, and talk about it.’ Some people have even anonymously put in plants after closing time: Wayne has arrived in the morning to find chillies and tomatoes that weren’t there before. And in the few short weeks of its existence, it’s already creating a web of relationships, so that it can truly be regarded as a ‘community garden’ in its own right.

One of the most satisfying things for Wayne is that he can now send all the green waste from the café to the community garden, where Matt has established an extra worm farm to cope with it all. In return, Matt takes plants to the ‘garden by the sea’, and Wayne now gives him extra seedlings. Community garden volunteers will help out with extensions to the café garden. And Wayne is even getting donations of plants from other yacht owners; and encouraging people to pick parsley.

For Wayne and Steve, this garden is about living their vision: ‘We both have the philosophy that we should be planting every square inch that’s available. Food is essential to life, and if people got more involved in the backyard garden…That’s what stitched communities together, a generation ago. But today, you buy everything from the supermarket. A lot of young people don’t know what fresh food is, they’ve never seen it”, says Wayne.

“This is trying to show people that fast food doesn’t come from MacDonalds. This is fast food. I can take this out of the garden and put it on your plate in five minutes. That was the essence of the project, to shift people’s understanding, and thinking, of what you can do with a garden.”

If the last few weeks are anything to go by, Wayne and the team behind this garden have already achieved a lot.

Kids and vegies

Permablitz in Perry St

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday  1st September, 2012

Last month, the Coffs Coast Local Food Futures Project, funded by the NSW Environmental Trust, concluded after three years.

The centrepiece of this project was the establishment of two wonderful community gardens, in Coffs Habour (Combine St) and Bellingen (Bellingen High School). Both very different, each of these gardens has already made an important contribution to community education and cohesion in their respective localities, and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Local Food Futures Project has left many other legacies, and many great stories to tell. One of the most recent is the holding of a permablitz at the Gumnut Cottage Child Care Centre in Perry Drive, Coffs Harbour.

Gumnut Cottage is a community-based, not-for-profit centre, run by the parents of the approximately 70 families who use it.

Recently a key focus for centre has been the promotion of sustainability, says Director, Donna Easey, with the installation of water tanks and a solar system.

Because the Centre supplies all the childrens’ meals and cooks for them, they have been wanting to to ‘get the kids a lot more involved, by growing [their own food], and getting them to pick and eat it themselves’, says Donna.

‘So that’s why we applied for the green grant from the Council. We’ve had gardens before, but they didn’t work, so we thought, how can we improve on this. When the grant became available, we thought, this is an opportunity to do it bigger and better, to optimise our resources, get more garden space up and running.

With a $1600 green grant from Coffs Council, and a further $1000 of their own funds, they decided that the time was right to build a great edible garden for the kids in their care.

The key ingredient  was knowledge and expertise, and that was provided by the Local Food Futures grant, in the form of a stipend for permaculture designer Matt Downie, who is an active member of both the Combine St and Bellingen High School community gardens.

Matt’s design was put out to consultation amongst the Centre’s families, and attracted a lot of interest and enthusiastic comment. Not only did it involve the construction of a highly diverse edible garden, but it also addressed some long-term structural problems the Centre had been experiencing, such as the formation of mudpits due to the slope and heavy rain.

Donna was surprised by Matt’s knowledge of species and varieties, like chocolate sapote, ice cream bean and taro, that now form part of the edible garden for the Centre.

Twenty people rolled their sleeves up and worked from 9 am to 3 pm to build six 2.2m x 1.3m corrugated steel beds, as well as extensive trellising and a further railway sleeper raised bed.


Vegie bed construction at Gumnut childcare centre
Vegie bed construction at Gumnut childcare centre


 The garden has already got the children inspired and engaged. ‘On a daily basis, the children can’t wait to come in and water the plants, and see how they’re going. It’s very exciting.

Many parents who weren’t able to attend the blitz itself have been coming in to help out. ‘The kids are very excited when mum or dad comes to pick them up in the afternoon, and they say, come and look at the garden, look at what we’ve planted’, says Donna.

