Feast or famine: the state of food security in Australia

Feast or famine: the state of food security in Australia

In the pandemic’s early days, as our cities sat quietened under a pall of trepidation and uncertainty, the thoughts of many turned to self-sufficiency. Many staples had vanished from supermarket shelves in a frenzy of panic-buying ahead of unfamiliar lockdowns; there was tangible fear that hiding just beyond sight lay a brewing crisis for our local food security.

What would we do if the trucks stopped rolling, if supermarkets simply shut up shop in the face of this new virus? The resurgence of interest in backyard vegetable gardens was a window into the national psyche.

But as the days dragged on, and food continued to appear on the supermarket shelves more or less as usual, the pressing need to grow one’s own tomatoes quietly ebbed away. Interest in raising a backyard veggie patch remains strong, but the urgency of becoming more self-reliant has faded. The message coming from government has been strong and clear: Australia’s food security, even in the face of the pandemic, is exceptionally robust.

But is it really?

Over recent months, disruptions to food supplies across Australia have continued. Several waves of pandemic panic-buying aside, we’ve faced truck-driver testing delays at state borders, shortages of the urea-based fuel additive AdBlue that limits pollution from diesel engines, supply chain failures as workers are forced into isolation, and most recently, flooding in outback South Australia that has seen Northern Territory supermarket produce empty aisles, and isolated communities like Coober Pedy re-supplied by airlift.

As stand-alone issues, each of these can be resolved within a reasonable timeframe, leading to disruption timescales of days to weeks.

But taken cumulatively, they’ve exposed a hitherto hidden weakness in our domestic food security. In the end, our high harvest yield volumes mean little if food can’t reach hungry people.

Add to this the mounting uncertainties associated with climate change, which are forecast to make extreme weather events such as the recent outback floods more frequent, and our robust food security starts to seem a little shaky.

Food security in australia concept four workers in high vis on an airfield preparing supplies including food and toilet paper
A supply drop being prepared for the town of Coober Pedy, after floods in January 2022 blocked off rail infrastructure. Credit: Sarah Reed / Getty Images News.

A big player on the global stage

At face value, our status as a major global agricultural exporter would appear to reinforce the solidity of our national food security.

Our bountiful agricultural productivity sees 70% of total production exported each year; we’re a net importer in only six food categories: seafood, processed fruit and vegetables, soft drinks, confectionery, bakery products, and oils and fats.

A fondness for processed treats aside, we’re not heavily reliant on imports to feed ourselves – between 80% and 90% of the food that Australians eat each year is produced domestically.

Between 80% and 90% of the food that Australians eat each year is produced domestically.

Our global export capacity is so strong that we’ve the potential to pick up the slack when other exporters falter. In the face of recent political upheaval in the Ukraine, a huge portion of the world’s grain – 10%–20% of both wheat and corn – is under threat of being stranded by the military stand-off. Fresh off the back of a record national harvest, Australia is well placed to fill the gap, says Brett Hosking, chair of the industry body Grain Growers Limited.

Our exports also extend beyond food, to the intangible but indispensable commodity of knowledge.

Australian agriculture is a fragile enterprise, despite our robust exports – farming on the driest inhabited continent on Earth is always going to be challenging. Across most of the country, our soils are low in both nutrient and organic matter levels, the climate is highly variable, and water resources are subject to substantial shortfalls.

But, as the adage goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. In rising to meet such adversity, Australia’s agricultural sector has become a world leader in innovation and development, and we are now hot exporters of expertise to countries around the world facing similarly punishing conditions, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Innovation can only take us so far in the face of climate change

So far the picture looks positively rosy, and often this is where the conversation about our national food security ends.

But obscured by glowing export figures is the fact that Australian agriculture has begun to stagnate. Compared with historical averages, agricultural profits fell 23% over the 20 years to 2020.

The Australian Government has started a concerted effort to address this issue, declaring significant funding for research and development to help hit an ambitious target of growing the agricultural sector’s value to $100 billion by 2030.

In an October 2021 statement, Liberal Party deputy leader David Littleproud outlined the government’s commitment to establishing conditions that will “help the agricultural sector to modernise, improve, innovate and grow”.

