Food security and national security: neither can be taken for granted

Australia’s food security should not be taken for granted. The Covid-19 pandemic shows what can go wrong with it during seismic strategic challenges.

January’s empty supermarket shelves across Darwin, caused by flooding, illustrate the precarious nature of food security even in Australia. It is not guaranteed, but it’s critical to Australia’s national security, and increasingly, the security of the region. That connection has been made clear by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture following its inquiry into food security in Australia. 

National security policy makers must also make that connection. Submissions to the inquiry show that the strategic vulnerabilities threatening Australian food security are well documented and indeed well understood by people who have paid attention to them. The impacts of war on markets and supply chain integrity, the rising cost of inputs, biosecurity threats in our region and climate change rank among the more serious risks highlighted. 

Policy and industry measures needed to address such vulnerabilities are becoming increasingly clear, and the need to act grows with each climate-related, supply chain or geopolitical disruption. 

Clear solutions have been offered by the inquiry’s report and recommendations. Chief among them is that the Australian government should lead the development of a national food plan, supported by a minister for food within the portfolio of the prime minister and cabinet. A national food council would advise the minister. 

The report gives us a timely opportunity to define just where the fundamental role of food sits within Australia’s broader defence and security frameworks. The opportunity to do so in the public version of the Defence Strategic Review was lost. The inquiry’s recommendations now present a late but crucial opportunity for the authors of the 2024 National Defence Strategy to support actions to address vulnerabilities to Australia’s food production. It’s a chance to achieve alignment and to work coherently and in collaboration with food system stakeholders who are steadfast in their commitment to galvanise Australia’s food security. 

A national food plan would constitute a food security strategy and, in the committee’s words, ‘needs to deal with the production and distribution of food, supply chain resilience, access to food, good nutrition (diet and health), and the management and disposal of food waste and other waste products.’ It should also ‘address the national security implications of food security—identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, particularly regarding food system infrastructure and vital inputs.’ 

It’s strongly in the interests of the defence and national security community to support these recommendations, so that food, or lack of it, does not become a problem that they have to deal with when their focus is best placed elsewhere. 

After all, as highlighted by the Foodbank charity in its submission to the inquiry, food insecurity has become increasingly ‘pervasive, chronic and intractable’ in our own society. If left unchecked, hunger in a population breeds discontent, and discontent breeds instability.  Dealing with the domestic and regional consequences of that instability is a responsibility that the security and defence establishment may not like to accept but would have to stomach anyway.  

Food insecurity is not just a problem for developing nations, as Australia has always been exposed to the vagaries of distance and geopolitical butterfly effects. We see a strong example of that now in shipping attacks in the Red Sea that have arisen at least in part from the Israeli conflict in Gaza. This disruption to global trade is creating headaches for Australia domestically and regionally. Most visibly, it forced the MV Bahijah, en-route to Israel with more than 17,000 head of high-quality Australian livestock, to return to Fremantle early in February. Regionally, the disruption is contributing to food insecurity by adding pressure on global food chokepoints, as highlighted incisively by Genevieve Donnellon-May. 

This is another reminder of Australia’s own supply chain fragility, which is compounded by the perilous state of our sovereign maritime shipping capability. We rely entirely upon access to the world for our critical inputs and for the exports that underpin our sovereignty and solvency. Accordingly, the committee’s report joins many others in recommending that the Australian government boost domestic sovereign capability by supporting ‘the development and expansion of essential inputs, such as fertiliser and agricultural chemicals’. 

Boosting that capability does however pose a vexing challenge for policy makers. While Australia relies on and is committed to the Western liberal rules-based order and multilateral system of trade, we have almost no choice but to contribute to its erosion by shoring up our own sovereign capacity and relying less on globalised supply chains. 

Despite that conundrum, addressing the challenge is not only in our own strategic interests; it also presents an opportunity to achieve the government’s stated ambition to ‘re-anchor ourselves as an economic, security and development partner of choice in the region.’ If Australia strengthens its capacity as a food producer, it will be more able to be that partner of choice to our neighbours. 

Australia’s place in the world will always be characterised by the natural strategic advantages of our geography, resources, and, perhaps most fundamentally, our ability to produce and export food. To ensure our own security we must own the increasing responsibility to use those advantages to underpin the stability and security of our region. A national food plan, with everything it entails, may be a decisive way to add real weight to Australia’s statecraft and boost our own food security, as well as that of our region using the diplomacy of food. 

Ultimately, food security is one of the greatest fundamental strengths of Australia’s national power, and these recommendations represent a significant opportunity to enhance it. Addressing the broad spectrum of issues that affect food security through a national security lens is one of the most crucial things the government can do in this term of office. Practically, that means two clear actions: giving effect to the committee’s recommendations, and enshrining the critical role of the food system in the 2024 National Defence Strategy. Doing so will activate real collaboration with food system stakeholders and demonstrate a genuine commitment to a whole-of-nation approach to Australia’s security.