There have been many donations of plants from families, and grandparents have come in to share their gardening skills with the children.

Donna is very excited about the potential the garden brings to the Centre: ‘I think it’s going to be great, for children to go and pick things for themselves. But also looking at what’s in our garden, and how we can use it – for older kids, thinking about recipes, and then cooking and eating the food themselves.’  

As well as healthy eating, just being involved in the garden has a calming effect, especially for those children who are quite active.

And it’s inspired several families to start growing food in their own homes.

Donna sees a return to previous values and practices with this sort of local food growing. ‘When I grew up, we had big vegie gardens, and you had things that you don’t see anymore, like marrows, and big squashes. They’re hard to come by these days, but we had them on our table every night’, she says.

Food Policy Leadership at the Local Level

Local leadership on food – or lack of it

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 7th July, 2012

A few weeks ago the City of Melbourne endorsed its inaugural Food Policy, following two rounds of extensive community consultation that took place from October 2011 to April 2012.

Motivated by concerns of individual and community health and well-being, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, this policy is a landmark initiative at the local government level in Australia. It marks another stage in the embrace by growing numbers of councils of food as core business.

Local governments such as the Cities of Melbourne, Maribyrnong, Darebin, Yarra and Port Phillip are now the trendsetters in progressive and integrated policy development on food in Australia. For them, gone are the days when all councils dealt with were ‘roads, rates and rubbish’.

The City of Melbourne’s Food Policy starts from the recognition that there are key drivers – a changing climate, and growing constraints on the availability of key resources (oil, land and water) – which, combined with increasing demand for food with a growing population, ‘mean that we can no longer take our food supply for granted’.

city of melb logo

Contrast this acknowledgement of the facts of basic physical reality, with the comfortable assumption underpinning the Federal Government’s development of the country’s first National Food Plan: ‘Australia is food secure’.  Why? Simply because, in gross volumes, we export three-fifths of what we produce. But we don’t produce enough fruit and veg for a healthy diet for the whole population, so already we have a food import-dependency.

Like other pioneering local governments in this area, the City of Melbourne’s Food Policy recognises the multifunctionality of food and agriculture; and not simply as a set of numbers on a trade balance sheet. The policy identifies the many groups – low income households, older adults, people with a disability, refugees and migrants, and the homeless – who struggle each day to eat well. It recognises that these disadvantaged groups will likely face further ‘food stress’ if, as expected, climate change and resource constraints cause food prices to rise.

The aim of the policy is ambitious: ‘to improve people’s health and well-being by promoting a food system that is secure, healthy, sustainable, thriving and socially inclusive’. The Council recognises that achieving this goal is the work of everyone, and identifies its own role in five areas: education and community development; leadership and advocacy; building and strengthening partnerships; regulation and infrastructure management; and research.

The City of Melbourne is now starting work on an Action Plan to implement the policy. It will be interesting to see what it comes up with; and I will be following this closely.

Coffs Harbour has had, as some people know, a Local Food Alliance (LFA) for the past four years. In 2009, the LFA released a draft Local Food Futures Framework, intended to guide inform and guide council and community action in this field over the coming years. This Framework identified many of the same drivers of change, and vulnerabilities in the regional food system, as the City of Melbourne’s Food Policy. Its vision was of ‘the Coffs Coast region as a showcase sustinable local food economy that supports and sustains healthy, connected, strong and resilient communities, who activiely care for each other and their environment.’

It set out a ‘road map’ for action, and identified a number of strategic priorities. Many education and awareness-raising actions at a grass-roots level have been carried out by the community gardening groups affiliated with the LFA in Coffs and Bellingen.

What’s lacking, however, has been a strong strategic commitment to the LFA and the Food Futures Framework from the elected officials and upper echelons in Coffs Council. Unlike the City of Melbourne, Coffs Council has no Food Policy, despite all the groundwork – and the paperwork – being laid some years ago by the LFA. Unlike the City of Melbourne, Coffs Council has not assumed any leadership or advocacy role in this area, preferring to devolve those responsibilities to time-poor community volunteers. This lack of commitment is disappointing, to say the least; and we’d hope for more strategic vision and leadership in this vital area from the new Council.

