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Veggie garden research project is grounded in community engagement

by Amanda Cromer

There is no doubt that society poses science some very 'wicked problems' - problems that are difficult to define and very hard to solve.

Australia's food life cycle is associated with several wicked problems, such as the rising incidence of childhood obesity, depletion of global phosphorus stocks, poverty-related food insecurity and urban waste generation.

Now a team of researchers from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) hopes to provide a 'wicked solution', through a unique, cross-disciplinary project - one that's thoroughly grounded in community engagement.

The GEL (Grow. Eat. Learn) project is being led by TIA, in collaboration with local business, the University of Tasmania's School of Architecture and Design, UTAS students and Tasmanian primary and secondary students.

Spread across five Launceston (Northern Tasmania) sites, GEL will measure the productivity of a popular urban food-production system - the square-metre vegetable garden.

Project leader and TIA Research Fellow Dr Stephen Ives explained: "Society currently faces a lot of 'wicked problems'. We see the GEL project as a 'wicked solution' because it allows us to tackle a few of these wicked problems at once, head on."

Participants will work together to design, install and harvest food from experimental garden plots, and study ways to minimise urban waste by closing the 'food-waste loop'. Conventional fertilisation will be compared with worm farming and the use of compost.

"Students will study the science of food production through waste reuse, by weighing all scraps, compost, mulch and fertiliser going into the garden beds. They'll also weigh all produce (including weeds), and the senior students will help TIA out by crunching the data."

For TIA project member Dr Fiona Kerslake it's personal: "I'm very excited to be involved in this project as my family and I are acutely aware in our own household of the level of waste we generate and my husband has taken this further by raising this waste awareness in his role as a primary school teacher.

"We are both home gardeners and composters with a young family and we are very keen to educate our children in food production, preparation and waste usage. We see the GEL project as an extension of what we are trying to achieve in our personal lives."

This project reflects TIA's aim to encourage engagement in higher education by rural and urban students – which may contribute to reducing the skills shortage facing the Australian agricultural sector.

A healthy, food-secure future for Australia requires divergent, creative perspectives on the food life cycle, and this project will not only address social and environmental problems faced by Tasmanian communities, but will also forge links between school students and UTAS – reinforcing scientific, agricultural and urban planning education opportunities and
career pathways.

TIA team member Dr Anna Carew highlights the connection between the GEL project and UTAS' commitment to collaborative, problem-oriented research: "One of the unique aspects of this project is that we have drawn together a truly diverse team comprising academics from three faculties and extra-academic participants from local councils, schools and local business. Stakeholder engagement is so important for uptake, for change – essentially, to make a real difference in our community."

The project's progress can be followed at blogs.utas.edu.au/gel