OPINION PIECE: Our food future

In the wake of the energy crisis, could Australia ever face a food shortage?

We currently export two-thirds of the food we produce, so we should never face a food security problem. But are we sure? Seven factors demand we not take food security for granted. Here they are in a nutshell.

The first is our changing climate which is growing hotter and drier. The second is our slow progress in turning around the farming practices inherited from our European settlers. The third is current poor natural resource allocation. The fourth is our obsession with export volumes rather than export value. The fifth is threats to our biosecurity and our relatively pest and disease-free status. The sixth is our poor level of innovation uptake. The seventh is the alarming trajectory of global food security and future food scarcity.

The first step to addressing these challenges is meaningful action on climate change. The second is to encourage better farming practices. The third step is to ensure our limited resources are being directed to the products which provide the highest economic returns. The Murray Darling Basin Plan and Tasmania's Midlands Water Scheme are good examples. They've seem a contraction of low-return irrigated grazing enterprises and an expansion of higher-valued dairying and horticultural enterprises.

The fourth step is a greater focus on premium export markets. It would serve both the national interest and producer interests if we focused less on volume and more on adding value and producing niche, high value export products. Underpinning the marketing of these products will be Australia's reputation as a provider of clean, green and safe food. Making sure we are investing adequately in our biosecurity systems is the fifth step.

All of the above is dependent on the sixth step; demanding better outcomes on the innovation front. Our performance is poor when compared to many of our competitors.

Just look at The Netherlands, a tiny country but the world's second largest exporter of food by value. Dutch farmers have raised yields while dramatically reducing water, fertiliser, pesticides and antibiotic use thanks to various innovations.

As we approach a global population of nine billion people, the embrace of smarter farming methods will become more important. A hungry world is a dangerous world.

This article was published in the Maitland Mercury on October 4 2017.

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