The Master Resource

Nicole Foss – Energy:  the ‘Master Resource’

A version of this article appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 6th February 2012

This is the second of a series of three articles outlining the thought of Nicole Foss, who will be speaking at the Cavanbagh Centre in Coffs Harbour on Saturday, February 11, from 12 pm – 2.30 p.m.

Energy is the master resource. There is no substitute for it. If your total amount of absolute energy is declining, you are going to have to face consequences as a result. Other societies have lived on an energy income, [whereas] our societies have been based on a massive energy inheritance, in the form of fossil fuels. We burn probably 400 years’ worth of the Earth’s primary production every single year. But production from that inheritance is peaking, and you cannot continue to increase the flow-rate from a finite inheritance, [especially] when what we have left is the difficult, expensive-to-produce fraction…We are having to re-invest a significant amount of the energy we produce into the process of finding more energy. So we have less available as a surplus- net energy, or Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) –  to actually do anything with, and that is going to have major implications…”

This is how Nicole Foss explains ‘Peak Oil’. The key term is ‘flow-rate’, or EROEI. Fifty-to-eighty years ago, when the ‘super-giant’ fields and the ‘gushers’ were first discovered, the EROEI was 100:1. Now it’s reduced by 90%, to 10:1. To maintain our current level of societal complexity, Nicole argues, we probably can’t afford to go much lower than that; yet many of the currently available alternatives have significantly lower ratios.

Ethanol, for example, is estimated to have an EROEI of between 1.4:1 to 2:1; Nicole argues that corn-derived ethanol is in fact less than 1:1. Nuclear power has a slightly better EROEI at around 3:1, but comes with a host of other issues, as the events at Fuksuhima last March demonstrated so graphically. There is an abundance of coal, but if it is substituted en masse for oil and natural gas, then its EROEI will drop sharply; and of course we can hardly forget that burning coal is a major contributor to the warming of the global climate.

The EROEI of renewables like solar panels and wind power is a hotly debated topic, with some suggesting flow-rates of less than 10:1, while others say that the latest thin-film solar technology has an impressive EROEI as high as 40:1.


Nicole however argues that we currently lack the production capacity and the infrastructure to make a large-scale transition to renewable energy sources; and that because of dynamics in the financial system, we are running out of time to mobilise the necessary investments. In particular, she points out that there has been a ‘chronic under-investment in grid capacity’; and that a ‘monumental investment’ would be required to re-tool the grid in order to make it fit for the purpose of channelling distributed energy generated by solar PVs located on private homes and businesses.

The main message is that ‘there are no easy answers’, and we are going to have get used to the idea of ‘doing with less energy; business-as-usual in not going to be option, reality is not going to negotiate with us’. The ‘hydrocarbon age’ will be recorded as a  relatively brief blip over the long-scale of human history.

Energy is a ‘major driver’ of economic activity; , and indeed ‘there’s an almost perfect correlation between energy and economic growth’. It follows that as we move from an era of energy surplus to energy deficit, we are moving from economic expansion to economic contraction. While this will be driven by the logic of the global financial system  in the first instance, the energy constraints will mean that attempts to restart the motor of growth will constantly bump up against physical limits. There will be no ‘de-coupling’ of economic growth from available energy sources. What we’re faced with is ‘not a stasis, but a de-growth scenario’.

In the final article, we will look at the implications of Nicole’s analysis, for individuals and communities.

Nicole Foss and the End of Growth

New ideas about ‘progress’

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 21st January 2012


I don’t think anything remotely like business-as-usual is going to come back in our lifetimes, or probably ever again, quite frankly.

