Renewing our focus on food

The challenge for Australia in coming decades is to assure its own food security in an increasingly food-insecure world. This will require renewed focus on science, technology, economics, food policy, consumer education and the national diet writes Julian Cribb.i

The same week as World Food Day 2010, drought in Russia and downpours in North America thrust world corn prices to their sharpest one-day rise since 1973.ii  For the second time in three years the impact of regional food setbacks was transmitted to consumers globally in a matter of days. “We are beginning to realise that the era of food surpluses has come to an end,” commented the UK Financial Times.

The context in which Australia must shape its future agriculture and food policies is one of a world in which global food demand will double by the mid-century. At the same time the resources needed to satisfy it - water, arable land, fossil energy, mined nutrients, fish, technology and stable climates - will become much scarcer or increasingly unaffordable for farmers. Strategic thinktanks in the US, UK, Scandinavia and Australia are already warning about the consequences of this for conflict and refugee crises, for economic shockwaves and food price hikes, even in affluent and otherwise food-secure countries.iii

At present these shocks are fairly small and well-spaced. By 2060, with ten billion people aspiring to a western diet, they will be tectonic and one will spill into another. Countries that imagine themselves secure now will discover that, in a globalised world, they are not.

It is important to note that it does not have to be this way.  Humanity does not have to bow to a growing cycle of scarcity and crisis; indeed, if we prepare ourselves, we can prevent them. What is most needed is leadership, both national and international, to put in places the measures that will avert the building cycle of regional food shortages and their wider impacts.

Food production cannot be turned on and off like a tap, at the whim of global markets or politicians.  It may take decades for a new technology or farming system to be widely adopted: meantime drought, poor returns and global competition can eradicate local food industries. To deal with such issue requires forethought and planning on time-scales ranging from decades to half a century or more. It requires the integration of water policy with land policy, energy policy, science policy, health and food policy and climate policy. (Anyone who doubts the scale of the task has only to reflect how long it is likely to take to regenerate the Murray-Darling Basin alone, its industries, communities and ecosystems.)

Based on the key impending scarcities in global food production, here are some essential measures Australia can take now in order to avoid the impacts of food insecurity in future:

Recarbonise, rehydrate: we need a nationwide plan to rebuild the fertility, carbon and water retention of our landscapes, agricultural, pastoral and natural. In particular we need to find ways to retain more of the 50% of rainfall now lost to evaporation continent-wide to carry agro-ecological landscapes through warmer times ahead and maximise our ability to lock up and retain carbon in the soil.

Recycle, re-nourish: mined nutrients are finite and likely to become costlier than oil in future, so we need a national plan to harvest fresh water and nutrients as they pass through our great cities and return them to food production: agricultural, peri-urban, urban and to novel intensive industries such as biocultures which will in turn produce food, feed, fuel and other valuable products.

Re-energise: whatever farmers use to grow and transport their produce in the 2030s, it probably won’t be fossil fuels. Peak oil calls for a crash national R&D program to develop the farm and long-distance transport energy sources and systems of the future to sustain food production. Whether it is algal biodiesel, 2nd generation biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, solar electrics or boron ion batteries we need to start right now, to avoid being caught unprepared by the next oil price shock.

Reinvest in knowledge: after two of three decades of disinvestment in agricultural science, technology and extension, policymakers need to understand that these hold the key to our future food security, and maybe that of our region also. Instead of slashing the public investment (as the Productivity Commission has recommended) we should double it.

In particular we should invest in:

  • irrigation and land and water science – areas that have suffered irrational demolition in recent years.iv 
  • soil microbiology with a view to enhancing the biological potential of our landscapes and crop and pasture yields.
  • building bridges between organic and high-intensity farming with the goal of developing science-based low-input eco-agricultural systems that recycle, re-use and conserve.
  • developing food systems (including urban ones) which are cushioned against climate shocks
  • research into frontier science areas such as re-engineering of the photosynthetic pathways in crops and trees, to boost yields and lock up more carbon.

Share knowledge: to help stabilise our neighbouring region against food insecurity (and ease the disturbing trend to foreign acquisitions of Australian land and water) we need to build a new multi-billion dollar knowledge export industry, based on our expertise in areas such as landcare, dryland farming, water management, drought strategy etc.  The mining sector has already done this, so it is perfectly feasible for agriculture and NRM.

Reinvest in people: our agricultural education system is falling apart and is in desperate need of reinvestment and revitalisation. We need to train a new generation of farmer and urban food producers equipped to overcome the scarcities ahead. We need to encourage our best youth back into a field which will be central to the human destiny this century.

Re-educate Australians about food: up to half of all the food produced in Australia is wasted or sent to landfill calling for an urgent effort to end the waste, through education, technology and recycling. Up to half of all Australians, including our children, now die from diet-related disease calling for national education about healthy eating, both to save lives and to rein in the biggest budget blowout in Australian history, in healthcare. We should educate our children to eat healthily, sustainably and with a renewed respect for food. This can be assisted by introducing a Food Year in every junior school in Australia, teaching all subjects through the lens of food.

Reinvest in food: FAO points out that massive global reinvestment will be needed to head off food scarcity in the mid-century – yet adds this will not happen while farm returns are so bad and farm  productivity sliding.v   The overwhelming economic signal from global markets to farmers is “grow less”.  This is due to a market failure driven by the growing imbalance in market power between 1.8 billion producers and the handful of corporates who buy their produce or sell farm inputs. Finding a solution to this economic distortion, without harming price signals, is a key challenge – otherwise new technologies and sustainable systems will not be adopted fast enough. One option is to compensate farmers for their stewardship, on behalf of society, of land, water, atmosphere and biodiversity. Others should be explored.

If Australia can successfully address the challenges outlined in this article we will earn the right to be a leader of the endeavour to sustain the global food supply.  It is a role for which our farming, scientific and technical expertise equips us well. All that is presently lacking is an appreciation, both among our leaders and Australians at large, that this lies at the heart of our security in the 21st century – and a renewed focus on something that is elemental to human survival:

iAuthor of “The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it”, CSIRO Publishing, 2010

ii“Food Security”, Financial Times editorial Oct 13, 2010.

iiiSee for example the UK MOD’s DCDC Global Strategic Trends program, 2007-2036 outlook which, among other insights, foretold the global financial crisis two years ahead.

ivIn recent years we have Land & Water Australia, the CRC for Irrigation, the CSIRO Irrigation Division, and large parts of State Governments’ irrigation research effort.

vFAO High Level Export Forum, How to feed the World: Investment, Rome, October 2009. HLEF2050_Investment.pdf

Editor's Note: An opinion piece published with the permission of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). Permission must be sought to republish it or any other articles from ATSE Focus.