September 19, 2023
This year our annual conference topic was “Global Food Security in a Riskier World: Diversification for Resilient Food and Nutrition Systems”. Our CEO, Dr Colin Chartres, provided this summary to close the event. Also available are our Keynote Listeners’ Report, by members of the RAID Network, posted here; the Sir John Crawford Address video; the keynote address video, and a blog on the broad media attention our event attracted. We also have all the ppt presentations linked to each speaker’s address titled in the program here. Finally, all presentations will be included in the formal proceedings from the conference.
Dr Colin Chartres
CEO of The Crawford Fund
Thank you to all the speakers, and the panellists in that last session and to John Anderson. The conversation was a great discussion, and I have also enjoyed every single talk we have heard today. They have been highly educational and really informative, and I think all of us have been kept very interested.
All the way through, this conference has been about managing risks in a very confronting world.
At the Crawford Fund we give a lot of thought to how we want to steer the ship through the sort of seas that we are negotiating. We highlighted the three Cs to the speakers (climate change, conflict and COVID-19); John mentioned them in his introduction, and other speakers have discussed climate change and conflict.
Our speakers have demonstrated that risk comes in all forms: some biophysical, but many others being off-farm issues associated with trade and markets, geopolitics and national policies.
There is a complex spectrum of issues and risks often confronting poor smallholder farmers as well as the larger farmers and farming enterprises. Our speakers today have comprehensively identified a wide range of these risks and a number of really good potential responses to them.
One additional thing that I particularly want to highlight is something that was brought home to me in what we called our Fiji Pacific Dialogue in Fiji three months ago.
Right at the beginning of that meeting, several speakers from Pacific countries pointed out to us that they were having to deal with one risk after another, with increasing frequency. They were particularly talking about cyclones. Cyclone Winston wasn’t very long ago, and there have been other cyclones subsequently, and there was the very large volcanic eruption near Tonga. They spoke quite emotionally about the impacts that these repeated and increasingly frequent risks have on communities and their psyche.
There is an overwhelming economic, social and mental burden in dealing with one disaster after another. That is something that we, elsewhere, don’t always appreciate, and it’s very hard to deal with when you’re in that kind of situation. It grinds the community down and saps their resilience, because no sooner have you clawed your way out of trouble from one issue, something else bad happens.
My fear is that as the impacts of climate change deepen and become more pervasive and frequent, many more agricultural communities will be faced with situations our Pacific cousins are already dealing with. We saw a slide today showing the whole southern part of the Mekong Delta going a metre underwater. If that comes to pass, it is going to be a tremendously difficult thing to deal with because there are millions of people living in that that region.
Farmers in all countries and of all sizes, from smallholders to large commercial operations, are coming increasingly ‘under the hammer’ having to deal with these risks, while at the same time agriculture is being identified as a significant contributor to one of the most critical risks: namely, climate change. We can argue about the figure, but approximately 20–25% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, in terms of fossil fuel use, fertiliser use and a range of in-field chemical processes that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrification and also methane from cows. That does not include the loss of natural habitats and rainforests from ongoing land-clearing to feed our insatiable appetite for food.
While the latter requires strong action to limit and prevent further damage, I fear that in this day and age we all too easily fall into a ‘them and us’ blame-game over greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
The emissions occur because we, the consumers, want the food that is produced by the farmers; and so we are as much a part of the problem as are the farmers who do the production. We need to work very closely with farmers to encourage and incentivise production practices that maximise production of healthy food and that minimise climate change impacts.
We must also include the consumers, retailers and the entire market chain and businesses providing inputs to agriculture, when looking for solutions that mitigate or lead to adaptation to risk. To achieve this harmonisation, we need appropriate policies, trade practices and better educated consumers, not to mention institutions that support and encourage change. I am heartened, therefore, to see organisations like Farmers for Climate Action and the National Farmers Federation support for zero emissions by 2050. But we need more, and we need to totally de-politicise this debate if we are going to have success.
