Food Security Discussion Series
Summary by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Prof. Tor Hundloe
25 Aug 2016

"Australia’s Role in Feeding the World: The future of Australian agriculture"

Prof. Tor Hundloe, a pioneer in environmental management, is the lead editor and co-author of a new book from CSIRO Publishing, with the above title. The book takes an environmental management perspective, in relating prospects for Australian agriculture in the context of global food demand and competition.

A crucial factor is global population growth and the imperative to double food production, if demand is to be met for preferred diets of the growing middle class in China and elsewhere. Asia dominates the increase in food demand, with meat and fresh fruit and vegetables seeing the highest growth in imports. Australia’s main competitors in global markets are Brazil and Argentina, Russia and the Ukraine. Substantial areas of underutilised land in those countries, including some which stands to benefit from climate change, provides some ground for optimism that food production can be sufficiently increased. The main area of concern is sub-Saharan Africa, where both environmental and cultural barriers to intensification are juxtaposed against tremendous population growth.

Australia has been touted as a food-bowl for the world, and then more modestly for Asia, but both claims vastly overstate our potential. Currently, we produce enough food for about 60 million people, and this surplus will be eaten away by our own population growth. ABARE anticipates a doubling of Australia’s beef and dairy production, and an almost doubling of wheat. Climate change may challenge those expectations.

Australia is advantaged by a great diversity of export industries, and by seasonal production opposite to northern hemisphere seasons. We have demonstrated great flexibility in allowing substitution of land use as global markets shift: for example, the wool price decline from the 1970s triggered shifts from sheep to cattle, and from pasture-wheat rotations to continuous cropping. However, where we used to process wool, seafood and other products in Australia, increasingly it is exported raw to be processed in Asia (and often imported back).  

Australia has by far the largest certified organic land area in the world. Most of this is cattle rangeland. Argentina is next, with a fifth of our area. There is huge demand for organic dairy produce.

Our production is limited to the southern and eastern coastal zones. The zone of “potential” production in the north holds many unrealised, and probably unrealistic, expectations. The Ord River irrigation scheme has never turned a profit, and currently exports little but sandalwood (a non-food!) yet there are plans to expand it greatly. In several of the most productive cropping areas, increasing conflict with mining and coal-seam gas threatens long-term production.

Improvements in agricultural practices are providing some wins for the environment. For example, bananas grown with drip-fertigation rather than conventional fertilisation can greatly reduce nutrient run-off to the Barrier Reef and nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions, as well as production costs. Life-cycle analyses show there is considerable potential to further reduce nutrient and product wastage.

Our discussion questioned whether agriculture had a responsibility to deliver the food needed nutritionally rather than merely answering to market demand. This is complicated by both consumer and political decisions being emotive rather than factually based. The claim that Asian diets are being Westernised was challenged, with the likelihood that Asian consumers were largely realising their own cultural preferences, which they had always held but previously lacked the means to satisfy. How sustainable is our farming in the longer term – are we mining soils and masking the degradation with fertilisers? The conflict between beef production and greenhouse gas reduction is a significant challenge, although a number of research approaches are improving the yield of meat per tonne of emissions. This is one area where Australia’s global contribution may be greater through exporting knowledge and innovation, if Australia’s productivity gains are transferred to Africa’s low-productivity (and therefore high climate footprint) cattle herds.

Browse summaries from the  Food Security Discussion Series here.

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