Compared with historical averages, agricultural profits fell 23% over the 20 years to 2020.

But there’s an odd contrast here between government officials’ sunny outlook and the increasingly bleak forecasts emerging from climate modelling. The findings of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report suggest that climate change impacts are already being seen in Australia’s agricultural production, and will continue far into the future, regardless of what happens to atmospheric global greenhouse gas levels.

Seasons are shifting, droughts are increasing, and heavy rains and storms are intensifying. Forecasting uncertainties make it difficult to predict the impact of climate change on agricultural profitability, but a model prepared by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), using 2050 projections for rainfall and temperature, estimates that farm profits under various likely future scenarios could drop by anywhere from 2% to 50%.

Are we having the right conversations about food security?

Although forecasting climate trends across Australia is complex, one thread carries through all predictions: our most vulnerable populations will be hit hardest by the impacts.

We know that we’re staring down the barrel of increasingly frequent extreme weather events. From the comfort of our cities, it’s easy to view these disasters as isolated hiccups. But for those living far from metropolitan centres, the increasing vulnerability of supply routes as the climate crisis deepens is a mounting concern.

Of particular concern are remote Central Australian Indigenous communities, who already face significant food security challenges. Research has shown that Indigenous peoples’ poor health outcomes compared to non-indigenous Australians is directly related to food insecurity, and is a consequence of the barriers related to food availability, access, and use.

“A lot of remote communities have good, regular supply chains, but the choices of food are limited; fresh or perishable food is often extremely expensive,” says Dr Douglas Bardsley, Associate Professor in Geography, Environment and Population at the University of Adelaide.

“Generally the food comes from a long way away across dirt tracks, so when there is a disruption to the supply chain it can have a major impact. Remote communities are much more vulnerable to shocks.

“We saw in 2011, and again this year, that floods can have disproportionate impacts on remote communities. We did interviews up in the APY lands [in northern SA] after the 2011 floods and many people said they felt very isolated and scared, and were dependent on food drops after key infrastructure was damaged.”

“Remote communities are much more vulnerable to shocks.”

Douglas Bardsley, University of Adelaide

The issue is set to worsen.

“Climate projections suggest the Australian monsoon will intensify with global climate change, which may mean that infrastructure such as roads may need to be upgraded in places or re-designed to manage more regular extreme rainfall events in the region,” says Bardsley.

Of course, it’s not just Indigenous communities or those living in the most remote reaches of the country who are affected by food insecurity. A paper prepared by the Australian Institute of Family Studies estimates that up to 13% of the general population are food insecure, and identified low-income earners, people who are socially or geographically isolated, culturally and linguistically diverse groups, single-parent households, older people and people experiencing homelessness as those most vulnerable.

But has this local vulnerability entered our conversations on food security?

“We’ve seen during the COVID pandemic that the concept of food security has been correlated with food production at times by the Australian Government,” says Bardsley, who believes it’s time to add some local nuance to our assessments.

“I think we need to broaden the definition of food security in public discussions,” he says. “It’s no good having a lot of food that people can’t afford or physically access. We are starting to have a national debate about unaffordable housing – maybe we need to have one on unaffordable food as well. Part of that conversation could involve arguments about the Right to Food, and opportunities for greater involvement of communities in establishing alternative local production systems.”

A new vision for the future – big lessons from small-scale setups

Bardsley’s sentiment is echoed by Professor Tim Cavagnaro from the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide.

Cavagnaro told Cosmos last year about the potential for urban agriculture to improve food security in Australian cities; he said that up to 95% of residential blocks would need to devote less than a quarter of their lawn space to agriculture to become self-sufficient.

At the time, Cavagnaro was keen to highlight the benefits of these very small-scale systems to urban resilience and fostering social connection – but he also believes the lessons learned from urban agriculture could be fundamental to improving food security in regional and remote communities.

“One of the big things we’ve encountered is that urban agriculture has often been viewed as almost as a hobby – as something that people do just out of interest,” he says. “But what we’’ve been arguing for is to really view it through the lens of the farming system.”