Today’s key points
I now want to come to some of the key points made today. It is quite difficult when you are trying to summarise a conference, because everyone goes away with a different ‘take’ on what they have heard. I have tried to come up with very short phrases that illustrate what I got out of the various talks, and I’ll mention these as I go through this summary.
From Cary Fowler’s talk I’ve got two words: ‘moon shots’. He used that phrase during his talk, and it was a really salient point, I thought, in that we need to be spending big if we are going to tackle some of these big problems, and we need politicians to lead these challenges. Just as John Anderson said earlier, we need to be investing significantly in agriculture in Australia because that’s what we do well.
I was also terrified by the 533 consecutive months of above average temperatures. It brings that climate statistic home to roost.
I was also worried by the fact that we are still trying to deal with poor infertile soils. I remember talking to Pedro Sanchez probably 30 years ago (he was the World Food Prize Laureate in 2002) and he was talking then about the capital decline in the soil fertility base in Africa. It is something we are still facing today, and something that we need to do more about.
Adapted crops are a great idea. I just hope that they get given names that make them appealing. (As I might have said before, on a visit to the World Vegetable Center I remember being shown and talked to about a vegetable they called ‘slippery cabbage’! I think we need to use much more attractive names to persuade people to widen the diversity of their diets.)
In Wendy Umberger’s talk, she spoke about how smallholders have less capacity to mitigate risks. That resonates with my comment, above, about Fiji. The key question I think Wendy raised is, how do we use all these technologies and knowledge to help smallholders overcome some of these issues?
Wendy also brought home to me the fact that in the pre-conference materials we talked about on-farm and off-farm risks, but really, I have learned today, it’s one solid continuum of risk. We cannot easily differentiate between those two types of risk, although we may have to do that when we break them down to manage them.
Turning to Kym Anderson’s talk, I am going to be politically ‘risque’ here and say that Kym put the thought into my head that multilateralism must defeat populism. By that, I mean that I think we are not going to effectively globally tackle some of the issues of food security and climate change unless we involve some of the existing multilateral institutions.
We know there is a lot of antipathy towards many of these institutions: people ask why we give money to the United Nations, etcetera, etcetera. In my experience of working with the UN and some of those organisations, they have been doing some really great work – the CGIAR in particular. (However, I have a vested interest there because I was a Director General of a CGIAR center for some years.)
Kym really stressed the importance of policy uncertainty, as well as other uncertainties, increasing. He emphasised that various markets can really help us solve some of the issues around natural capital, such as carbon, water, ecosystem services. And I tend to agree with that, although getting these concepts adopted in some overseas countries is going to be a slow process. It will need a lot of thought and a lot of discussion and a lot of education about how they can, and do, work in some cases, though not all. Kym also highlighted the need to focus on policy change.
In his short talk, Professor Jamie Pittock pointed out something very close to my heart – that we need to couple technical and social innovation. One without the other will not generally work, because we need to involve people in all these solutions.
Professor Siddique emphasised a point that Cary Fowler had made, about diversification of cropping, and developing under-utilised crops. I learned some very useful things from his talk; for instance, I didn’t know that teff is part of the millet family. Professor Siddique pointed out (as later did Dr Lee) that, if used effectively, some of these under-utilised crops can increase the macronutrient and micronutrient content of people’s food while also delivering environmental benefits.
We have heard in the past from Andrew Campbell about how impressed he was with the way soldier fly larvae in Africa use up waste. Today, that was the topic of another great talk, from Dr Fathiya Khamis.
The two talks from industry bodies pointed out how industry is trying to adapt its products. Dr Roya Khalil spoke about reducing nitrification in fertilisers, so as to reduce fertilisers’ environmental effects. And Ben Fargher said there is ‘common ground’ – those are the two words I took out of that talk – that is, common ground between big business and some of the issues that we are trying to solve in terms of food security. The private sector, Ben said, has vested interest in a resilient and sustainable agricultural supply chain, which is in everyone’s best interests.
I think common ground is very important and something we need to be looking for, between everyone involved in finding the wide number of opportunities in agri-food systems, as Dr Warren Lee discussed, and in developing solutions.
