World food prices are now at their highest in recorded history. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s global food price index surpassed its previous (2008) peak in December 2010.
“We are beginning to realise that the era of food surpluses has come to an end,” the UK Financial Times commented recently.
The message is likely to be rubbed in for Australian consumers in the weeks and months ahead, as the impact of the Queensland floods seeps through to the supermarket as food price inflation - and maybe even drive up the cost of repaying a home mortgage.
The context in which Australia must shape its future agriculture and food policies is one of a world in which global food demand will double by the mid-century. At the same time the resources needed to satisfy it - water, arable land, fossil energy, mined nutrients, fish, technology and stable climates - will become much scarcer or increasingly unaffordable for farmers. Strategic thinktanks in the US, UK, Scandinavia and Australia are already warning about the consequences of this for conflict and refugee crises, for economic shockwaves and food price hikes, even in affluent and otherwise food-secure countries.
At present these shocks are reasonably small and well-spaced. By 2060, with ten billion people aspiring to a western diet, they will be tectonic and one will spill into another. Countries that imagine themselves secure now will discover that, in a globalised world, they are not.
It is important to note that it does not have to be this way. Humanity does not have to bow to a growing cycle of scarcity and crisis; indeed, if we prepare ourselves, we can prevent them. What is most needed is leadership, both national and international, to put in places the measures that will avert the building cycle of regional food shortages and their wider impacts.
Food production cannot be turned on and off like a tap, at the whim of global markets or politicians. It takes decades for a new technology or farming system to be widely adopted: meantime drought, poor returns and global competition can eradicate local food industries. To deal with such issues requires forethought and planning on time-scales ranging from decades to half a century or more. It requires the integration of water policy with land policy, energy policy, science policy, health and food policy and climate policy. (Anyone who doubts the scale of the task has only to reflect how long it is likely to take to regenerate the Murray-Darling Basin alone, its industries, communities and ecosystems.)
Based on the key impending scarcities in global food production, here are some essential measures Australia ought to be taking now in order to head off food insecurity in future:
Recarbonise, rehydrate: we need a nationwide plan to rebuild the fertility, carbon and water retention of our landscapes, agricultural, pastoral and natural. In particular we need to find ways to retain more of the 50% of rainfall now lost to evaporation continent-wide to carry agro-ecological landscapes through warmer times ahead and maximise our ability to lock up and retain carbon in the soil.
Recycle, re-nourish: mined nutrients are finite and likely to become costlier than oil in future, so we need a national plan to harvest fresh water and nutrients as they pass through our great cities and return them to food production: agricultural, peri-urban, urban and to novel intensive industries such as biocultures which will in turn produce food, feed, fuel and other valuable products.
Re-energise: With oil already heading for $100 a barrel again we need a crash national R&D program to develop the farm and long-distance transport energy sources and systems of the future to sustain food production. Whether it is algal biodiesel, 2nd generation biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, solar electrics or boron ion batteries we need to start right now, to avoid being caught unprepared by the next oil shock and massive food price inflation.
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