Issues Magazine

Food for All: What Australia Can Do

By Denis Blight

The world food crisis is here to stay, or to recur, as long as demand for food outstrips supply. Demand will grow as a growing population looks to eat better and more nutritious food. Will productivity growth in the next 50 years meet growing demand?

Consider Populasia, an emerging economy in Asia with a rapidly growing population.Increasing numbers of people means that the people of Populasia need more food just to ensure a basic level of nutrition, but bigger numbers of wealthier people want better and more nutritious diets, increasing demand not only for cereals but also for meat, milk and other dairy products, and for fresh fruit, vegetables and fish as well as for so-called luxuries such as wine.

Populasia’s success, which is at least partly based on economic growth in its agricultural sectors, means that its citizens enjoy a higher standard of living and are demanding higher volumes of quality foods. Even if the Earth’s population stabilises in the next 50 years at a level hopefully below nine billion, demand for food will grow.

Global economic growth is uneven, so growing demand from hundreds of millions of wealthier people in Populasia will force up prices (unless supply keeps up with demand), making it harder for poor people, likely to exceed more than one billion in number, to get access to food or to the essential inputs to food production.

As Populasia grows and people become wealthier, population growth rates decline.

More people in Populasia consuming more food and energy by travelling more and using more heating and cooling devices will increase the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the oceans. This contributes to climate change, with adverse effects on agricultural production, especially in tropical countries, seriously impacting on food supplies. Increased carbon dioxide uptake by oceans may disrupt fisheries. More extreme weather events will impact on agricultural production, forestry and fisheries.

Measures taken by Populasia to find alternatives to coal and oil for the production of biofuels will divert grains and other plant products from food supplies.

Economic growth seems to carry with it increasing urbanisation and alienation of agricultural land. As people in Populasia move from rural areas to cities it is less likely they will engage in productive agriculture (or that their children will study agricultural science) although, in a paradox within a paradox, although this may lead to more mechanised farming, as happened in the Agricultural Revolution in Europe and in the early 20th century in Australia, releasing labour for other industries.

Increased hunger and poverty in Populasia will lead to civil disruption and perhaps war. War will lead to neglect or disruption of food production in affected areas and to more hunger and poverty. On the other hand, economic growth and success will diminish the main cause of war and extremism, which feed on hunger and despair.

The dilemma of Populasia demonstrates the complexity of the current food crisis, including the paradoxes of population and wealth, and of consumption, energy, urbanisation and disruption, for those countries most affected.

Dealing with Complexity: The Diabolical Challenges

In the face of all this complexity, governments have to design public policy responses. That challenge is at least as diabolical as the one posed by climate change, but some things are clear.

  • Sound agricultural policy provides the platform for everything else in meeting the challenge. Building a cadre of policy professionals is essential – in the short term through intensive training and joint policy research and analysis, and in the longer term by building capacity in the universities, research and training institutions and policy bodies in the developing world. No country can expect to get through economic crises such as the one currently bedevilling the world without good policy and well-trained economists and other professionals. Australia’s aid programs can refocus on training this cadre.
  • Primary and secondary education, particularly for girls, given the predominance of women in agriculture in many developing countries, is essential. A shift in the direction of Australian aid to rural redevelopment could be accompanied by greater support for the education sector.
  • Research and innovation systems and public and private extension services are needed, as are farmer education and farmer associations. The private sector plays a crucial role in sales and marketing but has had little impact on the poorest of the poor. Australian experience may be helpful.

Overwhelmingly, the world needs greater investment in agricultural research and development. Continuous productivity growth in the major cereals through the 1970s and 1980s reflected strong national and international investment in agricultural research. When linked to investment in rural infrastructure, education and the provision of inputs such as fertiliser and water, this led to the Green Revolution in Asia. Australia is the driest continent yet, over the past half-century, it has developed a science-based agriculture that provides food for Australians and tens of millions of people around the world. Australia has maintained an overall increase in agricultural productivity of 2% over the past 50 years.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research – a group of the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, various national donors, philanthropic organisations, governments and research centres – has greatly expanded the international agricultural research system since its inception, under the leadership of a great Australian, Sir John Crawford, in 1971. The 15 centres it has supported include the International Rice Research Institute and CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) looking at rice, wheat, maize and triticale but expanded over the past four decades to include research on agriculture in the semi-arid tropics, research on agriculture in dry areas, and research on other commodities such as sorghum, millet, livestock, cassava and legumes.

The international centres make a basic contribution but their success, and hence achievement of a food secure world, depends on the ability of research systems in the developing world to carry out testing and adaptive research. In this way various problems met in using the higher yielding varieties and new farming approaches can be resolved satisfactorily. Moreover, it is only with a strong cadre of policy advisers that the appropriate support frameworks, fertiliser and other essential inputs, extension services (or encouragement of private advising services) in the developing countries can be put in place.

Australia, through support for national and international agricultural research systems, can play a big role in boosting agricultural productivity.

Another legacy of Sir John Crawford is the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, which encourages Australia’s agricultural scientists to use their skills for the benefit of developing countries and Australia.

While significant gains have been achieved through these approaches, a once-off jump in productivity is insufficient. Indeed the growth in investment in international agricultural research and the growth in productivity that underpinned the green revolution slackened significantly in the 1990s and in the first decade of this century.

There are signs that the world food security crisis of 2008 has refocused the eyes of policy-makers on the need for research and other measures listed previously, but sustaining investment on these needs will be difficult in the face of competing pressures and demands for government funding. The long haul is going to be long and hard.

Nor can we limit research to the cereals. Investment in livestock, fruit and vegetables and fisheries, including aquaculture and farmed fishing, which are growing sources of nutrition for millions of people, is also essential.

Nor can we neglect the promise of biotechnology. Agricultural technology growth has been sustained in countries that have adopted the use of biotech crops, which are now grown on more than 115 million hectares in 23 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, South Africa and the US. Few developing countries have adopted the technology for a range of reasons. In this regard, one of the most important constraints to the adoption of biotech crops in the developing countries is the lack of appropriate and environmentally responsible regulatory systems. Australia can help in the design of appropriate and cost-effective systems.

For further background see A Food Secure World: How Australia Can Help, the report of the Crawford Fund’s World Food Crisis Task Force (