Future of food policy should start at home

January 10, 2011 By Professor Alan Dupont

Long accustomed to plentiful and affordable meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, Australians may have to get used to higher prices as the soaring cost of agricultural staples suggests an era of cheap food is coming to an end.

After a brief pause, due to the which temporarily depressed demand, international food prices are approaching those of mid-2008, when the cost of rice, corn, cereals and soybeans skyrocketed, triggering food riots and political instability in more than 30 countries.

Of course, spikes in food prices are not new, nor are they necessarily a cause for concern. As every shopper knows, agricultural produce is prone to seasonal and cyclical fluctuations as the devastating floods in Queensland are about to remind us. But longer-term trends indicate that structural shifts in demand and supply are beginning to alter the food calculus.

On the demand side, the two key challenges are population growth and changing , sometimes called the nutrition transition. In 1798, when the English demographer Thomas Malthus penned his sombre warning that would outrun food production until checked by famine, war and ill health, the world's population was less than a billion. Today it is 6.7 billion. By 2050, when it is expected to reach 9.2 billion, agricultural production will need to have doubled to meet demand.

The accompanying nutrition transition is being driven by rising incomes in a developing world that has recorded dramatic and rapid changes in dietary patterns. The burgeoning Chinese and Indian middle classes are becoming more like Australians in their eating habits, consuming meat, milk and grain like never before. While good news for Australian farmers, since we export 60 per cent of our agriculture, these dietary changes are straining a world in urgent need of renewal.

Supply side pressures include a steady erosion of productive farm land due to urbanisation and environmental stress, the loss of much of the word's fertile topsoil, higher energy costs, shrinking food stocks, the diversion of corn to produce biofuels, climate change and water scarcity. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the world's use of surface water. With nearly half the world's population forecast to be living under severe water stress by 2030, water availability is the biggest constraint on future food production.

Price increases are not the only indicator of food insecurity. In a contentious new development, China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are buying or leasing agricultural land from countries that need capital and have land to spare. Saudi officials have visited even Australia to explore land for food deals.

While poorer countries may be able to invest the money received into improving their agriculture, the downside is that foreign land acquisitions can cause significant political and social tensions, lead to the exploitation of farmers and distort trade.

These acquisitions are a telling vote of no confidence in international markets by food-deficient countries, which understandably fear a repeat of the 2008 food crisis may deny them opportunities to buy grains and other essential soft commodities at any price.

Is there a solution? Nothing less than a second green revolution will reduce food anxieties and restore faith in the market. A crucial first step is to invest more in agriculture, which for too long has lagged behind manufacturing and the services sector.

Biotechnology and improved farming practices can help. But neither is a panacea. Food insecurity stems from a complex mix of political, economic and environmental policy failures which will need redressing to ensure that the next time food prices escalate, there are substantial international reserves to draw on and governments resile from knee-jerk, counterproductive measures, such as reducing or suspending critical food exports.

As an important food exporter, Australia must get its house in order by giving substance to its worthy, but still unrealised, promise to integrate all aspects of national food policy ''from the paddock to the plate''. If we cannot guarantee our own security with the resources of a continent at our disposal, we can hardly expect less well-endowed nations to do so.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Exercise can make cells healthier, promoting longer life, study finds

September 22, 2017
Whether it's running, walking, cycling, swimming or rowing, it's been well-known since ancient times that doing some form of aerobic exercise is essential to good health and well-being. You can lose weight, sleep better, ...

Breathing dirty air may harm kidneys, study finds

September 21, 2017
Outdoor air pollution has long been linked to major health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A new study now adds kidney disease to the list, according to ...

Excess dietary manganese promotes staph heart infection

September 21, 2017
Too much dietary manganese—an essential trace mineral found in leafy green vegetables, fruits and nuts—promotes infection of the heart by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus ("staph").

Being active saves lives whether a gym workout, walking to work or washing the floor

September 21, 2017
Physical activity of any kind can prevent heart disease and death, says a large international study involving more than 130,000 people from 17 countries published this week in The Lancet.

Frequent blood donations safe for some, but not all

September 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—Some people may safely donate blood as often as every eight weeks—but that may not be a healthy choice for all, a new study suggests.

Higher manganese levels in children correlate with lower IQ scores, study finds

September 21, 2017
A study led by environmental health researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine finds that children in East Liverpool, Ohio with higher levels of Manganese (Mn) had lower IQ scores. The research appears ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Jan 10, 2011
How about this.

Make all the tobacco growers and other recreational drug growers start growing food instead. Problem solved.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.