Cosmos Briefing: The Future of Food

Australia will need to focus on both gene technology and traditional agricultural techniques to secure our food production in the years to come, according to yesterday’s Cosmos Briefing.

Rachel Burton, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy at the University of Adelaide, and Angela Pattison, from the Plant Breeding Institute for the University of Sydney, discussed the future of food security – particularly in light of rising populations and rising temperatures.

According to Pattison, “food security in Australia looks very different to food security for most countries around the world”. Although events like COVID-19 can alter supply chains or droughts and floods can cause a drop in production, in general Australia is a very food-secure nation.

But as Burton points out, volume of food is not the only important thing to consider.

“It’s the nutrition and the value of the food,” she explains, for example protein levels, vitamins, and minerals, as well as food safety – trusting where it is coming from and that it is good for you.

“Food security is a multifaceted concept,” she says. “There’s all these different things that we need to get right at once to make sure that we’re food secure.”

One hot topic was how agricultural science will respond to climate change – and Pattison says that the industry is working hard to adapt.

“Modelling has been done on what will happen to yields of, for example, wheat in different key parts of Australia,” she says.

She notes that as rising temperatures create hotter and drier conditions, this will cause a shift in the timing of crops, perhaps by months, as well as a shift in the location they can be grown in.

“There are, of course, economic and social consequences to doing that, as well as environmental ones,” Pattison says – such as uprooting communities and disrupting the lives of growers.

However, these shifts will play out differently for different climactic zones and different types of crops.

“I don’t think it’s going to be particularly extreme in most of our…grassland-based crops,” she says – because no matter when they are grown or harvested, these crops can be stored for year-round consumption. 

“Historically, in every culture around the world – as well as Aboriginal culture here in Australia – that’s why grain-based foods were such an important part of the diet.”

Gene technology is a key area of agricultural science, which Burton explains will help us adapt to changing conditions by breeding more durable varieties of our food crops.

“I always say to people that I’m a mum, I want what’s best for my kids, and I would not hesitate to give them something that has been gene modified, because I know that it’s been through strict guidelines.”

However, Burton adds, this technology is just one tool in our kit.

“You can’t use gene technology in all crops,” she says. “You have to use traditional breeding in some of them… So there’ll always be room for both [methods].”

But Pattison points out that we need to be realistic about how much time such research takes.

“From the time when you identify a particular gene that needs modification, it might be 10, 15, 20 years before it’s grown en masse out in farmers’ fields,” she says. “So yes, it is a race against the clock.”

Both Burton and Pattison agree that although the agricultural industry is a major contributor to Australia’s carbon emissions, growers want to make a difference – and policy should support them.

“Modern farmers are innovative,” Pattison says, “but they are only in the game if they love the country…and that also is reflected in the way that they really genuinely want to do the right thing for their land.

“We need to get better at adapting to nature rather than forcing nature to adapt to us.”

If you want to follow the work of these experts, you can find Angela on Twitter at @AngePattison and Rachel at @porridgepusher.

The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education resource based on this article. You can access it here.

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