Why we should be concerned about food security

| July 31, 2013

Australian food prices are going up and Asia’s food demand is increasing, while environmental and logistical risk factors are at play. Sarah Norgrove from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyses the challenges lying ahead.

Food security means sustained access to adequate amount of nutritious food. Australians have enjoyed a steady supply of inexpensive food for some time, albeit not always exercising their freedom of food choice wisely. While the national priorities of meeting hunger and malnutrition have been covered under the gamut of welfare, health and development, food security is different. Rumbles from the Pentagon suggest that the threat of climate change vastly eclipses that of terrorism, and recommends governments elevate food security to a level of national security amidst prospects of nuclear conflict, mega droughts, famine, widespread political unrest and rioting.

Australians should be concerned about food security. Despite most of us enjoying access to cheap food at present, indicators sketch a sharp increase in food prices by 2050, when Australia’s population is expected to reach 50 million. As 12-14 per cent of average Australian household income is spent on groceries and most Australians source their food from supermarkets and restaurants, this will impact everyone who eats food. It will become more difficult to access adequate nutritional content in available produce. Those who are already struggling to afford food basics will be knocked out of the game, which will strain Australia’s already under-resourced welfare system, and could lead to political instability on Australian soil as seen in places like Egypt, India and Indonesia.

Australia is also thinking about food security in its region. Dominant policy discourse echoes the industry push plugging Australia as an export nation in the Asian Century, and presents us as the ‘food bowl’ for Asia. The 2013 National Food Plan says food consumption is expected to rise by 75 per cent by 2050 from 2007 levels, and almost half of this increased demand will come from China. China is Australia’s largest export market for food, with export volumes increasing 6.9 per cent from 2001-2011. These figures are set to increase substantially alongside China’s expanding population and urban sprawl, but it is interesting to note that agricultural exports as a share of total exports to China has fallen 26.4 per cent in 2001 to 8.6 per cent in 2011. The government will direct over $38 million to an Asian Food Market Research Fund in an effort to harness the nature and strength of Asia [read: China’s] demand in the coming years and to address potential shortfalls. But food prices are not a function of Australia’s national wealth in a liberalised global economy, but of the commodity market. The conflict between farmers and government over dropping tariffs and subsidies continues to rage as Australia is led by export-driven industry to make us more attractive as trading partners. This ultimately impacts on what foods are available to us, and how affordable they are.

There are other logistical and environmental risk factors like oil prices and soil quality at play here also. While 30 per cent of arable land is unfarmed in Australia, existing problems of land degradation due to urban encroachment, salinity and water scarcity will continue to frustrate productivity, as will land purchases by foreign investors and resource firms as they expand their Australian resource portfolios. Redirecting existing water stocks to unused arable land looks to be a long bow to draw in fulfilling designs to increase exports to Asia, with heavy consequences for future land use in Australia. Similar water security scenarios with medium to long-term risk are developing in China, India and other states.

If Australia is to take the FAO’s definition of food security to its end, adequate nutrition is also essential. Agricultural technology and research promises unprecedented advances in nutrition intake globally via genetic modification. If long-term results conclude that ingesting vitamin and mineral-enhanced crops leads to an increase in the human body’s register of these vitals for health; if climate change does no further damage to agricultural land; if prices on imports oil and phosphate prices do not increase or their supply diminish; if GM’s potential is not manipulated in the global commodity marketplace and if sectors of society can access food, this could be the answer to Australia’s food security fears. Under the current system of food provision, food security calls for sustainable intensification’, and the actualisation of such prospects rest on these improbable outcomes.