Only 10 per cent of the continent is arable and much of that land on the coastal fringe is being swallowed up as state governments respond to the growing demand for affordable housing.
Planning expert Ian Sinclair has spent the past 30 years working for local and state governments in and around the fringe of Sydney.
He is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Geosciences at Sydney University.
He said the experience with urban sprawl overseas showed it was not enough for councils to just zone farmland as “primary production”.
A suite of policies aimed at saving some of the good farmland close to the city was needed.
Here are some of his possible solutions.
Protect the ‘right to farm’
The basic principle of pollution laws is that a landowner should not allow noise, odours or dust to cross their property boundary.
In the urban environment you can build noise barriers or odour scrubbers, but it is more difficult on a farm.
Noise carries at night and odours from animal production can easily be detected up to a kilometre away.
Mr Sinclair said regulators should cut farmers some slack as long as they were carrying out best practice.
“The pollution investigator should take that into consideration and not issue an order to reduce that noise, because that person [the resident] is living in a production area, they’re not living in a lifestyle area,” he said.
Drastically cut rates for agriculture
Mr Sinclair is arguing for massive rate cuts for farmers who live in primary production zones to keep them viable even as land costs rise.
“Rates for some of the bigger farms can be $10,000 to $20,000 a year,” he said.
He wants to see them reduced by up to 90 per cent.
“It might only be a $10–20 a year increase for the other ratepayers, [but that would enable] the farmers to continue farming and providing food for Sydney.”
Transfer or development rights
The NSW Government is considering an agricultural enterprise credit scheme to reward farmers for productive use of their land, by banking saleable credits based on the value or amount of food produced in any year.
That way land in the primary production zone can be given a dollar value that can then be sold to developers.
They can use it to increase the density of their projects by adding extra storeys to a building, for example.
The farmland that has been ‘traded’ is preserved and cannot be used for anything other than farming.
Mr Sinclair said the model was working in parts of the United States such as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania or Marin County on the fringes of San Francisco.
Legislate to create and protect green belts
Another way of protecting agricultural land around major cities is to establish green belts.
Mr Sinclair points to the agricultural land reserves established in Vancouver in Canada in the 1960s.
“They have permanently protected the high-value agricultural land that grows blueberries and cranberries as well as vegetables,” he said.
Mr Sinclair said it was one of the most successful schemes in the world, unlike the “green wedges” established around Melbourne that lacked legislative protection.
“They are effective to a degree, but in some areas they have been eroded and we’ve seen some development happen,” he said.
Limit town boundaries, raise densities in regional Australia
The small coastal town of Kiama, south of Sydney, has been under massive pressure to approve developments as housing refugees from Sydney look south along the railway line for cheaper options.
Kiama Mayor Mark Honey, a dairy farmer himself, wants to preserve the rural nature of the region.
He is opposing the fragmentation of rural land for housing, and introducing cheaper rates for farmers to encourage them to keep producing food.
The council has also put a limit on developments in rural areas.
“There is a western town boundary where there will be no greenfield development outside,” Cr Honey said.
He said other towns such as Gerringong and Jambaroo were following suit, but warned setting limits outside the township meant increasing density within it, and that presented its own challenges for regional communities.
“I don’t think the town realised what ‘medium density’ meant … they’re not ready for high rise,” Cr Honey said.
Is the tide turning?
While some research forecasts the rapid spread of housing into farmland around the major cities, recent figures from the last census suggest the tide may be turning.
Mr Sinclair said the value of production in Sydney had been declining for decades, but rose slightly in the last census period.
“In 2011 it was $560m. In 2016 it’s about $645m,” he said.
Mr Sinclair said fresh produce still needed to be grown near the major cities.
“We’re seeing some high-value products grown in the peri-urban areas — beans, broccoli, cabbages, capsicum, cauliflowers, lettuce, mushrooms and fresh tomatoes.”
And Mr Sinclair said while regional NSW, especially the irrigation areas in the Riverina, produced a lot of Sydney’s food, the peri-urban areas around Sydney still produced about 50 per cent of the state’s perishable vegetables.
And people were wanting to farm more.
“We’re seeing more younger people in high-value areas like Moree Plains, Darling Downs, Western Downs and Toowoomba, and also in the peri-urban areas of Sydney.”