By Katherine Fleming,
23 July 2011
It sounds like mission impossible: to feed the world we need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we did in the past 500, without using more land, water, energy or fertiliser, amid a rapidly growing population and against a background of climate change.
It’s “an unprecedented confluence of pressures” on the global food system, says the British Government Office for Science.
“Any one of these pressures … would present substantial challenges to food security; together, they constitute a major threat that requires strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed,” it warned.
It was only three years ago that food prices skyrocketed to their highest level in 30 years, helping push millions more people into hunger and sparking riots in dozens of countries.
Now, the world is arguably in the grip of another food crisis.
A catastrophe, described as the worst hunger emergency in a generation by the United Nations, is unfolding in drought-stricken east Africa as tens of thousands of people have starved to death. The soaring price of food contributed to riots in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia this year.
The United Nations’ food price index rose above its 2008 high point late last year and peaked in February. The latest numbers were almost 40 per cent higher than this time last year and prices are predicted to remain volatile.
As the global population grows to a predicted nine billion plus by 2050, demand will be even higher.
Australia has long had an abundance of food. We produce twice as much as we consume, including almost all our fresh produce. Apart from minor food shortages, such as a dearth of bananas after cyclones or floods, we have largely been immune from the problems that have plagued other countries.
But a report, prepared by an independent expert group for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, warned that our traditional surplus may not protect us.
“The likelihood of a food crisis directly affecting the Australian population may appear remote, given that we have enjoyed cheap, safe and quality food for many decades and we produce enough food today to feed 60 million people,” it said.
“However, if our population grows to 35-40 million and climate change constrains food production, we can expect to see years where we will import more food than we export. We are now facing a complex array of intersecting challenges which threaten the stability of our food production, consumption and trade.”
About 925 million people are going hungry and another billion are thought to suffer from “hidden hunger”, missing out on micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
At the same time, a billion people, including more than 60 per cent of Australians, are over-consuming, to the point that obesity related chronic disease is considered an epidemic.
Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, the Asia Pacific, is home to about two-thirds of the world’s hungry, according to Monika Barthwal-Datta, head of the food security program at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Security Studies.
“People in the region spend up to 80 per cent of their income on food, so any price volatility devastates them,” she said. “ It means, all of a sudden, they can no longer afford even that little bit of food.
“By 2030, it’s predicted there will be a 40 per cent gap between the supply of water in Asia and the demand.
“It’s quite a volatile neighbourhood, particularly when resources are scarce. There is increasing anxiety over sharing resources like water and fisheries … although I don’t necessarily see food wars erupting.”
In Perth, former governor-general Maj-Gen. Michael Jeffery was not as confident.
“Future conflicts in this world are probably going to be based on the water and food wars,” he told the Boao Forum for Asia.
He urged China and Australia to work together on food security, including improving soils and restoring rivers, saying the world was facing a “very serious situation that is not being gripped at the highest levels”.
“If we don’t do this … we will find hundreds of millions of people going hungry, going across borders in mass migrations and across waters. Australia and China cannot isolate themselves from that. … it’s the greatest contribution we can make to global security.”
In Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, a prolonged and worsening drought has left up to 10 million people needing food aid.
In Egypt, uprisings this year were driven partly by the cost of bread, after droughts in Russia and floods in Australia destroyed wheat crops.
In Tunisia, the high price of food fed into wider discontent and fuelled violent protests which unseated the government.
In Algeria, deadly riots were triggered by price rises for sugar and cooking oil.
Closer to home, Premier Colin Barnett accused the Federal Government of creating food insecurity in Indonesia by cutting the live export of cattle amid animal cruelty concerns. Food security is high on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting agenda, to be held in Perth in October.
As the population grows and land is degraded, the area suitable for farming has decreased dramatically.
In the developing world, it plunged from 0.5ha of arable land per person in 1961 to 0.2ha by 1992 and is predicted to decrease to 0.1ha by 2050.
Though climate change may open new land in Asia, northern Europe and America, it is expected to only partially compensate for what will be lost or less productive.
It’s left several countries, particularly China, South Korea and oil-rich countries in the Middle East, looking outside their borders to secure food for their citizens by buying or leasing farmland in more fertile countries, including Australia.
Overseas purchases of Australian rural property and food companies of less than $23 million don’t need Foreign Investment Review Board approval. A spate of buyouts prompted the former editor of The Land, Paul Myers, to warn: “Australians are in danger of becoming servants, not masters, of their own food resources.”
