Food security forum's key focus

Melissa WilliamsCountryman
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Rapid population growth in Australia and across the globe, changing climatic conditions, rising production costs, increasing foreign ownership and ageing farmers are key issues impacting on future food security.

In 1960, the world's population was three billion. In November last year, the world's seven billionth resident was born and it is estimated global population will reach nine billion by 2045.

There are fears about the pressures such a big number of people will put on natural resources and food production, which will need to increase by about 70 per cent to meet future food demand.

Traditionally, agriculture has been an economic driving force in Australia but agricultural products now account for only 13.8 per cent of the country's total exports - about two-thirds of production.

The average farmer in this country is now 56 years of age and the next generation of farmers appears to be heading to new industries, such as mining.

Added to this are the ongoing pressures of the high Australian dollar, climate change, rising input costs, declining rural populations and a debate about foreign ownership that is widespread and divided.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia last week co-ordinated a forum in Perth where agricultural supply chain players discussed Australia's ability to increase food production to meet domestic demand as the nation's population stretches towards 35 million people and to build export capacity.

University of WA (UWA) Institute of Agriculture Winthrop professor Kadambot Siddique said the major challenge was to increase agricultural production and maintain export levels without expanding land use in a climate with increasingly variable rainfall.

He said Australia was the fourth- biggest global agricultural commodity exporter and every farmer in this country produced enough food to feed 150 people at home, 450 people abroad and millions of people in developing countries indirectly through capacity building.

But Professor Siddique said the millennium drought that affected much of Australia, coupled with increased domestic food demand, had driven up Australian imports of processed food, fruit and vegetables.

He said use of science and technology was essential to ensure future agriculture efficiency gains and system adaption to meet domestic and export demand for food.

"There will be a tipping point for land use and land use will have to change in some areas - it will be a continuous process," he said.

"Principles we are testing at the UWA Future Farm 2050 include soil and water conservation agriculture, ecosystem restoration - including trees and carbon farming initiatives - and clean and green ethical animal production that involves zero hormones, ecosystem management and low emissions.

"We are testing hypothesis in all these areas to develop farming practices for production systems to the year 2050."

Professor Siddique said that in an environment where funding for agricultural research, development and extension was contracting, there was a strong need for farmer perceptions to change and to attract more young people into the agricultural sector.

He said innovation, adoption and reform needed to occur by capacity building in institutions that undertook strategic research, development and extension and investment in this should rise to meet future challenges.

"Farmers also need more accurate commodity price forecasts from various agencies in order to make better decisions," he said.

"Long-term commodity price predictions might appear low but wheat prices have dropped over many years and now appear to have hit the bottom and there is a lot of shift in protein and food patterns.

"In the long term, it appears food prices will go up."

He said farmer numbers had slipped from about 14 per cent of the country's total population in 1901 to less than 3 per cent of current population now managing 61 per cent of Australia's land area.

But he said farmers had become more efficient.

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