Shawn Somerset spent many years managing, maintaining, and participating in a community garden in Queensland. The garden ran for 12 years and Shawn estimates that in its time, thousands of people benefited from not only the food grown there, but the lessons about community and sustainability that came from it.
In more recent years, his focus has turned to the future of food, and how we can protect our food sources and the environment as a society. Shawn is a Professor of Public Health and Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Canberra and is particularly passionate about how an expanding population can ensure food security for generations to come.
Ahead of the National Multicultural Festival this weekend, Shawn is preparing to branch out into the community where, along with colleagues from the Faculty of Health, he will helm a stall focused on disseminating information about the sustainable practices he feels so strongly about. He believes that educating the current generation to eat sustainably will result in security for future generations.
“I put real emphasis on local food systems and local food production and the importance of knowing where your food comes from,” he said.
“Knowing which foods are produced in your region and making it a priority to use those first before importing anything is a good place to start.”
“I think in the past we have seen wine attributed to a region – for example Murrumbateman wines – but you rarely see regions promoted when it comes to food. I think there should be more emphasis on where exactly food is grown.”
“There’s a social justice aspect to this as well. If you’re eating in-season, local foods, not only are they going to taste better and be cheaper, but the distance travelled to bring that produce to you is also significantly reduced.”
The region surrounding Canberra is rich in diverse food products – think Tilba Dairy, La Barre Olives, Bega Cheese, truffles and mushrooms – not to mention the fresh seafood less than 150 kilometres away at the South Coast. According to Shawn, these are great options for incorporating local food into your diet. He also believes lesser-known food alternatives within the region are just as fruitful.
“Many of the wheat varieties now grown across Australia were developed close to Canberra,” he said.
“We’re also beginning to see kangaroo slowly incorporated into menus and shopping lists across Australia. Canberra has plenty of them so it’s something to think about!”
Despite an abundance of local kangaroos, Australia is seeing an upward trend in plant-based diets or vegetarianism for health and environmental reasons. Shawn’s thoughts?
“The human population is expanding, and demand for food is expanding as we live longer. People need to be fed somehow and we can’t keep destroying forests to accommodate livestock,” he said.
“As a society we are going to have to look at incorporating more vegetarian meals into diets. Meat is problematic – some people are beginning to recognise that, but we simply can’t afford to continue eating it in the amounts we are.”
“We need to go further; we need to pull away from processed and commodified foods.”
With Australia in the grip of ongoing drought, the way we produce foods is also changing. Some food-growing regions that have typically seen a lot of rainfall in the past have recently suffered dry seasons, resulting in farmers being forced to de-stock and plant fewer crops.
“We need to look at more drought-resistant foods and how they can be produced in regions that are seeing low rainfalls,” Shawn said.
“An example of this forward thinking is prickly pear. In the past, it was seen as a pest but the plant is actually quite edible and grows with little-to-no care. This type of food is the pathway to the future.”
Shortages caused by drought mean that food is an even more valuable resource. Shawn encourages his students to be aware that they can – and should – use the whole-food product.
“Scraps from vegetables can be composted or used to feed a worm farm. Other scraps could be turned into feed for animals,” he said.
“Throwing away the parts of the food we don’t use can only be described as wasteful.”
And although Shawn’s original community garden is thousands of kilometres away, the philosophy still holds strong.
“People need to come together and realise that we can make a difference when it comes to securing the future of our food.”
Words by Elly Mackay.