OPINION PIECE: Don't let our food needs fall off the political agenda

There was a time when our food was largely grown in our backyards. The extent to which that is true depends on where one lived. But, certainly, most of us drew our sustenance from a nearby farm.

Interestingly, we also produced our electricity close to the point of consumption. In other words, on the edges of capital cities where most people live and still live.

Then came the industrial and technological revolutions, which drove massive changes in the way we produce and consume. Further, urban expansion pushed the production of our food well beyond where the majority of us eat.

On the energy front, electricity transmission technology allowed us to build power generators hundreds of miles from where the bulk of household energy consumption occurs, and closer to the mines that produced their fuel.

While sometimes we lament the passing of the “good old days”, change has been unequivocally been a good thing. But in the 21st Century, two further revolutions are emerging. First, electricity generation is making its way back to the point of consumption. For example, new technologies are allowing us to generate power on the roofs of our homes. It won't be long before every home or nearby open space will be generating power which in turn will be stored in a local battery.

Second, our food production is also coming home. In capital cities residents are growing vegetables and herbs on the roofs of office blocks and apartment buildings. Furthermore, scientists and town planners are realising (many always did) that in a rush to house ourselves in the most attractive spots, we've locked up or built upon our best food producing land.

I predict more and more people will come to conclude that we must be more thoughtful about preserving our prime agricultural land for food and fibre production purposes. Much of that prime land can be found on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range.

I also predict growing acceptance that drought is “the new normal” and a changing climate will further focus our minds. 

Farmers and politicians alike have been too slow to modify practices and policies in response to the new climate reality.

Soil and water scarcity was once a concept confined to Mad Max type movie productions. But it could become more of a reality if we don't start giving it more attention.

Australia exports two-thirds of the food we produce.  So we could never have a food security problem, right?  I’m not convinced. 

Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world and it’s becoming drier.  Our soil resources are limited and under stress. Australia’s population is also growing, putting further demand on our food supply.

Not so long ago those arguing for a domestic gas reservation policy were ridiculed.  Who’s laughing now? Certainly, to say LNG exports have put upward pressure on domestic gas prices is a statement of fact.

If not taken more seriously – as we move towards a global population of 9 billion – food security could become the source of strategic tensions and even war between nation states.

Sadly, our food requirements appear to have fallen off the political agenda. But if the current and protracted drought and its impact on our farmers don’t bring us back to reality, I don't know what will? It's time for a rethink.

This opinion piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald on Tuesday, 17 July 2018.

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