2012 Young Scholars: Michael Tarbath

Michael Tarbath
Michael Tarbath

University of Tasmania

…we have now reached a point where there are no new areas that can be put into agricultural production without potentially global repercussions

Attending the 2012 Crawford Fund Annual Parliamentary Conference was an amazing experience.  From the opening of the conference to closing words of the final participant, each speaker offered new insights and information into the major issues facing global food production in a world of increasing population.  Attending this conference also represented a fantastic opportunity meet other individuals interested in helping to addressing what will be one of the greatest upcoming challenges of the next few decades and to network with representatives from the Crawford fund, ACIAR, CGIAR.

Prof. Jonathan Foley’s statements seemed to set the tone and scope for much of the conference.  As was suggested by many speakers, we have now reached a point where there are no new areas that can be put into agricultural production without potentially global repercussions.  Similarly, population growth is fueling both demand for food and competition for the land, mineral and water resources needed to produce it.  Currently, he suggests that the world may currently have enough land, water and nutrients in total to address this challenge; however, such a solution will require us to rethink and reshape society and the nature of agriculture from a global perspective.  This sentiment was echoed by Professors Xuemei Bai and Chris Moran and Drs Christine Padoch and Shenggen Fan, who each provided fresh perspectives on current and future interactions between agriculture and urbanization, mining and forest conservation, as well as the possible challenges and opportunities that increased urbanization, mining and increased forest conservation pose for agriculture globally and domestically.

Another factor that Prof. Foley suggested had to be addressed to feed the growing human population was food loss and wastage.  Some of these forms of loss are quite well known, such as insect and pest damage, transport and handling damage, processing and retail wastage, as well as spoilage and wastage once the food finally reaches the consumers.  Other forms of ‘wastage’ were less traditional and quite surprising to hear, including the production of biofuels and grain feeding livestock for meat and dairy products.  This later form of ‘wastage’ is already quite prolific; already, increasingly large areas of agricultural land are being diverted for biofuel production within Europe and the US, and up to 40% of the annual global grain harvest is being diverted for animal feed.  Similarly, changing diets and increasing purchasing power within several developing countries and prominent ‘public awareness campaigns’ highlighting the ‘environmental benefits of biofuel production’ have seen demand and consumption of these goods increase dramatically.

It was interesting to insightful hear Prof. Foley note that a significant percentage of the food required to overcome the projected food crisis could instead be produced by moving away from the current inefficient allocation and use of production inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers.  As passionately echoed by Dr Nteranya Sanginga, these poor allocations currently limit the availability of these inputs within potentially productive regions in non-developed or developing countries regions, whilst at the same time see them wastefully over-applied and overused by my developed nations where they offer minimal returns and cause significant damage to riparian and coastal environments.  As argued by Prof. Foley, addressing this input disparity represents a relatively straight-forward means of reducing eutrophic pollution in developed countries, closing yield gaps in underperforming agricultural lands, and increasing food production, and improving crop yields and helping to address food security in developing nations.

Direct foreign investment may represent one avenue for addressing this disparity in input availability within these regions; however, considering recent media-fueled public outcries over direct foreign ownership within Australia, it Dr Derek Byerlee’s presentation on the risks and benefits of foreign and multinational investment in agricultural farmland seemed timely and appropriate.  His explanation of the factors driving competition for natural resources and how this underpinned recent increases in foreign investment within Australia and other countries helped explain the reasoning behind the hype, whilst his explanation of the inherent risks involved within these operations also shed light on why many of these enterprises seem to do poorly in many parts of the world, and the types of policy needed to protect both investors and the public from exploitation.

Lastly, it was also fascinating to hear Dr Trevor Nicholls and Dr Frank Rijsberman demonstrate the diverse and innovative ways that science is already being used to help address some of these challenges.  The efforts and successes of groups such as CABI and the CGIAR networks were inspiring to hear, and reaffirm the importance of international agricultural research as a holistic tool for improving lives and solving problems at a local, regional and global level!