Planting Hope and Growing a Sustainable Future

Food Security in Australia

It is estimated that one billion people experience food insecurity worldwide. The global population is expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, significantly increasing demand for food, water and other natural resources, and thus, competition for arable land (degrading at a rate of 5-7 million hectares a year). The transition to hunger is rapid, but the transition from hunger is slow, painful and difficult.
Food security is a complex sustainable development issue, and achieving food security is interdependent on a number of contingent local and global, social and political forces, and subject to variable environmental conditions.

It would take an estimated 30 million tonnes of grain to extinguish hunger and food insecurity around the world; this amounts to approximately one-sixth of the amount of food products that are converted into biofuel each year. Given these figures, food insecurity is not an issue of supply but rather a matter of infrastructure, purchasing power, and capacity.

Currently, global production levels can satisfactorily provide food security to the global population. Due to insufficient infrastructure and decreasing investments in R & D, as well as the lack of an incentive program for farmers, land use restrictions and limited global policy coordination, challenges to achieve sustainable levels of production and distribution are prevalent.

Since Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which greatly benefitted countries like Mexico, India, and China in the 1960s by improving irrigation and introducing new crops, new breeding techniques, and new fertilizers and agricultural management functions, annual food production increased from 1.84 billion tonnes to 4.38 billion tonnes by 2007. The World Food Summit on Food Security (2009) anticipates that global production will have to increase 70 per cent to meet growing demand, especially by 2050, which may be an unattainable target given the challenges ahead.

Food security is a basic human right that exists when there is universal access to sufficient amounts of safe, nutritious, affordable food, contributing to the improved health and wellbeing of society through nutritional and sustainable economic development. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations explains that there are five pillars of food security: availability of food, access to food, acceptability of food, adequacy of food and stability of food sources.

As times of scarcity produce tension, and times of bounty yield waste, food security requires a nationally and internationally coordinated effort to reconcile the numerous issues simultaneously impacting upon the viability of food security on a global scale.

Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in the world, accounting for 40 per cent of the global workforce. In developing countries, the total percentage of workers in agriculture is even higher, between 50 and 75 per cent of national totals.

Developing nations suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity in the world. In developing countries there are issues of insufficient storage, weak transportation and distribution networks, higher instances of food borne illness, and inadequate infrastructure. Despite levels of production, the global food value chain experiences losses of close to 50 per cent of production to waste on average.

Many partnerships are being made in sub-Saharan Africa to increase food safety and quality, improve infrastructure and knowledge bases, work with smallholder famers to increase the production of foods with a good caloric content, boost protein supplies, and work together to share technology, improve access to water, fertilisers, seeds and other necessary aspects of production. By honouring comparative advantage, facilitating open, trust-based markets, supporting small-holding farmers and enabling them to thrive, encouraging investment in agricultural production and R & D, fostering cooperation between public and private sectors, and reforming policies and regulations related to food security, stakeholders in the food value chain can collectively establish food security.

Cargill, a multi-faceted food processing company, understands the importance of food security, and how agricultural trade is fraught with risk. The role of the smallholder farmer is paramount to food security and companies like Cargill are working to ensure these farmers have access to the variety of services and inputs that are necessary to sustain growth.

Regions like sub-Saharan Africa can solve their problems of hunger and malnutrition in the short term by adopting scale farming, though it would be unsustainable in the long term. Finding a balance between scale and smallholder farming will allow smallholder farms to benefit from the logistical power of the scale farm, improving infrastructure, storage, transportation and distribution of goods. The loss of smallholder farmers can cause increased rural to urban migration, further contributing to food insecurity. The survival price for a family of four on a sub-Saharan African farm, using the example of maize, is $400/ton. In context, the highest price ever paid in the United States was $275/ton, emphasising the need for an alternative pricing mechanism and revenue certainty for rural farmers.

Agricultural production is in a state of disequilibrium and times and prices can be volatile as a result. Any small changes in production have outsized impacts on prices, as producing too many calories can cause prices to plummet and smallholder farmers will not be able to compete – whereas producing too few calories can result in skyrocketing prices.

