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Australia and Food Security in a Changing World


It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially.

Extract from Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Norman Borlaug (1970).

Australia and Food Security in a Changing World

Can we feed ourselves and help feed the world in the future?

Report of the PMSEIC Expert Working Group

October 2010

Citation: PMSEIC (2010). Australia and Food Security in a Changing World. The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, Canberra, Australia.


The Expert Working Group would like to acknowledge the contribution of the following:

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research for a presentation on agricultural research and global food security, provision of data on official development assistance and material for a case study; the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for a presentation on current programs in agriculture and provision of extensive data on food trade and investment in agriculture; Professor Colin Buxton from the University of Tasmania for a presentation on fisheries and aquaculture; Professor Philip Pardey from the University of Minnesota for the provision of data on USA aid for agriculture; the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation for provision of material for a case study; Dr Ros Gleadow from Monash University for providing material for a case study; Mr Neil Barr from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries for providing data on the age structure of farmers; Mr Mark Nitschke from Rostrevor College, South Australia, for providing material for a case study; Professor Jim Pratley from the Charles Sturt University for providing data related to employment in the agricultural sector; and Professor Michael Raupach, Chair of the concurrent PMSEIC Expert Working Group entitled Challenges at Energy-Water-Carbon Intersections, for ongoing discussions in areas of mutual interest. The Expert Working Group also acknowledges the excellent research, secretariat and administrative support from Dr Simon Prasad, Dr Georgina Kelley, Maxie Porter-Heubeck, Ashley Stewart and their colleagues from the Office of the Chief Scientist.

The cover image for this report was purchased from Shutterstock Images.

© Commonwealth of Australia 2010

ISBN 978 0642 72551 6


A report for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council

This report has been prepared by the independent PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Food Security. The views expressed in this report are those of the Expert Working Group and not necessarily those of the Australian Government.

Table of Contents

Foreword from the Chair v

Executive Summary and Recommendations 1

1. Introduction 7

2. Setting the scene 9

2.1. Definition of food security 9

2.2. National context 10

A. Food and the environment 10

B. Climate change 12

C. Food production 13

D. Food and health 15

E. Key messages 16

2.3. Global context 17

F. Global population growth 17

G. Food production trends 17

H. Factors limiting food production 19

I. Competition for arable land 21

J. International conflict zones and peace efforts today 23

K. Key messages for Australia 24

3. What are the key challenges and opportunities? 25

3.1. Introduction 25

3.2. Food and the environment 25

A. Land use planning and availability of arable land 25

B. Increasing productivity and impact on energy usage 26

C. Impact of energy policy changes domestically and globally 26

D. Biophysical constraints 27

3.3. Food as a commodity 29

E. The food value chain 29

F. Food production 29

G. Food imports 29

H. Food exports 30

I. Food processing 30

J. Waste reduction 30

K. R&D investment, productivity and innovation 31

L. Capacity constraints 32

3.4. Food and health 34

M. Nutrition and population health profile 34

N. Social aspects 36

4. How to meet the key challenges and opportunities 38

4.1. A national approach to food security 38

A. Framework for the food value chain 38

B. Australia’s position in the international food security scene 38

C. Regulatory constraints to adoption of existing and new technologies 39

D. Access to international technologies 41

4.2. International and national research agenda 42

E. Role of R&D in maintaining global food security 42

F. The Australian situation 44

G. Fostering international and national collaboration 45

H. The path forward 45

4.3. Intellectual capability 46

I. The early years 46

J. Tertiary education and training 48

4.4. A food and nutrition aware community 50

K. Community awareness and education 50

L. Public perception and visibility of agriculture and food production 51

5. Recommendations 53

5.1. Preamble 53

5.2. Recommendation 1 53

5.3. Recommendation 2 54

5.4. Recommendation 3 55

5.5. Recommendation 4 56

5.6. Implementation plan 57

6. Conclusion 59

Appendices 60

Appendix A Expert Working Group members 60

Appendix B Abbreviations 61

Glossary 62

Appendix C References 64

Appendix D Detailed technical information 69

Foreword from the Chair

Food is a fundamental requirement for survival. When it becomes scarce, people will fight for it, yet when it is abundant, we waste it. The transition from abundance to scarcity can happen rapidly. A major drought, a natural disaster or war, can suddenly plunge a community into famine. While the transition to hunger can be rapid, escape from hunger can be slow, painful and difficult.

In Australia, we have had an abundance of food. We can produce more food than we need and we have the resources to import food if necessary. However, we have faced crises for specific foods, such as the banana shortage after Tropical Cyclone Larry in 2006. Further, our food transport, distribution and storage systems are vulnerable to disruption. For example, a major epidemic could restrict movement of people and materials resulting in food shortages in some urban centres. Perhaps Australia’s most serious food security issue relates to the ways in which we consume and use food. Poor nutritional choices made by many in our community are developing into an increasingly important public health issue.

