Can Australia feed Asia really
At the recent Global Food Forum, several prominent businessmen called for Australia to significantly increase its contribution towards global food security. They highlighted business opportunities in Australian agriculture for Asia’s growing middle class.
How realistic is it to double or quadruple Australia’s food production despite the renewed interest? What principles should we follow as we embark upon this journey?
Australia has a small population but a huge land area. You can easily be misled into thinking that Australia has vast unused land and water resources, just waiting to become agricultural. Truthfully, this is not true.
Most of the land suitable for farming has been converted to crops or pastures in southern and eastern Australia. Water is an even bigger problem. Around 70% of the freshwater available is used by agriculture, and many river systems have already been over-utilized.
In 2050, it’s likely there will be less land and water for food production. There are many reasons for this: land and water is being claimed by mining, urbanization, biomass energy, and environmental conservation. Climate change will also bring a warmer, drier, and more variable climate.
There is one exception to the rule: northern Australia. There are land and water resources in the north, but soils and climate are fragile, and the attempts to establish thriving agricultural industries are sobering. However, the cattle industry and tropical horticulture have shown resilience and success. Future agrarian sectors will be based on research that recognizes the need for agricultural production to stay within ecological limits. There is much research to be done.
Will the government and industry invest enough in research to meet this need? Australian farmers are resilient. The farmers have survived droughts, flooding, high Australian dollars, low commodity prices, and ever-complex regulatory and policy frameworks. Australian agricultural production has grown around 2% annually in the past, a result that is largely due to sustained investment by the government and industry in agricultural research. Recent evidence shows that productivity growth has declined in agriculture, with declining investment in research and development being a major contributor. For Australia to make a greater contribution to the global food supply, it will be necessary to increase agricultural R&D. This will require both government and private sector involvement. What research is required, and where is the strategy vision?
The global food security challenge will define the 21st Century. How can we feed 9-10 Billion by 2050, given that we live on a finite planet? It will not be possible to continue the strategy of harnessing more resources into agriculture (land and water) as it was in the past.
We must learn how to live within ecological boundaries. We have already exceeded safe limits in nitrogen contamination, freshwater extraction, loss of biodiversity, and Carbon pollution. Agriculture is both the cause and the effect of environmental degradation. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the future growth of agricultural production needs to be balanced with desired environmental outcomes. Can this be done?
We have no choice but to accept it. Sustainable intensification, also known as “more with less”, is the new paradigm for increasing production while maintaining ecological limits. Sustainable intensification has three key elements .
It won’t be simple, and the challenge is much more complex than simply doubling or quadrupling your production. This is not an abstract or intellectual challenge but a real one that is happening right now.
Yes, for sustainable intensification, it will be necessary to invest in traditional strategies such as agronomy and plant breeding. Soil science, ecology, and agronomy. Investment in complementary strategies such as reducing population growth, reducing food waste, planning land use, enabling markets and promoting food education requires a coordinated strategy and vision from the government.
We need to have a public discussion about the ethics of agriculture, food and the environment.
Around 1 billion people are food insecure worldwide, including 400 million in India. Australia, with a population of 22 million people, is estimated to produce enough food to feed 60 million people. This makes Australia one of only a few countries that export food. Australia should continue to ship food, but within the limits of our eco-system.
Australia’s Chief scientist recently stated that while Australia’s food exporting role is important, Australian agricultural expertise and knowledge are even more valuable. It benefits an additional 200,000,000 people, many of whom are the most vulnerable. Australia’s Chief Scientist recently stated that while Australia’s role as a food exporting country is vital, Australian agricultural knowledge and expertise are even more valuable, benefiting an additional 200 million people, often those most vulnerable.