At CERES, we get asked the same questions over and over from first time visitors. Embedded in many of these questions is the possibility of hope for a better future for humanity and our planet. Often you can see how much the questioner is wide-eyed-optimistic that CERES might be achieving where they as individuals feel they cannot, that the hippies really did have the answer and have been busy all this time building an alternative paradise that they can join.
Responding to these questions can be tricky, because dropping truth bombs on people so easily destroys that fragile sense of hope that we truly can build a better, more beautiful world. And that seed of hope is vital for growing a new future. CERES has laid down some fertile soil for those hope-seeds but we are by no means a finished project.
Here is a quick myth-buster based on some of our most frequently asked questions.
1. All the food we sell was grown here
What an incredible resource that would be in our urban environment. Imagine if we could easily grow bananas in this climate. And tomatoes all year round! Here’s a bit of maths to help us work this one out: CERES Park is 4.5 hectares in total (45,000m2). About a quarter of that is dedicated to growing food (11,250m2). Plus we have Joe’s Market Garden up the creek, which gives us an additional 9,000m2, so we have 20,250m2 in total of food growing space.
Estimates are hugely varied about how much land is required per person to achieve food security but if we go with what the FAO says, we need around 700m2 per person as an absolute minimum, provided people eat a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages happen and all the farmers REALLY know their stuff.
The truth: We could probably support around 29 people with our current land use allocation
77 people if we turned every square inch over to food growing. And we wouldn’t be able to offer tomatoes all year round or bananas ever (well, maybe on special occasions with those cold climate varieties). Currently we feed around 1,100 families per week through Fair Food, and we serve another 2000 people through our Grocery on site. We’d need another 40 CERESes to feed that many people with food grown only on our land.
We therefore search out and build long term relationships with small local and organic growers, producers and farmers to feed the people. We need them.
2. We generate all the electricity we need on site
A simple glance across the park reveals solar arrays of all kinds and sizes, various wind turbines, a biogas digester and an impressive thing covered in mirrors that emits some kind of laser beam (the Scheffler Dish). (It’s not really a laser beam but it can melt metal). And we are mostly a farm, right? So we must be pretty close to covering all of our energy needs… Recently, with the installation of a new monitoring system we were able to measure our electricity generation properly, and were rather surprised at the results.
In the old days, CERES came pretty close to being self-sufficient on energy, however with our growth has come an increase in number of computers, kitchens requiring cooking and cold storage, and offices needing heating and cooling. We currently reach around 1,000,000 people per year (online and in person) and this uses energy.
We’ve made energy-conscious choices over the years in order to make a transition to renewables, including installing all-electric kitchens, cutting-edge eco refrigeration (that only twice went into heating mode) and we have a general policy of only passively cooling our buildings. A lot of these choices have been expensive due to using relatively untested technology, or unpopular and inconvenient for staff and customers, but we have stuck to our vision and developed a target of 0% emissions by 2025.
The truth: Our current estimate of energy generation on site is only 15% of our needs.
And that’s even with all that solar and alternative tech. In order to reach our target of 0%, we will need even more and better solar, an investment in storage and of course a reduction in our use over the next 8 years. We have a plan to get there, but some tough decisions to make in the near future.
3. Everyone at CERES is a volunteer
We have a lot of generous volunteers and we could not function as well as we do without them. Including our community volunteers and corporate groups we have an estimated 2000 volunteers in the park each year helping us with planting, composting, maintenance, design development and all kinds of special projects.
We love our volunteers and can see that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Office-based people used to working on the 14th floor of a concrete and glass tower on the Southbank can’t believe their luck when they get to dig out compost in the rain. People living in tiny apartment blocks grin with pleasure at being able to touch actual soil, connect with other humans and watch their labour bear literal fruit.
The level of volunteering we see at CERES could be viewed as a great example of a “gift economy” – willing volunteers frequently gift us their time and labour with no expectation of immediate return. However this is generally only for a day or so a week. We operate within an economic system (like it or not) and paying people a living wage for their skills, experience and contributions is essential to enabling people to live a good life.
The truth: We employ about 150 paid staff across the park.
In fact, CERES was initially set up with a strong commitment to job creation, not reliance on volunteering. One of our primary aims back in the early 80s was to “increase the availability of socially useful and meaningful work” and part of that was to assess the social and economic impact of the nature of work and unemployment.¹ Possibly one of the best benefits of volunteering at CERES is the opportunity to learn new skills and form social connections that enhance employability.
In this way, CERES is a success. We are 96% self-funded, and contribute an estimated $30 million to the local economy each year. We choose to run commercially viable businesses that benefit the public and the community rather than shareholders, and we are proud that we can offer so many people meaningful employment.
4. All staff are vegans
This is a tricky one and possibly the subject of the most heated dispute among staff… Should the cafe be vegan? Should the grocery be vegan? Should the whole park be vegan? The whole world? Isn’t everyone at CERES an environmentalist? How can you eat meat and still be one of those?
From purely an environmental perspective, the argument for at least minimising meat consumption is pretty clear: 50% of Australian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from livestock agriculture, which is greater than those from the entire Australian global transport sector. There are also various issues associated with eating meat related to water use, land use and deforestation. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the dairy industry, or any kind of ethical issues with how animals are treated when raised for food-related purposes.
OK, let’s name it: there exists a stereotype of judgemental vegan hippies. That’s by no means to say that all vegans fall into any particular stereotype, and some of our best friends are vegans… However in general we try to stay away from “shoulds” as an organisation and aim instead to offer education about issues – it is outside of our remit to tell others what is right for them ethically and morally. We try to reach out to as many people from as many different parts of society as possible. We don’t want to be preaching to the choir all the time, or what is the point of us existing?
The truth: As an organisation, we believe in ethically sourced, organic meat and offering options, as well as education on the subject.
We choose a pragmatic approach that offers intelligent food choices as an achievable goal for the community as a whole. If people do choose to eat meat then we would rather they do it ethically and sustainably, with as much awareness about the issues as possible.
As individuals we don’t always agree.
5. Through all our hard work and love over 35 years, the rubbish in the tip has disappeared and the land is restored
Well firstly, the land IS restored to a certain degree. We took a disused quarry that was filled with rubbish in an industrial area, planted every tree you can see, established an organic market garden and increased biodiversity by planting 3000 native plants each year.
A wasteland has been turned into an oasis through the hard work of good people with a strong vision for the future.
The truth: We are only one generation into a multi-generational land restoration project.
The rubbish is still under there. Former rubbish tips like ours that were quarried and then filled with construction and household waste are typically capped with layers of clay, soil and mulch to prevent rainwater entering the waste and polluting the environment and waterways. According to the EPA, “Landfills are required to contain wastes for many decades after closure of the site”. What happens after those decades are passed? What about the integrity of the earth to begin with? Isn’t the attitude that treats the earth as an inert substance with no intrinsic value beyond its utility, what led us to the multiple environmental crises we are currently facing?
To some extent the damage we do to the earth can be repaired if we work hard enough and have the right intention. But some of that damage will last many lifetimes and we will not live to see it repaired. As a community, we need to strive to repair whatever is within our power, and CERES is great evidence for the wide ranging benefits of that. But more than repairing, we need to educate people so we do not continue to cause this level of damage, and together hold a big vision for the possibility of a connected, healthy, clean planet in the future. Even if we never see it.
It’s taken CERES 35 years to get where we are and that might have felt like a long time – we are one of longest lasting environmental organisations in the world. But where will we be in five generations? In 10?
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
¹ A Brief Review of the CERES Project, Ministry of Education, February 1986