Food Security in Australia
On 22 May 2014 Minister for Agriculture, Shane Rattenbury, held a Minister’s Roundtable on food security.
April 2013, by Scott Bales
Food security is about food availability, access and use for all Australians. Availability refers to the ability of stores to be stocked with sufficient food. Access is people’s ability to get to the shops and transport food back home. Food use refers to the effect of people’s food choices on their level of nutrition.
There is a great summary of the problem of food security within Australia – said to already affect 5% of our population – which can be found at The Australian Institute of Family Studies website. This article will give a description of where the state of food security will be in Australia in coming years.
The recent flood and drought events have been devastating to the Australian agricultural sector, and with these events linked to global warming, it’s safe to say that we can expect droughts and floods to be a near constant threat in years to come. This is going to have a huge impact on Australian food production.
Considering how prone Australia is to droughts, floods, and heatwaves, many of the crops we grow are odd choices. Rice requires very large amounts of water to grow, and can struggle in drought years. In 2008, less than 20 kilotonnes of rice was grown in Australia, where growing 1200 kilotonnes is considered average. This decrease was attributed to the drought, and yet the very next year, the amount of land used for rice growing was increased 10 fold. That’s great at the moment, while we’re experiencing a lot of rain, but you can bet there’s going to be a big problem next drought.
Many of the crops we grow do very well in good years, but completely fail under poor conditions. This situation is exacerbated by conventional farming techniques, where fields are overloaded with crops. During a good year, there is enough rain for all of the plants, and farmers can make a lot of extra money. But in low rainfall years, overloading your fields reduces the amount of water available for each plant, meaning you can end up with no food at all. We need to ensure that farming techniques adapt to changing climate conditions.
That is not to say that we should necessarily abandon any crop that isn’t perfect for Australia, due to improved farming techniques, Australia improved their water use efficiency by 60% in 10 years, and overseas ricegrowers can use up to 5 times as much water per kilo of rice produced. So perhaps with enough research into improved farming practices, we can mitigate the effects of climate change on food security to some degree.
We do also grow many crops that are suitable for the Australian climate – bananas, mangoes and pineapples are very well suited to Australia’s Northern areas, and many crops grow well in the cooler regions of Australia. However, even these crops can be affected by extreme weather. The massive increase in the price of bananas was an easy to see example of food security – fortunately it was limited to a single item of food, limiting its effect somewhat.
The problems associated with food security cannot be discussed purely from a local perspective. In 2010, Australia started importing more food than we export. This means that we need to keep an eye on not only Australian farming, but also the international situation – if other countries experience widespread famine, imported food will soar in price, or not be available at all.
So with the depressing predictions out of the way, what can be done about the problem? As already mentioned, we can continue to improve farming practices, to try to increase how much food we can produce. This is mostly up to the government, and individual farmers.
However, everyone with a small patch of land can contribute to Australia’s crop yield – grow some herbs or vegetables! You should also buy locally grown produce when you can – you’ll help our farmers, and also reduce the distance your food needs to travel, making it fresher, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. Farmers markets are available all throughout Canberra, and these are an excellent source of fresh food.