As our cities continue to suck people off the land, and grow bigger, swallowing adjacent farm land, we face the challenge of how we feed ourselves into the future.

It may not be a problem now, or in 5 years, but it will be a problem. China’s urban middle class is currently around 400 million out of a 1.5 billion population. 20 years ago, there was little if any middle class, so the move has been dramatic, and is not slowing.

China is an extreme case, but one we need to consider in Sydney as we look to the future of our children. Marrying agriculture with urban living, figuring out how we can feed ourselves without destroying the landscape should be on the planners radar, so for those thinking about the challenges, here is my “two penneth” worth.

  1. Personalised. We are in a world of “i” one in which consumers expect to be addressed and marketed to on a personal level for clothing, cars, even  shoes, so why should it be any different for the food we consume? Indeed, the food we consume is arguably more relevant to us than almost anything else. As I observe the strategies of the major supermarket chains,  they are hell bent on removing consumer choice as a cost reduction strategy. This is working currently, but the rise of farmers markets, resurgence of specialist retail, and new net based business models may indicate a stirring at the edges that will at least partially disrupt this “efficiency over choice” business model in time. The opportunity for intelligent  values based branding of food products has never been greater.
  2. Localised. As a kid in the late 50’s and early 60’s (yes, I am that old) there were a number of southern Mediterranean migrants living in the local area. Every single one of them had a back yard garden producing an array of vegetables and fruit for the table. I came to realise it was not a matter of cost, but availability, freshness, and a cultural imperative that drove them to grow in their backyard. Their children, the ones I grew up with, did not follow their parents, sacrificing the back yard garden for the convenience of the supermarket, but the pendulum has swung back, and our children, the grandchildren of the migrants, are returning to the notions of freshness, combined with low food miles, minimum chemical use, and product provenance that their grandparents had. The reasons may be a bit different, and more considered, but the preference for local product, with the inherent freshness and provenance is the same.
  3. Efficiency. The world has moved from being a place of plenty to increasingly a place of scarcity. Water, energy, labour, and available land are all becoming scarcer, and the increasing price of these resources is reflecting that scarcity. For many, the efficiency of their use of resources is often the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. The side benefit is that efficient use of natural resources  also makes ecological sense.
  4. Intensity. We are seeing increasing intensity on every operational parameter you care to measure. Capital, IT, production, labour, all are far more intensely utilised than just a few years ago. In addition to the operational end, consumers are increasingly scrutinising the product they buy, looking for confirmation of the explicit and implicit claims made, and are unforgiving in the event that they smell a rat. This intense consumer scrutiny and selectivity that is emerging  I have called elsewhere the ‘Masterchef effect”

There is considerable overlap between these four factors, and they are mutually supporting, but it seems to me that they reflect the foundation challenges faced by successful urban agriculture.