These are the words of Stoneleigh, aka Nicole Foss. One of the world’s leading writers and speakers on the global energy and financial crises, the deep connections between them, and the implications for advanced economies such as our own, Nicole is travelling to Australia next month on a speaking tour. She will be visiting Coffs Harbour on Saturday, February 11, and speaking and answering questions for a couple of hours from 12 p.m. at the Cavanbagh Centre. The Advocate is sponsoring her visit, and will be running a series of articles exploring aspects of her thought over the next few weeks.

Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleight
Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleight

“Business-as-usual” means all sorts of things, of course, but here Nicole is talking specifically about economic growth. An expanding economy is the very definition of ‘normal’, which is why deep recessions, and above all depressions, are regarded as so awful. The idea that we are perhaps on the cusp of entering a prolonged – very prolonged – period of deflationary depression is extremely hard to contemplate with equanimity. Yet this is the no-holds-barred perspective that Nicole offers; and she does so on the basis of a sharp and clear analysis, with the sole motivation of helping individuals and communities inform themselves and prepare for the seismic changes she believes are now unfolding.

Buen Vivir

Let’s assume for a moment that Nicole is right. This raises all sorts of questions, but the one I want to look at briefly here is this: can the end of economic growth actually be a good news story? If you ask any politician of any major party in most parts of the world, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. The terrible experience of the 1930s has been seared into our collective historical memory as something to be avoided at all costs, and with good reason.

And yet…as time has gone on, many are saying that the costs of growth now outweigh the benefits. More growth means more pollution, more waste. Having more ‘stuff’ doesn’t mean that we’re any happier. Bigger doesn’t always mean better – have you watched SuperSize Me? Maybe it’s time to start thinking in terms of quality, rather than quantity.

That’s what been happening on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Ecuador and Bolivia. The citizens of both countries recently re-wrote their constitutions, and in them they included some old wisdom from the Quechua and Aymara indigenous peoples of the Andes as the guiding principle for the new development paradigm they wish to follow. Sumak Kawsay is a Quechau phrase that translates as buen vivir in Spanish; which in English we might understand as ‘good life’ or ‘living well’.

In contrast to individualistic ideas of progress based on economic growth, buen vivir seeks balance and harmony, amongst peoples, and between humanity and nature, as its primary goals. In a recent article, Thomas Fatheuer notes that it is ‘sharply distinct from the idea of individual good life’; and is ‘only conceivable in a social context, mediated by the community in which people live’.

Interestingly, buen vivir is being embraced by two of the poorest countries in the world, whose main source of ‘wealth’ has traditionally been based on the extraction of their natural resources, minerals especially. That they are seeking to strike out on a different path at this point in time should give us pause for thought, as we seek to keep riding on the wave of the minerals boom.

Maybe buen vivir is relevant to us; maybe not. But at the very least it offers a positive story for the future.


Nicole Foss and her co-writer Ilargi Mendoz (touring Australia with her) write at The Automatic Earth: http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.com/

Thomas Fatheur’s discussion of buen vivir can be read here: http://www.boell.de/publications/publications-buen-vivir-12636.html

Backyard Aquaponics

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 12.11.10.

Aquaponics in Coffs Harbour

Last weekend I was at the Sustainable Living Festival at the Coffs Harbour Botanical Gardens. I was there with Kirsten Larsen, Research Manager of the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), which is run out of Melbourne University.

VEIL have produced some quality research over recent years around food-sensitive urban planning and design, and food supply scenarios assuming certain policy settings and priorities, e.g. ‘business-as-usual’ vs. local and government adaptations taking changed circumstances into account.

In its submission to the Federal Government on the proposed National Food Plan, VEIL stated that ‘substantial, unavoidable and imminent changes in our food supply systems require fundamental shifts in how we manage land and resources for food production and other critical needs’. The combination of a series of key drivers, including increasing constraints in the availability of oil and fresh water, climate instability, soil degradation, and the ongoing loss of farmers and good farmland, led VEIL to conclude that ‘our existing systems of food production and distribution [are] increasingly brittle’.

All of which means, as Kirsten pointed out last weekend, that we are entering a period of probably large volatility, in which there is no guarantee that the future will look like the past or the present.