The movement of masses of people, including in China and India, into the middle classes is also a major pressure.
Higher incomes are closely tied to a diet more rich in meat, which requires relatively more resources to produce. In developed countries, 70 per cent of grain goes to feed animals. Globally, it’s about one third.
In China, the amount of meat the average person consumes each year skyrocketed from 4kg to 54kg over the past 50 years as living standards improved.
Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine, is blunt.
“To supply the amount of meat the world is expected to be eating in 2050, we would need to discover three more North Americas just to grow the grain that would be required to feed the extra livestock,” Cribb said.
“You’re not going to feed 10 billion people on an American diet. We need to change the world’s diet and reinvent it, create a much lighter, fresher diet.”
Eating less meat and more fruit and vegetables would improve health, ameliorate climate change and protect the environment, the Public Health Association of Australia said.
However, it acknowledged an organic vegan diet was simply “not realistic for the majority of Australians”.
Despite the doomsday predictions, Australian experts are optimistic about our ability to contribute to feeding the world. After all, we’ve done it all before, says Peter Carberry, who leads the CSIRO’s agricultural sustainability research.
“In the last 50 years, the world’s population has grown by 120 per cent and the amount of food, in terms of calories, we have produced increased 180 per cent,” he said. “Innovation on farms around the world has more than met the challenge.
“But the sources of productivity we used in the past — twice as much irrigation water, seven times as much fertiliser — are not available now. It is about producing more from less. The solutions of the future are going to be driven by investment in science.”
But just as innovation is most needed, funding has dropped. The PMSEIC report warned that the number of agricultural graduates falls far short of the estimated need to replace ageing farmers. It also said investment in research has been dropping since the 1970s.
Some of the potential technologies touted as parts of the food security puzzle — such as genetic modification and cloning — have been controversial with consumers. But Dr Carberry said improvements in yields would be driven by better use of existing knowledge, including seasonal and yield forecasting.
“That is going to require farmers to be much more ready to deploy knowledge-based technology,” he said.
“They can use data to say, all indications are it’s going to be a cracker of a year, so instead of two tonnes per hectare we’re going to go for five.
“If conditions are of concern, they can pull it back. At the moment, farmers manage much more for the average but there is a revolution there to be had.
“Maybe this will attract the next generation, who will see agriculture is an area where we need the smartest minds.”
Another potentially big source of extra food is the 361kg each Australian throws out each year.
“While it is difficult to comprehend, food wastage after purchase in Australia is in the order of $5.2 billion annually,” the PMSEIC report said, with major losses in uneaten fruit and vegetables ($1 billion), leftovers at restaurants and from takeaways ($1 billion) and wasted meat and fish ($600 million).
The average West Australian throws out $238 worth of food a year, in the middle of the range, Queensland wastes the most and South Australia the least.
Even developing countries waste 25-30 per cent of food through poor transport and storage and inefficient harvesting. Globally, the losses may be in the order of 50 per cent.
Part of the problem is people in developed countries have no idea of the true cost of food and margins on farming have become unsustainably low, says Cribb.
“Food goes through 16 pairs of hands between the farmer and the consumer these days, so they can’t know where their food comes from,” he said. “People complain in the West about the price of food but, in reality, it is very cheap. Too cheap.
“Supermarkets and food companies bring the food prices down so farmers are not being paid enough to afford new technologies that are more sustainable or to look after the land and soil and water and to pay their energy bills and buy fertiliser.”
Producing more food would mean prioritising farmland. If rainfall retreats towards the coast, the PMSEIC report predicts conflicts over land use will intensify as fertile land clashes with desirable housing areas.
Australia’s biggest contribution to international food security would be technical help to boost productivity in developing countries and helping improve international trading rules to allow food to flow to where it is needed, says the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.
In the Asia Pacific, Dr Barthwal-Datta said there was a big argument for focusing on the many small holding farmers, the majority of whom were women and therefore more excluded from markets, technology and education to improve their yields.
Exporting our innovative farming would be Australia’s next major boom, Cribb said.
“If we want China to feed their own people sustainably, we need to start by sharing knowledge with them,” he said. “We are very good at farming in tough conditions and producing food under drought.
“It is a great opportunity for us because there is nothing more important than food. Mark my words, we will be making more money out of this than mining by mid-century. The food crisis will be paramount.”
“Future conflicts in this world are probably going to be based on the water and food wars ” Maj-Gen. Michael Jeffery
We need to change the world’s diet and reinvent it, create a much lighter, fresher diet” Author Julian Cribb.
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