ACT Government’s Capital Food and Fibre Strategy : Submission by COGS 25 February 2022


The Canberra Organic Growers’ Society Incorporated (COGS) was established in 1977. COGS has almost 500 members and administers 12 community gardens (total three hectares) on land under licence with the ACT government, or under MOUs with several schools and a church. The gardens contain approximately 350 plots ‘rented’ to members annually who pay for water used. COGS’ activities are funded from membership and plot fees. COGS has received occasional funding through the ACT government’s Community Gardens Grants Program.

COGS’ objectives are to:

  • provide information on community gardening and demonstrate organic growing techniques for COGS’ members and the wider public
  • provide access to, administer and support the development of community gardens operated under organic principles
  • work with likeminded organisations to increase sustainability of food production in the ACT.

COGS supports the development of a roadmap for a more sustainable, resilient and secure agricultural system for the ACT and surrounding region. We note that the main background document, Food in the ACT, was prepared in 2012, is now outdated and contains little information about the wider region. This report identified an increasing interest in local food production, sales and consumption as well as community concerns about the social, economic and environmental impacts of food. COGS suggests that these trends have strengthened, particularly since COVID 19. The report also identified six key knowledge gaps, and it is strongly recommended that the ACT government, together with local government organisations in the surrounding Australian Capital Region, support the work needed to provide a better basis for investment decisions by government, industry, and individuals in the components of a sustainable food and fibre strategy.

The following comments on some of the issues raised and identifies opportunities to contribute to the proposed goals.

1. Transition to ecologically sustainable food and fibre production supported by strong environmental stewardship to ensure the region has healthy soils, water, and air

2. Build the drought and climate change resilience of the ACT farm sector by identifying and encouraging practices that best fit the region’s conditions

The report, Vulnerabilities to climate change in the Murray-Darling Basin, predicts with a high level of confidence that temperatures will rise and, in the southern Basin, winter rainfall will decline. Projected reductions in water available for consumptive use and environmental flows are exacerbated by other impacts of climate change, including increased variability, high evapotranspiration rates and greater prevalence of water quality problems. Under these conditions, maintaining existing levels of productivity and sustainability in the ACR will be challenging.

Integrated approaches to on farm soil, vegetation, and water management (sometimes referred to as regenerative agriculture) in the ACR will be required to improve soil health, air quality, water availability and quality. Most of our current land management problems have resulted from changes to soil-water regimes. For example, wind and water erosion, soil compaction, loss of soil carbon and smoothing of the land surface resulting from land clearing, have reduced the water storage capacity of the soil. Wider adoption of practices that maintain good levels of ground cover, improve the stewardship of native vegetation remnants, including adding new plantings, will help on-farm water management and increase resilience to dry seasons whilst improving crop pollination and the effectiveness of integrated pest management.

While an increasing number of farmers are adopting these approaches, and in the process growing the natural capital underpinning their farm’s productivity and sustainability, land management practice change in agriculture can be a slow process. Anecdotal information suggests that most farmers adopting regenerative practices have done so following a significant climate, financial, or other personal disaster. Significant barriers to adoption can often include the increased level of skills and knowledge (such as a better understanding how the land functions) needed, time, as regenerative practices usually involve intensification of management, and resources e.g., to fund additional fences and water infrastructure likely to be needed to implement practices as such as rotational or cell grazing.

Given climate change and the predicted reductions in water availability, wider adoption of regenerative agricultural land management practices across the ACR currently appears to offer the best opportunity to transition to sustainable food and fibre production and build environmental stewardship, and the drought and climate change resilience needed for future farming. Many farmers will require encouragement to start this process. In the ACT this could come in the form of increases in the security of tenure or reduction in changes to lessees who have planned and initiated a regenerative approach to their land management.

Programs recently announced under the National Soil Package, will provide opportunities for more farmers to improve their soil and vegetation management practices. Monthly reporting on ground cover status against regional targets if prepared for the ACR will provide an indicator for progress towards environmental targets related to soil erosion and land management. This approach is currently used by some NSW and Queensland regions to report under the Regional Land Partnerships Program. The ground cover data (available back to 2000) are also a useful indicator of farm resilience to drought. The adoption of this approach to reporting in the ACT’s Land Management Agreements would provide valuable feedback to land managers and help set goals for improvement.

At the urban level there is a need to translate recent developments in soil biology into practical local advice on soil management for home and community gardeners, particularly in relation to improving soil structure, retaining moisture, and building soil carbon. The availability of simple soil quality tests could encourage home and community gardeners to monitor the sustainability of their soil management practices. The ACT government could partner with local research institutions to prepare guides to improving soil management and monitoring improvements in soil health.

The ACT government has moved to phase out single use plastics to reduce plastic pollution. Many gardening items, such as black plastic pots, trays, and plant labels, while not always single use are not recyclable in the ACT, and when discarded add to the levels of plastic pollution in the soil and waterways. Garden City Plastics, producers of most of Australia’s PP5 pots, have a recycling service via bins at retail and wholesale nurseries around Australia. The ACT could participate by partnering with a local business to establish a collection point for this service.

3. Increase the capacity to produce food and fibre locally to shorten supply chains and reduce reliance on external supply

Suitable land with access to water will need to be identified and set aside if the ACT’s production capacity is to be increased without substantial investment in infrastructure for indoor growing. Most rural land is currently used for extensive grazing and occasional cropping; soil survey will be needed to identify whether there are areas of higher quality land suitable for commercial, more intensive agriculture and horticulture.

Within urban areas there is a strong demand for more land for community gardens, particularly in Canberra’s north. COGS strongly recommends that the ACT government examine whether there are suitable sites for further gardens on currently unused leasehold land, and where opportunities may exist to include space for gardens on land currently being redeveloped. As retrofitting gardens in urban areas can be difficult, it is recommended that the ACT government require land developers to include community gardens (such as the garden provided at Crace) as part of the open space/community facilities requirements for new suburbs.

4. Support innovation in the food and fibre sector through the adoption of diverse practices, business models and new technology

The ACT government is to be commended for the introduction of the Food and Garden Organics (FOGO) collection pilot, and it is hoped that the program can be extended to the rest of the ACT. The availability of another quality local compost will be welcomed by Canberra gardeners. If the program is extended to the rest of ACT, could the 26,000 tonnes of high value organic food waste, when combined with green waste and waste from local/regional livestock or poultry operations provide a commercially viable basis for more locally prepared soil mixes and mulches? While there is an existing good quality producer at Yass, a substantial proportion of the garden products on sale in the ACT is trucked in from more distant locations, including Queensland.

5. Enhance participation, knowledge exchange, employment opportunities and financial viability across the food and fibre supply chain

Currently, access to suitable land is a significant constraint to increasing participation in the ACT’s food supply system for urban gardeners and possibly for those interested in more commercial operations (see comments under point 3). Are there opportunities to enhance participation through government support for more school gardens and more Landshare sites?

The burgeoning interest in local food supplies shown by some ACT restaurants and independent grocery chains as well as consumers could provide support for additional small specialist horticultural operations supplying very fresh seasonal herbs and vegetables (assuming water availability). Buy local could be linked to corporate social responsibility (providing local employment, reducing the distance travelled by goods and the time to market). The ACT government could consider partnering with retail chains to promote locally produced goods.

Contact: Michele Barson, Vice President COGS