Those listening to Kirsten certainly took this message to heart, and many were motivated, like thousands more around the country and around the world, to start taking matters into their own hands.

As I’ve written previously in this column, the coordinator of the new Coffs Harbour Community Garden at Combine Street, Steve McGrane, is a pioneer in showing what can be achieved in a small urban setting.

Steve’s latest project is aquaponics: the combination of small-scale (i.e. back-yard) aquaculture with the hydroponic growing of vegetables.  His system involves three ponds, each raised above the other, connected by halved lengths of long-lasting PVC pipe in which the vegies grow on a base on gravel, drawing their nutrients from the fish waste. Depending on the numbers of fish, plant growth can be remarkable: ‘as much as seven times faster than vegies grown in ordinary soil’, according to Steve.

Aquaponics 1

The water flow, whose purpose is also to return adequate amounts of dissolved oxygen to the fish, is regulated by a 20-watt pump, powered from a 40-watt solar panel, with four lithium batteries of 4 watts each. Running at lower rates of intensity, these can last for as long as 40 years. The entire micro-energy system cost $500 to set up.

Steve solar system

The system runs with special software that controls the maximum input and output of each battery, to prevent overheating.  The time the pump runs is determined according to the amount of sunlight: on cloudier days, the fish are less active, and so there will be less need for oxygen. On average, the pump runs for 10 mins every 20-30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes for the trays to empty.

aquaponics 2

Steve’s largest pond is 1500 litres, and over the summer he plans to stock it with up to 30 silver perch fingerlings, which will take approximately 12 months to reach an edible size of 500 grams. He’s also looking at installing a slightly larger system, in which he can raise up to 100 fish per year. About half of the total water surface area of the large pond, where the fish are raised, needs to be covered with plants such as water lillies, to return oxygen to the water.

aquaponics 3

Like conventional aquaculture, Steve’s fish depend on fish-meal, though he’s also looking at home-grown sources of protein like meal worms and comfrey. The fish may  not grow as fast, but that’s not the point. For Steve,  being sustainable means greater self-reliance:

“I’m all about not leaving your block to eat, having your food at your back door.”

The prawn mafia

Sustainable aquaculture?

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the the Coffs Coast Advocate, 1.10.11

Commercial fishing in Australia is a major rural industry, ranking fifth most valuable after beef, wool, wheat and dairy. While the wild fish catch is declining, the shortfall is being made up by a booming aquaculture industry, which, according to DAFF, has grown exponentially, at an average 12 per cent per annum since 1992-93. This mirrors the phenomenal rise of aquaculture globally, from a baseline of less than 1 million tonnes in the early 1950s, to nearly 52 million tonnes by 2006. Aquaculture now accounts for more than half the world’s supply of fish, and more than three-quarters of the world’s fresh fish, with China being the largest producer.

The total value of the aquaculture industry to Australia was approaching $900 million in 2008-9. Fish farming – salmon, tuna, oysters, prawns, abalone, barramundi, and many others – is big business. The industry in NSW is currently worth $54 million per year, with the bulk of that – $40 million – derived from oyster production, including businesses on the Bellinger and Nambucca Rivers. Across the state, aquaculture employs 1500 full and part-time jobs, according to DPI.

Many concerns have been raised about the social and environmental impacts of intensive fish farming, such as the discharge of waste water, the destruction of coastal ecosystems, and the excessive reliance on fish meal as the primary feed. In particular, the practices of sectors of the prawn farming industry in Asia and Latin America have attracted strong criticism, as well as being the focus of protest and resistance from many civil society groups.

In Chilika on the Bay of Bengal, for example, hundreds of square kilometres of coastline have been enclosed by a ‘prawn mafia’, who produce high value tiger prawns for export. The feeding and spawning areas for local fish species have been severely reduced, and waters polluted, threatening the livelihoods of 250,000 artesanal fisherfolk. According to some local fisherman, over ten years the average catch has dwindled by 90% or more. Many of the prawn farms are illegal, and the fisherman (see picture) are threatening to demolish them, even though the repercussions from the ‘prawn mafia’ could be violent.