Food security in australia concept a woman in melbourne showing her small daughter how to care for a vegetable garden
Experts say that encouraging urban agriculture strengthens food security. Credit: Vicki Smith / Getty Images.

By encouraging the creation and scaling up of hyper-localised agricultural systems, he argues, we could bolster resilience against supply disruptions and begin to address the inequity of access felt in some regional areas. He points out that the foundation of such an interconnected web of local producers already exists, and is simply waiting to be scaled up to match the size of the problem.

“So look at it as you would any other farming system: identify the constraints in that system – some will be universal, but there’ll also be some that are regional and local,” he says. “And once you understand those constraints, you can then move into a scaling up of production.”

While large-scale, broadacre farming will remain the backbone of our export industry, nurturing capacity in local food production systems can help to build redundancy into our national food security: if highway flooding washes out transit routes from one supply source, other local suppliers can step in to help bridge the gap.

“For some crops, the only way to go growing wheat or barley or the like is going to be on a broad scale,” says Cavagnaro. “You need those economies of scale.”

“But when we talk about urban agriculture, I don’t really see it as an either-or proposition. I think there’s a fundamentally important role for larger horticultural enterprises. But without a doubt, urban agriculture can play a role in helping to shore up domestic food security.”

“Without a doubt, urban agriculture can play a role in helping to shore up domestic food security.”

Tim Cavagnaro, University of Adelaide

When scaled up and applied outside of dense urban areas, urban agriculture techniques and approaches may evolve into systems such as protected agriculture – in which high-value horticultural crops are grown in modified conditions to maximise yields over a minimal footprint, such as in greenhouses and hydroponic setups.

Associate Professor Caitlin Byrt, Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University, agrees this is a smart direction in which to channel our efforts, arguing that diversity in the geography, biology and system type will prove vital to ensuring our national food security as uncertainty builds.

“Geographical diversity in food production can be increased by investing in a greater number of small local systems for food production, where those systems are spread widely across regional and urban geographical areas,” she says.

“Biological diversity in food production can be increased by incorporating a range of different food crop systems in each production location and expanding the number of rural and urban food production locations. Producing food from a variety of combinations of broadacre and protected agricultural systems can increase food system diversity.”

These layers of diversity, Byrt says, will act to buffer the system against disruptions, because the vulnerabilities inherent in any one aspect will be insulated by the strengths of others.

“For example, when considering drought events, the absence of regular rainfall during droughts may limit crop yields in broadacre systems to a greater extent than protected agricultural systems,” she explains. “During extended droughts, water recycling technology can be efficiently used to supply recycled water to protected agricultural systems to maintain productivity, but it is more prohibitively costly to irrigate over large broadacre cropping areas.”

Conversely, says Byrt, in the face of severe storm events the opposite could be true: “It can be more costly to repair protected agricultural systems following damaging storms relative to the cost to recover broadacre areas for a subsequent production season following a damaging storm.”

These layers of diversity, Byrt says, will act to buffer the system against disruptions.

While the benefits that flow from increasing small-scale agricultural setups are likely to be substantial, growing them to scale will nonetheless require much of the innovation and adaptability that Australian agricultural scientists are renowned for, as they still involve many of the same challenges faced by broadscale agriculture.

“Demand for key input resources required for food production systems, such as potable water, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, is increasing,” says Byrt, who notes that demand comes not just from agriculture but from renewable energy and energy storage applications.  

In her own work, Byrt is looking to increase our resource-use efficiency through engineering plant membrane proteins, and finding transport solutions to increase yield security.

“Water, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium resources are lost from urban and rural food production and manufacturing systems in liquid wastes,” she says. “Development of separation technologies that enable retrieval of these critical resources from liquid waste streams will be important for supporting initiatives to improve food security in the future.”

In the end, overcoming these challenges is well within the purview of our talented agricultural scientists, and the boost delivered to Australia food security would make our efforts decidedly worthwhile.

While recent challenges have been gruelling for many, Bardsley believes they could act as a galvanising wake-up call.

“A lot of people have struggled with food insecurity over the last couple of years, who never have previously,” he says. “We can increase productivity but also think about new ways to support local food security.”

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