Joost Bakker on Urban Farming, Food and festival21

As the 'Western diet' continues to spread worldwide and diverging movements of 'fast' and 'slow' food become ever more polarised - with enormous health and environmental consequences - I sit down with friend and colleague Joost Bakker to talk all things food, farming and future.

Joost, with one-half of the world's population now living in cities - for the first time in history - and at the same time our modern food system is now the single biggest driver of global greenhouse gasses - how do you see these two processes are linked?

I see it as a fantastic opportunity to drastically change the way we grow our food. In 2008 I designed and built a restaurant that sat in the heart of Melbourne's Federation Square. On the roof were 120 bins filled with 60 tonnes of soil. Not just any soil but a skilfully made mix of rich compost from organic waste with Bio-Char - made from by products like olive pips. To our surprise we yielded some significant amounts of food. From just 20 bins of potatoes we harvested 350 kilograms - also many cucumbers, greens, tomatoes, chives, herbs and even some Jerusalem artichokes. For the four hot months we were there, the heat island effect acted like a catalyst. We were recycling the water from the downstairs restaurant and the combination of heat, water and rich soil was the magic combination! It really showed how productive our cities can and should be.

Feeding a global population of 9 to 10 billion by 2050 is an enormous challenge for governments, the food sector and consumers alike - what opportunities are there in our cities, to better feed this growing population?

Solving hunger and properly feeding a population, I think, are two different things.

Our modern food system supplies us with dead foods that are increasingly devoid of nutrients. Almost all of us in 'the west' are not getting the optimum amount of nutrition from our food. Degenerative diseases, tooth decay, problems with conceiving, depression, anxiety and even allergy and asthma are all somehow linked to the food we eat today. Ancient cultures were obsessed with soil fertility, multi cropping and crop rotation and cherished the most nutrient-dense foods. Some have said that our modern diet only gives us one-tenth of the nutrients and minerals that primitive people consumed. We currently landfill our organic waste. With my restaurants I've tried to show people that this doesn't need to be the way. If we want truly healthy food that nourishes us we need to start with healthy soils right here in our cities.

A concentrated population makes it easier to recover these valuable waste materials and easily incorporate them into urban food production.

As an architect, farmer, father, florist and more, you wear many hats. What exciting sustainability ideas are you working on currently?

I'm working on a 5 story 6,000 square-metre zero waste commercial building that is flexible and modular, uses only non toxic and recyclable materials and gets all its energy from locally recovered plastics that are hard to recycle and currently going to landfill. It has retail on the ground floor, like a baker that stone grinds wheat and makes beautiful sourdough breads, butter factory, produce store, zero waste bar and restaurant, and fashion made from completely reclaimed materials. There's also an event space and intensive mushroom cultivation, insects, aquaponics systems and soil-grown, intensive, under-glass production of crops.

I hope it will be an example of what the future can be. All cities are productive opportunities. In my life I have always been surrounded by growing, fresh food. I think in the future we can all be surrounded by growing, fresh food. On our roofs, in our streets and on all our commercial buildings.

One of the criticisms of urban farming is that it can't solve our food problems at scale. How can we translate important solutions like this, worldwide?

More than half the worlds food is still grown on tiny farms that are less then 2 acres - millions of small and productive farms all over the world. It is false to believe that most of the world is fed by the industrial food system. I believe in the future 'the west' will also source its nutrient-rich food from millions of small productive farms on the roofs of our cities' buildings. It's only a matter of time. There are just too many benefits: local, fresh food, local jobs, utilising waste where we generate it, naturally cooling our cities and massively reducing energy use of buildings.

In all my past projects I've shown that our wasteful ways are linked with our poor diet. Zero waste is not a trend, it's a necessity to solving our many problems. Food - how it's grown, harvested, prepared and eaten - must change in order for us to live in a world that's truly sustainable. I'm not saying we must go back to the dark ages, I think we should respect the past and use it to inform how we use new technology to live in the future.

You're joining our team as a speaker for a festival in Melbourne this December to talk more on these topics. Busy as you are, can you tell us why you've chosen to be involved in festival21?

festival21 is about all the things that really matter to me.

I believe in having a holistic approach to everything we do. festival21 is about sharing and spreading ideas that cross disciplines. For problems to be solved we can't use the same thinking we do now and we need to understand the impact our choices make. I'm a true optimist and use my creative ways to show there are many solutions to our food challenges. It just requires new ways of looking at things - and that's festival21.

festival21 is a free, ticketed event. To see Joost live, head to today and book your tickets.


Joost Bakker is a creative, architect, chef and fifth-generation tulip farmer. Founder of BROTHL and SILO, Melbourne's first low-waste restaurants, he has a keen eye for making meaningful changes to the way we grow, serve and eat our food.