Price has the power to encourage or discourage production, and speculation has the ability to influence prices. Where there is speculation of food shortages or surpluses, prices can become more or less dear, and can result in the hoarding of food commodities, exacerbating the volatility of price.

Increased demand for livestock feed and cereals, sugar, soybeans, and vegetable oil for biofuel creates diversions of food from individuals and adds strain on food production, prices, and security. In developed countries, 70 per cent of production goes to livestock feed. As living standards around the world increase, so too will the demand for livestock, further diverting food sources.

There is no fast path to caloric sufficiency in developing countries. Much work is required to build capacity and develop smart policies, strong partnerships, and investments in technology and infrastructure to help establish revenue certainty and sustainable agricultural cycles year to year.

Australia is in a unique position as a premier food exporting nation, though exports are in decline. More than half of Australia’s land is committed to agricultural activities, producing enough food for approximately 60 million people to have access to enjoy safe, high quality, fairly priced food. Australian farmers produce over 90 per cent of the domestic food supply, feeding millions more each day through exports.

The country enjoys high levels of productivity, producing food on the driest inhabited continent despite low soil qualities and in the face of climate change, land degradation, increased urbanisation, and increased competition for resources and infrastructure. As a nation Australia is poised to be a leader, sharing knowledge and experience to build a resilient food value chain and food security globally.

Australia’s food value chain is approximately $230 billion and the food and beverage industry is the largest value added manufacturing industry. But climate change is expected to reduce Australia’s food production capacity by 15 per cent, increasing concern surrounding the potential for the national population to grow to 35 million by 2050. One major problem in Australia is the ageing population of employees in the agricultural industry, with the median age being 48 years old. As agriculture has one of the oldest workforces in Australia, with fewer people taking an interest in agriculture or food sciences, there is a natural depletion of one of the most important resources for agricultural production: the farmer.

Certainly, food is a valuable resource, one that drives the Australian economy. In viewing food production in a sustainable way, increasing investment and sharing technology in the process, and building a national strategy to increase efficiency in food production systems, community wellbeing can be maximised and food security can be achieved, with Australia leading the way.

Food security is an issue of national and political stability, and social and economic wellbeing. There are two broad tasks ahead: define the future of food production in a local and global context, and, once a framework has been established, adapt industries to the new systems of agricultural production and management. Stakeholders should consider the variables (climate change, finite natural resources, political stability, infrastructure, capacity, competitive advantage), working in partnerships to establish smart policies and regulations to ensure food security. Leaders must be mindful that the benefits from increased investment in R & D take time to manifest, thus plans must focus on both the short and long term.

By investing in R & D, countries can: adopt more sustainable agricultural practices; decrease environmental impact; improve soil nutrition and crop management; decrease reliance on water, as agriculture accounts for 85 per cent of water used globally; and decrease use of fertilisers, which are energy intensive and can contaminate water sources, further depleting the natural resource base.

With the proper strategies and frameworks in place, understanding shifting consumption patterns, improving agricultural production and management, sharing technological advances, and honouring comparative advantage by creating trust-based open markets, both human and productive capacities can be increased by improving food safety, quality and access for all.

Individually, people can incorporate sustainable food practices into everyday life, helping to secure food security at the local level. Growing backyard gardens, contributing to community gardens, supporting local farmers, limiting household waste, and advocating for policy changes by being an ambassador for food as a valued resource will improve wellbeing and help to achieve food security.

Intro text:
“It would take an estimated 30 million tonnes of grain to extinguish hunger and food insecurity around the world.”

“Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in the world, accounting for 40 per cent of the global workforce.”

“More than half of Australia’s land is committed to agricultural activities, producing enough food for approximately 60 million people to have access to enjoy safe, high quality, fairly priced food.”

“Australia’s food value chain is worth approximately $230 billion and the food and beverage sector is the country’s largest value added manufacturing industry.”

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January 18, 2019, 3:32 AM AEDT