Chilika fisherfolk protesting
Chilika fisherfolk protesting

In NSW, regulators are conscious of the environmental concerns, and so commercial aquaculture operations have to comply with the requirements of the State’s sustainable aquaculture policy, incorporated into SEPP 62. Amongst other things, this planning instrument restricts the sites on which aquaculture can be located, prohibits the location of aquaculture ponds on any permanent water courses, and requires that no farmed stock escape into natural water bodies.

Yet one of the biggest questions regarding the sustainability of aquaculture concerns the amount of fishmeal used to produce the farmed fish. While the commonly quoted figure is a feed conversion ratio of 1.6, i.e., it takes 1.6 kg of fish meal to produce 1 kg of fish, fish meal is dried and pelleted. Making 1.6 kg of dried fish meal actually takes about 8 kg of wet fish. This suggests that in much commercial aquaculture as it currently operates, there is a net loss of 7 kg of fish protein for every 1 kg produced.

The fish commonly used for fish meal are edible species, such as anchovies and herring. Given that global hunger is a major problem which humanity has not solved, the ethics of grinding up mountains of anchovies to produce high value farmed species such as salmon and tuna are questionable, to say the least.

These are the sorts of issues that Steve McGrane, who is studying aquaculture at the National Fishing Education Centre at Trenayr Campus of North Coast TAFE, Grafton, is thinking about. Steve, who is the coordinator of the Coffs Harbour community garden being built at Combine St, wants to produce fish, but he’s not planning to embark on commercial aquaculture. He’s experimenting with solar-powered aquaponics systems in his backyard; and in another column I’ll explain how he’s doing it.

Feeding the hungry – life of service

Food for the needy

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 23.7.11

As food security moves up the political agenda, it’s important to remember that every person on the planet has a basic right to adequate food. In theory and in law, if not in practice, no-one should ever be hungry, or food insecure.

Australia is a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which is the treaty that creates the right to food. Yet to date the Australian Government has not put in place any legal or institutional framework to guarantee the full enjoyment of this right to all the citizens of this country. It’s simply assumed that since we are an exporter of agricultural commodities, it follows automatically that the country is ‘food secure’.

But as I wrote last fortnight, at least 2 million Australians are food insecure; a number that is likely to rise if and when global economic turmoil finds its way to these shores.

In Coffs Harbour, staff at a number of these organisations have told me that demand for their services has doubled or more in the last few years. They point to big rent increases in the private rental sector in Coffs Harbour, together with a 10-year waiting list for social housing, as a major strain on the budgets of families and individuals with low incomes. Electricity and food price rises, car running costs and medical bills complicate life that much more.

As one manager said to me, ‘We often have people coming in with only $60 to last them a fortnight…it’s very, very hard. There’s a lot of people who are in the situation of depending on food assistance of one form or another more or less every fortnight or every other fortnight.’

The constant demand for the Uniting Church soup kitchen, run by Narelle Milton and her team of volunteers since the early 1990s, testifies to the depth of food insecurity in Coffs Harbour. From its modest beginnings, when Narelle and her helpers made the soup and sandwiches at home and served only a small handful of people, the kitchen is now a city institution.

Narelle Milton, Coffs Harbour Uniting Church Soup Kitchen
Narelle Milton, Coffs Harbour Uniting Church Soup Kitchen

It now boasts an impressive commercial kitchen, with two large fridges, five freezers, a stainless steel dishwasher and, in Narelle’s words, ‘a remarkable stove’.

At the start, Narelle and her volunteers purchased all the food themselves. They still do, but over the years strong links have been forged with many in the broader community.

‘We’ve got bananas, people have an abundance of fruit and veggies, the farmers come in and give us their surplus;  many others come in with half a ham, or some tea…we get lots of donations, especially at Christmas, though we could always use more’, says Narelle.

