Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Time for a New Focus on Food

By Julian Cribb

Civil wars over food in northern Africa at a time when around half of Australians are dying as a result of their diets present the greatest scientific challenge of our time.

Few people seem to have noticed that two governments went belly-up in North Africa recently – as a result of riots that began as protests over the price of food.

Food insecurity is growing worldwide as demand for food grows and the things we need to produce it – land, water, oil, nutrients, fish, technology and stable climates – become more scarce. At the same time around half of Australians are dying as a result of their diets, at enormous cost to those that live.

Now is the time to think hard and creatively about the solution to this double-edged dilemma, which is arguably the greatest scientific challenge of our time. Here are some places we can start.

Rehydrate, revegetate, recarbonise: we need a national plan to rebuild the fertility, carbon content, vegetation cover and water retention of our landscapes. This could harvest rainfall currently lost to evaporation and help proof us against climate change.

Recycle, re-nourish: we also need a national plan to harvest fresh water and nutrients as they pass through our great cities and return them to food production in industries both traditional and entirely new – such as algae farming, hydroponics and biocultures.

Re-energise: the next oil crisis is on the way and Australia is totally unprepared. We need new, renewable energy sources for agriculture and transport, such as algal biodiesel, second-generation biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, solar electrics or boron ion batteries. And we need them yesterday.

Reinvest: we need massive reinvestment in agricultural science, technology and extension, to counter two decades of neglect and policy failure. Priority areas for science include:

• unifying organic and high-intensity farming thinking to create a new eco-agriculture that uses fewer resources, wastes less and produces more;

• improved irrigation and water use efficiency;

• a new focus on soil microbiology to enhance crop and pasture yields sustainably;

• developing novel food systems (rural and urban) that are cushioned against climate shocks;

• frontier science, such as re-engineering the photosynthetic pathways of crops and trees to boost yields and lock up more carbon; and

• designing novel, healthier diets and foods to replace the high fat-salt-sugar-dye regime imposed by the global food processing sector.

Share knowledge: Australia will not be secure if food security in Asia collapses. We need to build a new multi-billion dollar knowledge export industry based on our expertise in areas such as land care, dryland farming, water management and drought strategy.

Retrain: our agricultural education system is falling apart and is in desperate need of renewal. We need to train a new generation of farmer and urban food producers equipped to solve the scarcities ahead. We need our best and brightest to find careers in a field central to the destiny of civilisation this century.

Re-educate Australians about food: up to half of all Australian food is wasted or sent to landfill. Young Australians are “digging their graves with their teeth” through unhealthy diets. We should lead a global endeavour to educate our children to eat healthily, sustainably and with a renewed respect for food. This can be assisted by introducing a Food Year in every junior school in Australia, teaching all subjects through the lens of food.

Reinvest in farming: massive global re­investment is needed to head off food scarcity in the mid-century – yet farm profitability and productivity are falling. The current global economic signal, caused by massive concentration of market power off-farm, tells farmers to “grow less”. This adverse signal must be changed to stimulate the essential investment – for example, through a GST on food paid directly to farmers to protect soil, water, wildlife, atmosphere and landscapes.

If Australia can successfully tackle challenges such as these, we will lead the world in helping to secure the global food supply.

Julian Cribb FTSE is a science writer and communicator.