Global food security will demand the development and delivery of new technologies to increase food production on limited arable land and without relying on increased water and fertiliser use. In addition, the frequency and severity of climate ‘shocks’ are expected to increase due to the effects of climate change. Australia can make a significant contribution to addressing this challenge. We have extensive experience in dealing with difficult and low input food production systems. This technical and scientific expertise is valuable and well-regarded internationally. However, success in technology development and delivery requires community support. Although agriculture is one of our most productive and efficient industries, it struggles to garner community support. The decline in knowledge and interest in food production has probably resulted from the urbanisation of the Australian population. This shift risks limiting our ability to deliver innovation to the Australian and international food industries.

Innovation is required to meet the challenge of ensuring food security. There are two broad tasks ahead. The first is to define the framework for the future food production environment. Greater climatic variability now seems very likely and we know that future production increases will occur in a resource-constrained environment. The future costs of energy, water, fertilisers and carbon will determine the production framework. Australia has the expertise and skills needed to devise the food production models and develop an effective framework for producing food.

Once a production framework is established, the second task is to adapt our agricultural and food industries to the new production environment. The key advances are expected to come from new breeding technologies, improved resource management systems and a greater understanding of the relationship between food composition, consumption and health. Significant technical advances will help ensure efficient production in Australia and in countries where food security is of critical concern. Of course, technology will provide only one component of the solution. Many other factors are important, such as population, infrastructure and political stability.

In this report, we explain the nature of the food security challenges and outline opportunities and possible solutions to the problems. In developing this report, we were very conscious of the breadth of the task and the seriousness of the challenge. We also became increasingly confident that Australia can play an active and highly productive role in tackling this challenge.

Professor Peter Langridge

Chair, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Australia and Food Security in a Changing World

Executive Summary and Recommendations

Food security is achieved when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

(based on the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 1996 definition)

Food security is an issue for Australia

Australians recognise that food security is a major global issue. The food price crisis of 2008 elevated food security to a high priority on the international policy agenda. While several factors precipitated this crisis, the FAO ominously highlighted the fragility of the global food system as a critical factor. Globally, the number of undernourished people is unacceptably high and stands close to one billion or around 16 per cent of the world population (FAO, 2009). This situation is likely to deteriorate given the projected global population growth to 9.2 billion by 2050, existing and emerging food production constraints, changing consumption patterns and the anticipated impact of climate change.

For Australia, food security is inextricably linked to the political stability of our region and has the potential to affect our national security. Food security also affects our status as a premier food exporting nation and the health and wellbeing of our population. The likelihood of a food crisis directly affecting the Australian population may appear remote given that we have enjoyed cheap, safe and high quality food for many decades and we produce enough food today to feed 60 million people. 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. It is imperative that we continue to develop food-related science and technology to fuel a future food revolution that must exceed the achievements of the Green Revolution. Australia is uniquely positioned to help build a resilient food value chain and support programs aimed at addressing existing and emerging food security challenges, such as:

  • Vulnerability to climate change and climate variability.

  • Slowing productivity growth in primary industries observed over the last decade.

  • Increasing land degradation and soil fertility decline coupled with loss of productive land in peri-urban regions due to urban encroachment.

  • Increasing reliance on imports of food and food production inputs (such as fertilisers) and the susceptibility of these supplies to pressures outside our control.

  • A finely tuned and ‘just in time’ food transport and distribution system that presents risks of rapid spread of contaminated food and is vulnerable to events such as pandemics.

  • Poor nutritional intake leading to an increasing burden of diet-related diseases in the population.

  • Conflict in our region and elsewhere.

What role can Australia play in global food security?

Although Australia accounts for less than three per cent of global food trade, we are among the net food exporting nations of the world. While the challenges around food security are considerable, there are significant opportunities for Australia to contribute to global solutions.

Australia’s strengths

  • Australia has key strengths that are highly relevant to building food security:

  • Australian agriculture has maintained its leading position by producing food on the driest inhabited continent, on low quality soils and in the face of continual climate variability.

  • We have built strong links and capabilities in delivering technological development to developing countries in our region.

  • We have a strong research and development (R&D) base and our agricultural R&D capability ranks among the best in the world.

  • We have developed a strong capability in climate change research including studies on impacts, adaptation and mitigation.

  • We have expertise in human health and nutrition research.

These strengths provide a solid foundation to catalyse transformation in the food value chain required to address food security issues. Advances can be made through a national and coordinated approach to food; by building human capacity; by investing in R&D and by inspiring awareness of the nutritional value of food at both the production and consumption levels.

Main messages

A national approach to food

Food production and processing is a fundamental part of Australia’s economy and the health and wellbeing of its citizens. Food, however, is not currently dealt with in a way which brings together food related policy, regulatory agencies and research organisations.

As food security continues to emerge as a challenge globally and domestically, there will be increasing demand for:

  • Efficiency in food production, processing and distribution and responsibility in purchasing and consumption to reduce wastage and minimise costs.

  • R&D and the delivery of innovations to underpin productivity growth in the food sector, to meet human health needs and bring improvements in food processing.

  • Flexibility and responsiveness in regulation to ensure rapid delivery of innovations to the food value chain.

Different policy, regulatory and program areas related to food should be brought together to ensure that government takes a consistent approach to food and food security.

A national approach would bring a high level of coordination, build a strategy for a resilient food value chain and emphasise the link between food and population health.

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