And in the past year the kitchen has begun to receive donations from Woolworths Food Rescue, which both helps with the lunches and allows the kitchen to make available food parcels to diners if they wish.

The kitchen is ‘open to all, it’s an open table, we do not sit in judgment’, says Narelle. It’s also more than just providing food for hungry people: ‘it’s a place for communion, for friendship’, says Narelle. ‘Somebody speaks to everybody each day, everybody’s included.’

Narelle places a lot of emphasis on restoring and enhancing the dignity of the diners. ‘That’s why we have tablecloths’, she says. ‘And we serve them, they do not have to line up.’

In 2009 Narelle received the Order of Australia in recognition of her years of service to the Coffs Harbour community. It was richly deserved, she is a remarkable woman.

Food insecurity amidst abundance

Food Insecurity on the Coffs Coast

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 9.7.11

Last time I wrote about the link between global malnutrition and agri-business profiteering, on the eve of Ugandan farmer Polly Apio’s visit to Bellingen. Now we learn of a looming famine that may affect 10 million people or more in the Horn of Africa. The immediate cause is failed harvests due to prolonged droughts, but the situation is made far worse by soaring commodity prices.

Food insecurity though isn’t only an issue for Africa and other regions in the Global South.

As at 2008, at least 2 million Australians fell into the category of being food insecure, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Those numbers have surely increased in the last three years, taking into account cost of living pressures.

A week ago, power bills in NSW rose by 18%. Between 2008 and 2013, average household electricity bills in this state will double, even without factoring in additional rises that will flow from the introduction of a carbon tax; and they are tipped to rise another 50% from 2013-2016.

For most of us, rising power bills, like rising fuel costs, mortgage payments, rents, and food prices, are something we can deal with. We don’t like it, but we can make adjustments in our household budgets, and at least some of the increased costs are offset by wage rises, or new jobs with better pay.

On the other hand, if you’re among the 2 million plus who are food insecure, these cost of living pressures are a matter of very serious concern.

Being food insecure means that sometimes or quite regularly you struggle to put good food on the table for you and your family. Australians on fixed and low incomes, such as recipients of Centrelink payments and part-time or casual workers in low paying jobs, are those who most likely fall into this category. Others at risk include individuals and families facing crisis situations, such as a job loss or a separation.

There are a number of charitable and government agencies on the Coffs Coast who provide emergency assistance to people in these situations. The Salvation Army, St Vincent’s Paul, Lifehouse Church, the Uniting Church, various Neighbourhood Centres and others are all staffed by teams of dedicated, committed and selfless individuals. They are doing everything in their power to alleviate the hardships of families and individuals facing hardship.

Most of these organisations depend on limited emergency voucher relief systems from the Federal and State Government. In addition, they mobilise their own resources through donations, of both money and food, and sales. Yet they are struggling to keep pace with the growing demand for their services.

This reflects the national trends. Research published in March this year by the Australian Council of Social Services revealed that charitable service providers nationwide have seen a 47% increase in the numbers of eligible people they have had to turn away, compared to the same survey conducted in 2008/9.

The tragic irony of rising food insecurity in a rich country that exports two-thirds of its agricultural products mirrors the bigger scandal of massive global malnutrition in a world of food abundance.

What makes it so much worse is that as much as 50% of all edible food in Australia – 7.5 million tonnes – is actually wasted. It ends up in landfill. Earlier this year Melbourne-based food rescue group SecondBite published research which showed that this food would provide three good meals a day, every day of the year, for over 13 million people.

Coffs Harbour is fortunate to count amongst its residents an inspirational lady by the name of Narelle Milton, who for the past 13 years has been running the Uniting Church soup kitchen in the city centre every week day. Her kitchen, and the food parcels offered by other providers, are now being supported through Food Bank initiatives operated by several supermarkets. This is a start towards redressing the scandals of food insecurity and food waste, but so much more needs to be done.

Next time an interview with Narelle, who received the Order of Australia in 2009 in recognition of her work, will be published in this column.