Dr Brian Keating, Director, CSIRO Agricultural Sustainable Initiative
Opinion: some food for thought on food security
For many of us, the current focus on food security may have come out of the blue. However as we pause to reflect on World Food Day, there are significant challenges to be faced as a nation if we are to have a reliable and affordable supply of food in the future – and we are to live in a world where others have sufficient food for healthy and active lives.
18 October 2010 | Updated 14 October 2011
A snapshot of current global food security issues helps us understand the scale of the challenge we have in feeding people; over one billion undernourished people, mainly in the developing world, 1 billion overweight people, 300 million obese, and around 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty on less than US$1.25 per day.
Looking forward, we are likely to see a population of over nine billion people in 2050. Combined with current trends in consumption and diet, plus continuing high levels of food waste and potentially high levels of food diversion to biofuels, we will need to increase our current food demand to somewhere between 50 and 80 per cent.
Challenges of this order in the world’s food system have been met before. Since the middle of the 20th century, global agricultural output has more than kept pace with a rapidly growing population. Between 1961 and 2008, the world’s population increased by 117 per cent whereas food production rose by 179 per cent.
This was achieved through both new crop varieties and enhanced agricultural practices, including inputs of fertilisers, irrigation, mechanisation and agrochemicals. The world’s agricultural research community has played a big part in making this possible.
“What's different in the 21st century is that land, water, energy and nutrients are all more constrained now – and this large increase in food production has to be achieved without a big new load of greenhouse gases.”
Dr Brain Keating, CSIRO
What’s different in the 21st century is that land, water, energy and nutrients are all more constrained now – and this large increase in food production has to be achieved without a big new load of greenhouse gases on an already overloaded atmosphere – and sustaining the natural resource base for continuing agricultural productivity remains a big challenge.
So where does Australia fit into the food security story? Australia produces about 1.1 per cent of the world’s food on average – closer to three per cent of all the food that is traded and between 5-9 per cent of the international trade of some commodities such as cereals and meat.
We export about two thirds of the food we produce (by value), and the supply of raw commodities into the food value chain is not likely to generate a 'food security' issue per se for Australia.
However, the food Australian farmers produce and export does make a contribution to global food security – if it was not grown here it would have to be grown somewhere else in the world. Ultimately it does come down to how best the world can produce food with the least environmental impact – with an eye to the most sustainable practices in the long term. As we struggle with this difficult balancing act here in Australia we need to recognise that increasingly the same struggle is likely to play out globally.
Whilst Australia grapples with challenges of dealing with less available water for agriculture, in the long run those industries that can most effectively drive advances in efficiency with increasingly scarce natural resources (water, energy, land and nutrients) will be best placed to meet the world’s food security needs in 2050.
Australian farmers and Australian agricultural science have a proud history of creating a productive agriculture despite limited natural resources. It is critical that we continue to contribute that knowledge and the foods we produce to the rest of the world and that the nation continues to invest in R&D to underpin future productivity gains.
It is also vital that we are better connected to the global knowledge networks, both to ensure that Australia has access to the very latest in developments, but also to ensure that as we tackle these issues in Australia, we are well placed to contribute to the global food security challenge.
Read more at CSIRO and food production: securing our food future.