Tackling the global food challenge

World food security, as Australian consumers and others are fast discovering, is at its lowest in half a century. The precipitous fall in world food stocks in the past seven years is forewarning of what we can expect in the next few decades as civilisation runs low on water, arable land, nutrients and technology, as marine catches collapse, as biofuels grow and energy costs rise, and as droughts intensify under climate change.

The chart of grain stocks reveals that, year on year, humanity now consumes more food than it produces.

The reasons for this are straightforward:

  • The human population is growing – towards 9.1 billion by 2050 – but demand for protein food, especially in China and India, is growing much faster. Total world food demand is forecast to rise 110 per cent by 2050.
  • We are entering a global water crisis. Cities now take up to half of the water that was once used to grow food, while groundwater levels are falling in every country in the world where it is used for agriculture. The volume of fresh water available to grow food is now in decline.
  • The global area of good arable land is now declining. We are building on it, eroding and degrading it, or locking it away in conservation reserves or for recreational purposes.
  • We are losing nutrients – we apply about 150 million tonnes of elemental fertiliser to the world’s farms every year, but lose an estimated 1100 million tonnes of nutrients, through soil erosion and leaching. Yields are now falling in many countries.
  • Up to half of farm produce is wasted during processing. Up to half the food in shops, restaurants and homes is thrown away. Almost all of the nutrients in our sewage systems are wasted.
  • Biofuels are expanding into food production areas. At this rate, by 2020 we will be burning 400 million tonnes of grain a year – equal to the entire world rice harvest.
  • There has been a decline in global scientific research to lift food production, in both developing and developed countries (including Australia) for 20 years.
  • There is currently massive farm inflation in the prices of fuel, fertiliser and chemicals, pricing these out of the reach of poor and medium farmers.
  • More than half of the world’s major fisheries are in decline. Sea fishing is forecast to collapse by 2040, throwing more demand onto land-based food protein.
  • The climate is changing. Modelling by the Hadley Centre in Britain suggests that up to half the Earth may be in regular drought by the end of the century.

The present challenge is thus to double world food output – using less land, far less water, far fewer nutrients and, with the prospect of less technology to do so, in the teeth of increasing drought.

This is not a challenge susceptible to ‘silver bullet’ solutions, but will require action on a global scale and by every human and government on Earth. Nowhere have I yet seen signs that world leaders, or Australian leaders, appreciate the complexity and multifactorial nature of the challenge confronting us. Blaming biofuels or oil prices alone, as most commentators do, will not address all 10 critical factors listed above.

Land degradation has not been assessed globally since 1992, but is known to have become much worse. The evidence is in the Aral Sea, the Sahel and the Murray–Darling Basin. As the World Bank’s IAASTD report indicates, our present civilisation is not sustainable as it is supported only at the cost of the destruction of natural resources.

This situation heralds the real likelihood of regional and global instability. It is manifest in soaring food prices – international rice prices have risen from $400 to $1000 a tonne – and food riots in 37 countries, in some of which there is high risk of government failure.

Sixty per cent of all conflicts in the past 18 years have been driven, at their core, by disputes stemming from a scarcity of food, land or water. These are major drivers of refugeeism and war. In 1850-52 a quarter of the population fled Ireland due to famine. By the 2020s looming regional food shortages could precipitate refugee waves numbering in the hundreds of millions, leaving no country on Earth unaffected.

If we wish to avoid these wars, riots and refugee tsunamis, the only answer is to secure the food supply.

Australia has not yet understood that agriculture policy is defence policy. It is refugee policy, immigration policy and environmental policy, as well as health, food and economic policy. We persist in seeing it as an isolated and unimportant issue. We have not grasped its significance as the central issue of human destiny in the 21st century.

Thus, we have cut agricultural science for decades. At a time of global food crisis, CSIRO recently announced fresh cuts. University enrolments in this discipline are at record lows and most of our existing researchers are approaching retirement.

The fall in Australia’s international standing in agricultural science is reflected the fact that we provided almost none of the 400 scientists asked by the World Bank to report on the challenges facing global agriculture. Only a decade or so ago we were world leaders in this field.

The solutions to this phase of the global food challenge are laid out in the IAASTD report, which Australia has refused to support (along with the US and Canada) because we did not like the claim that GM crops were not the ‘silver bullet’ some insist them to be, especially for poor farmers. We are thus out of step with world scientific opinion about what needs to be done.

The scientific goals of the coming decade are clear, and I have outlined them in a longer paper, ‘The coming famine’. They include:

  • a 200 per cent increase in water use efficiency in all crops;
  • a global effort to put organic farming systems on a scientific footing and exploit still-unknown soil biological processes;
  • development of low-input farming systems that rely far less on oil-derived fertilisers, chemicals and energy;
  • a global effort to recycle all nutrients on-farm, in the food chain and sewage works;
  • a massive effort to raise vegetable production and consumption to replace protein and carbohydrate-based foods, using more than 1000 species of ‘new’ vegetables currently undeveloped in agriculture – this will also address the obesity pandemic;
  • large-scale introduction of ‘green cities’ (urban horticulture on buildings) and vegetable protein biosynthesis using recycled sewage nutrients; and
  • development of farming systems, especially for the Third World, that protect native vegetation and biodiversity, cleanse water and sequester soil carbon.

These challenges are far from trivial. With its current depleted agricultural science effort and over-commitment to a single technology (GM), Australia is in a position to tackle few, if any of them.

Half a century ago we shouldered similar global responsibilities with great enthusiasm, skill and commitment – but that nation is no longer recognisable in today’s apathetic mob of sybarites.

Just as humanity overcame two previous global food crises with the first agricultural revolution and the Green Revolution, it is now called on to do so again, with the sustainable food revolution. The effort required to launch this is far greater than indicated by the half-hearted response from out-of-touch governments at the recent Rome food summit.

First we must all be aware of – and, if possible, alarmed about – the position. Then, we must act. The issue of declining global food security is far more pressing than even climate change. It is the scientific challenge of the age. 

Julian Cribb is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication, and founding editor of www.sciencealert.com.au. He is Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney.  

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