2012 Young Scholars: Kelly Ryan

Kelly Ryan
Kelly Ryan

Department of Agriculture and Food WA

An integrated, holistic approach of research, development and extension coupled with a reassessment of current supply chain systems and global distribution is needed to improve food security.

As a result of The Crawford Parliamentary Conference I gained a greater appreciation of the complexity of global food security and the opportunities that sit within it. How each speaker presented different perspectives and solutions towards the common issue of more food from less land was a highlight for me. The relationship between changing food preferences, consumption patterns and distribution appears to be the biggest contributor to the global food shortage. Other significant factors include yield plateaus of major crops, availability of arable land and the global delay in adopting sustainable farming practices.

By 2050 the world’s population will increase by 2 to 3 billion, which will likely double the demand for food. Currently 1 billion people are undernourished. Jonathan Foley outlined that it’s the growing middle class and their changed food preferences to a Western diet, not population growth that is the bigger risk to food security. Foley highlighted that there are many inefficiencies along the supply chain and an adjustment to distribution and allocation will go a long way in bridging this gap. The surprising figures for me were that 30 to 40 per cent of food produced is wasted with only 60 per cent of what remains allocated for human consumption. Other uses include biofuels (5 per cent) and animal feed (35 per cent). Foley outlined that the efficiency with which various animals convert grain into protein varies widely. Grain-fed beef has one of the least efficient conversion ratios. He concluded that targeted investment to reduce waste along the supply chain and opting for more efficient animal production systems can dramatically increase global food availability. For these changes to be sustainable an adjustment in Western diets from grain-fed beef to poultry, pork or pasture-fed beef is required.

Substantial yield gains were made in the Green Revolution through fertiliser application, investment in irrigation and genetic development. These practices have been further refined to develop modern agriculture as we know it today. Dr Frank Rijsberman outlined that although yields of the major crops have been increasing the data suggests a plateau is approaching. Climate variability and the rising cost of inputs have promoted investment into breeding plants resistant to abiotic stresses. Rijsberman emphasised that in this changing climate, it is important to shorten the time from microscope to market and diversify the gene pool. Options include sustainable use of genetically modified technologies and further investment in molecular biology research.

Traditionally to increase agricultural production more land was cleared however land degradation and land use competition limits further expansion. Dr Noble described land and water degradation as the ‘slumbering giant’ in relation to food security, with 3 of 9 planetary boundaries exceeded (climate change, nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Agriculture has been a significant contributor to this with 25 per cent of land globally degraded including a potential 5.7 MHa in Australia. Annually 1.5 Mha are lost to salinity representing USD 11 billion lost in production. Bringing this salt affected land back into production could result in an additional 136 Mt of grain annually or 20 per cent of the global wheat crop of 2010/2011. Noble concluded that reclaiming degraded land and bringing it back into production will go a long way in improving global food security.

With 70 per cent of the global food production coming from 2 billion small landholders, significant gains can be made by improving community capacity to adopt sustainable farming practices. Trevor Nicholls (CABI) outlined that one of their biggest challenges is extending information to growers. They employ various extension and awareness strategies to promote sustainable farming practices such as one to one farm visits and plant clinics to social media, TV and radio programs. According to Williams and Fritschel (2012) further understanding of market failures or barriers to adoption will help develop targeted extension programs promoting the adoption of sustainable farming practices and improving the capacity of small land owners to produce more.

Overall the conclusions I drew from the conference was that we are not going to grow our way out of this food shortage. An integrated, holistic approach of research, development and extension coupled with a reassessment of current supply chain systems and global distribution is needed to improve food security. Australia has an active role to play and continual investment into agricultural research, development and extension with productive partnerships will ensure a greater global impact. In addition the ability for like-minded people who are passionate about food security and agriculture to network in such forums as The Crawford Fund Parliamentary Conference is a leap in the right direction to producing more from less.

Williams, S.D & Fritschel, H (2012) ‘Farming Smarter’ Insights Vol. 2 Issue 2 pg18 – 23