That is my overview of some highlights and takeaway points for me from today. I want to conclude by offering a challenge to some of the younger people in the room.
I thought I had retired about ten years ago when I left the International Water Management Institute, but then I was drawn in by the Crawford Fund – a move I did not resist and have truly enjoyed. I will be retiring from the Fund in the next six months, so this is the last conference I will have helped organise.
Reflecting briefly about what the agricultural landscape was like around 40 to 50 years ago when I started my career, the Green Revolution was well underway; the emphasis was still on development and on producing enough calories to feed a growing global population. We did that, really well, but in some ways, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and monocultures and loss of biodiversity, we are now dealing with the impacts of the Green Revolution.
While some people still go to bed hungry, that is mainly due to poor distribution and access to food, not to a total global scarcity. We are also now dealing with an epidemic of over-nutrition and consequent non-communicable disease burdens which were much less common 30 or 40 years ago, so the situation has changed quite dramatically. We are now looking at things like sustainable intensification to reduce the amount of land used in agriculture, to reduce water demand, reduce greenhouse gases; innovation in fertiliser production and use; crop diversification; and the criticality of nutrition as opposed to calories dominates our thinking. The challenges have changed, but in my view they are just as profound as they were 50 years ago.
As I may have mentioned in other conferences, the vice-president of the Asian Development Bank in about 2007 or 2008 told me that agriculture was a sunset industry and not of much interest to them. I was horrified. Then the global food crisis and the global financial crisis hit, accompanied by food scarcity and food riots. The bank, having got rid of a number of agronomists and engineers involved in water and food production, rapidly had to reappoint people!
That illustrates that food and water issues are not going to go away for quite some time, even if population growth rates are slowing – as John Anderson says. That will be a good thing in terms of the environment and food supply, but it may cause difficulties in terms of other social aspects and issues.
However, now that our conferences are attended by many members of the RAID network, and now that the average age of the people here has gone from perhaps 60 to 40 or even less, I’m retiring with the considerable hope that these challenges of the next 40 to 50 years will be very successfully met!
I am very happy to thank our highly valued sponsors, who are listed on the website and in the (forthcoming) conference Proceedings. Many of the sponsors have provided speakers. Many of them also collaborate with us throughout the year in other projects and enterprises.
I am indebted to our speakers, several of whom have travelled a long way to be here. I would like to thank our Chairs who have kept the day’s program moving so well. I also thank our Keynote Listeners who always provide such a good report on the outcomes of the conference.
A good conference with a good flow on a good topic doesn’t happen by simply picking something out of the air. Usually, a few weeks after the annual conference, we set up next year’s planning committee and begin working through potential topics and speakers.
Cathy Reade then does her usual sterling job, cajoling and marshalling all the speakers and getting them here and dealing with all the facilities. Without Cathy we would be truly lost, I think, in getting such a good conference together. Thank you, Cathy!
I also thank the conference planning team. It is led by Tony Gregson and includes Dan Walker, Jessica Fearnley, Tim Reeves, Tristan Armstrong, Gabrielle Vivian-Smith and Shaun Coffey and myself.
To make the conference run smoothly we have a behind-the-scenes team and that team includes Sarah Paradice, Bronwyn Refshauge Larissa Mullot and Sue Faulkner, and of course the Conference Solutions team who deal with registrations and organise the facilities.
Finally, I’d like to thank two more groups of people. First, all of you, for coming and being such a good audience, being so attentive and asking such good questions. And also, our Board, who have an important role helping us with policies and strategies, and all of whom do that pro-bono. They give up their time to meet and solve issues and help steer the Fund’s growth and move it forward. That work complements the work of a very large number of other individuals who provide mentoring services and help in all sorts of other ways, pro-bono. From a back-of-envelope sum a couple of years ago I know that while our budget is relatively small, about $1.7 million a year or something like that, we often may get up to another million dollars-worth of input, pro-bono, from all that help. So, thank you to all the volunteers who help the Crawford Fund!