Time to rethink Australia’s food security
23 Aug 2019|

Now that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has finalised his advisory team, he’s apparently planning a series of ‘sleeves up’ sessions on policy development. There are a few topics that he should have his advisers working on. One area of critical importance is the nexus between food security, disaster resilience and the impacts of climate change.

Ensuring a steady and continuous supply of food is vital to Australia’s national security, and in several lucrative overseas markets our food products are a steady export earner. Food security relates to the stable availability of food and individuals’ ability to access it. It relies on the capacity of interconnected social, economic and biophysical systems to meet the nutritional requirements of a growing global population.

In the coming decades climate change will put unprecedented pressure on food supplies, in tandem with (and often exacerbating) ongoing financial, social, political, trade and supply chain vulnerabilities.

Australia produces close to 93% of its own food. This is a good thing in a world of global crises. In the 2018 overall global food security index (GFSI) ranking complied by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Australia came in at number 6 of the 113 economies sampled.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences estimates the value of Australian farm production in 2018–19 at $58 billion, or around 3% of GDP. Australia’s agricultural exports are forecast to earn $45 billion in 2019–20, representing around 14% of our total goods and services exports.

Our 2018 GFSI ranking dropped to 13th, however, after the addition of a weighting for ‘susceptibility to natural disaster and impact of weather events’. The convergence of natural disasters and agricultural disruption has caused considerable concern globally because of the cumulative and compounding impacts on water stress, food production and other ecosystem health measures.

Agriculture in Australia faces significant environmental and economic impacts brought about by climate change. Mitigating and adapting to the negative effects on agricultural ecosystems of weather variations is strategically important to national resilience.

There’s no specific Commonwealth legislation that establishes federal government authority or power to regulate or manage the manufacture, distribution or sale of food in the event of a significant disruption. Queensland, however, which is intimately familiar with both water stresses and flooding rains, has taken the lead on addressing the issue of agricultural resilience. The Queensland Farmers’ Federation has created a policy framework for disaster resilience planning for the state’s agriculture sector. The project’s aim is to provide guidance and direction on resilience and preplanning to minimise the impacts of natural disasters and facilitate rapid recovery.

The federal government has of course been active in related areas. In December 2015, it released the national climate resilience and adaptation strategy. The strategy outlines the government’s vision for the future and Australia’s management of exposure to climate risk. It identifies a broad set of principles to guide effective adaptation practice and resilience-building for communities, the economy and the environment.

While the connections between agriculture, water resources, ecosystems, and the health and wellbeing of people are noted in strategy, the concept of ‘food security’ is mentioned in the context of assisting our Pacific island neighbours to enhance their resilience in the face of a changing climate. The term doesn’t seem to have been specifically used in relation to Australian domestic food security needs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recently released special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management and food security is sobering reading. The report outlines a range of synergies and trade-offs between practising sustainable land management and enhancing food and nutrition security. It also sets out current trends in and projections of the vulnerabilities of food security linked to climate change, globally and regionally. Its release ahead of the 23 September UN climate summit is timely.

A valid question to ask is whether the IPCC report has caught Australia flat-footed. From a pure and applied science and state government policy perspective, probably not. A number of leading climate scientists have commented on it. From a national policy development perspective, it may be too early to tell. There may yet be innovation in thought and action from deliberations of the prime ministerial policy adviser ‘flying squad’.

Australia is represented on many of the IPCC scientific expert panels and hosts several highly capable research institutions that are looking at the impacts of climate change generally and the implications for food security and agricultural ecosystems.

The establishment this year of the Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre at the University of New England is significant. The CRC will work across the food supply chain and incorporate innovations in protected cropping, advanced manufacturing, smart logistics and developments in food science in support of high-value industries in agricultural hubs.

The CSIRO has made long-term investments in the areas covered by the food–disaster–climate nexus, along with the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

Are we doing enough to bring together the strands of food security, disaster resilience and the impacts of climate change? Probably not—but there may still be time do more. Professor Mark Howden, the director of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute, recently made an important point in relation to the IPCC report’s findings: land use and the global food system produce 29% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; land-based ecosystems also absorb 22% of emissions. Individual aspects of the nexus cannot be dealt with in isolation.

Australia needs to adopt a more coherent approach to the critically important convergence of food security, climate change and national security. Such an approach should bring together the best expertise we can muster from academia, government and, of course, the private sector.