24 December 2015
In meeting the increased demand for food, the interdependence between water, food and energy will become more evident and highlight resource insecurities.
In meeting the increased demand for food, the interdependence between water, food and energy will become more evident and highlight resource insecurities.

By Wayne L. Bryden and Geoffrey Lawrence
Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

During 2015, more than 100 workshops were conducted globally by Future Agenda – an organisation specialising in stimulating debate about, and providing potential solutions to, the big issues and emerging challenges which will be faced by the world over future decades. The Global Change Institute at UQ hosted workshops on food, water and energy. These are critical areas of investigation as we grapple with the massive increase in the human population which, itself, is likely to precipitate a cascade of environmental, economic, political and social changes that will have far-reaching implications for global survival. To make matters worse, growing pressures on resources are occurring at a time of rapid climate change.

The Global Challenge

Not only is the global population increasing, but we are also living longer and becoming more affluent. Our demand for resources – particularly water, energy and food – increases dramatically with economic growth. As incomes rise, diets become more energy-dense and meat becomes a larger proportion of the diet. The challenge of preventing hunger and malnutrition will become even greater as the global population grows from the current 7 billion people to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Water requirements for drinking and food production will increase, as will the energy demand for food manufacture and transport.

While many of the required resources have yet to physically run out, the perception of “peak” resources will have major impacts on political debate and commercial behaviour. What is often overlooked is the high level of interdependence between resources, especially as demand grows. Increased prices for resources has knock-on effects – including food cost and availability. The question is: how will it be possible to maintain global resource security in a sustainable manner?

The Trilemma

Food is fundamental for human existence and health but many of the world’s inhabitants experience on-going hunger as a consequence of drought, war, a lack of money to buy food and other factors. Approximately one billion people have inadequate nutrient intake, alongside a similar number whose calorie intake is excessive. To meet the needs of an additional three billion people over the next 35 years – and to prevent further escalation of global poverty – agricultural production must double during this time.

In meeting the increased demand for food, the interdependence between water, food and energy will become more evident and highlight resource insecurities. There will need to be trade-offs including water for municipal supply and river flows with demand from agricultural and thermoelectric industries. There will also be competition between agriculture and the demand for water from the hydroelectric sector and mining. Similarly, the push to increase energy security through development of biofuels will continue to be in competition with food production for land and water. Climate change will accentuate these trade-offs. About 24 per cent of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses comes from agriculture and from land clearing. These emissions must be reduced as a matter of urgency.

For most resources there are alternatives – but not for water. Water is a scarce commodity, which becomes highly political when river water flows and water re-use are raised as issues. Water scarcity is not only a social challenge but a commercial one, as well. Consumers often fail to recognise that water is used throughout the supply chain to produce goods and services. On a positive note, water is a renewable resource and there is much to be gained by improving water-use efficiency.

There is no doubt that agriculture exerts considerable pressure on water supplies, especially when irrigation is used. What form of energy will agriculture use in the future to produce, process and transport our food? The impact of agriculture on plant and animal biodiversity and other ecosystem services also must be addressed. For example, pollination of crops by bees is an integral component of agricultural production, with disruption to this ecosystem service having devastating consequences for food production.

The increasing urbanisation of the global community exacerbates this situation as more and more people become isolated from the land and farming. Moreover, urban populations are more vulnerable to disruptions in the food supply chain. Those in cities need to understand where their food comes from. This will require education to explain the importance of sustainable farming, adequate nutrition has for human health, along with an expansion of urban agriculture to help feed the cities.

The Future of Food

Our relationship with food must change. We will need to reinvent our diets to meet our nutritional requirements for optimal health and in so doing consume fewer calories and less meat. To maintain a viable food supply we must be prepared to pay realistic farm-gate prices and reduce waste throughout the food supply chain. All of the required changes must be underpinned by rigorous research. This will require substantial public and private sector investment – something which has been sadly lacking both in Australia and globally.

In the future our food will need to be produced more efficiently – with increased agricultural productivity coming from a reduced land area and resource base. Arable land continues to be lost due to soil degradation and urbanisation. We will need to be less dependent on resources that are becoming scarce, like arable land and water, or more costly, like energy and petrochemical-based inputs, including fertilizers. It is how we manage the nexus between food, water and energy that is our biggest global challenge. Not to face this challenge head-on will court planetary deterioration and/or significant human conflict.

A Global Accord on Food Security?

The challenge to achieve water, food and energy security is daunting. Visionary public policy, at both national and international levels, is urgently required if our food systems are to evolve in a sustainable manner. The Paris Climate Accord provides a glimmer of hope that global issues will be increasingly addressed at the global level. We now have a UN-based mechanism to tackle the issue of global food security – if nations realise it is as every-bit important as climate change.


Wayne Bryden

Professor of Animal Science, and member of the Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

Disclosure statement:

Wayne Bryden receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the Linkage Projects ‘Evaluation of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens H57 as a probiotic for livestock using animal nutrition studies and metagenomics’ (LP120200837) and ‘Assessing animal exposure to urticating caterpillar hairs and developing management strategies to reduce the consequence of foetal abortion in mares’ (LP120100837). He contributed the expert perspective ‘The Future of Food’ for Future Agenda (www.futureagenda.org).

Geoffrey Lawrence
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and member of the Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

Disclosure statement:

Geoffrey Lawrence receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the Discovery Projects ‘The Governing of Food Security in Australia in an Era of Climate Change: A Sociological Analysis’ (DP120101949) and ‘The New Farm Owners: Finance Companies and the Restructuring of Australian and Global Agriculture’ (DP110102299). Research funding is also provided by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2010-330-00159) and the Norwegian Research Council (Project No 220691).

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