Maintaining adequate global food supplies at a time of rapidly rising population, significant economic growth, increasing food and stockfeed demand, changing climate, declining natural resources, trade liberalisation and regional disturbances is a critical issue for mankind.
To meet this life threatening challenge, we must adopt scientifically sound and sustainable agricultural practices.
Science plays a major role in feeding the word, as clearly demonstrated by the green revolution post 2nd World War. However, future food security challenges will increasingly require a multi-disciplinary approach, involving environmental, economic, social and political solutions.
World leaders increasingly realise that feeding the world with diminishing resources is a massive task and greater cooperation between countries, governments and scientific disciplines is required.
Interestingly, while the need to have food on their plate is shared by all consumers, the more affluent are now demanding their food should also be clean, green and ethically and sustainably produced.
Alarmingly, this is happening as the stockpile of wheat has dropped to its lowest level since 1980 - sufficient to feed the world for just 12 weeks. Food prices are soaring worldwide, while crude oil prices have doubled shipping and fertiliser costs. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that by 2050, grain output has to rise 50% and meat output has to double.
Population growth, rising incomes, the declining rate of agricultural productivity trends, climate change and the increased use of grain and sugar cane for biofuel production are leading to a competitive surge in food commodity demand. This is occurring in an environment where land and water constraints will limit agricultural production growth. Total urban population will double, changing diets as well as overall demand, because urbanites tend to eat more meat products.
As every human is a net consumer of food, balancing the needs and merits of nutrition, bio-energy, the environment and livelihoods are global concerns. For these reasons, integrating whole aspects of agriculture and the food industry is important in the future.
I see five major trends in the global agriculture and food industry.
Firstly, food production must be increased substantially by the mid 21st century to feed a world population projected to increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion. The challenge is to double world food production output by 2050, while using less land, far less water and fewer nutrients, while watching the ‘hovering cloud' of climate variability and change.
Secondly, economic development is increasing faster than expected in most countries. With economic growth comes a rapidly changing food preference, increasing purchasing power and greater demand for high standards of food quality. About 40% of the increase in world grain production now comes from increase in yields and 60% comes from allocating more land under cultivation. However, increased future food production must come from shrinking land, water and other natural resources, meaning increased productivity per unit of land.
The third trend is the impact of agriculture on the environment and our natural resources. An example is the emerging global shortage of water for urban consumption, industrial use and agricultural purposes.
The world's two billion farmers, as guardians of much of what is left of the natural landscape, hold the fate of thousands of threatened species and the world's remaining forests in their hands. Agriculture currently uses 75% of the world's fresh water and its runoff has degraded the earth's major rivers, estuaries and even seas.
The fourth trend is the escalating fossil fuel price and the growing popularity of biofuels, which is driving demand for grain crops (corn and oil seeds) and sugar cane. Increasing fossil fuel prices pose a major risk to agriculture production and transportation costs, leading to increased price volatility. This presents a serious issue since it takes over arable land and diverts resources from food production. By 2020 we're likely to burn 400 million tonnes of grain a year just to keep our cars on the road - equal to the world rice crop.
Billions of subsidy dollars have been poured into developing sugar and grain-based ethanol and biodiesel to help wean rich economies from their addiction to carbon-blenching fossil fuels, the overwhelming source of human-made global warming. As soaring prices for staples bring more of the planet's most vulnerable people face-to-face with starvation, the image of first generation biofuels has changed from climate saviour to misguided ‘experiment'.
The fifth trend is climate change and its impact on agriculture. Potential changes in climate may reduce productivity and output in agricultural industries in major producing countries, in the medium to long terms. Several analyses indicate future climate changes and associated declines in agricultural productivity and global economic activity may affect global production of key commodities. For example, global wheat, rice, beef, dairy and sugar production could decline by 2 - 6% by 2030 and 5 - 11% by 2050.
The agricultural sector must maintain strong productivity growth to cope with the pressures emerging from climate change and variability. Agriculture occupies 40% of the world's free land surface and is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse emissions.
More world class scientists must be trained in agronomy/farming systems, environmental science, genetics, biotechnology and plant breeding. By instituting international agricultural training initiatives we can positively address the global food crisis.
Australia's engagement in international agricultural research and education, through ATSE, AusAID, ACIAR, universities, government departments, Crawford Fund and NGOs, has imparted knowledge and skills and delivered sustainable technologies for local conditions.
An example is ‘Seeds of Life', a project in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries East Timor, funded by ACIAR and AusAID and which commenced in 2005 with the goal of improving food security for East Timor by improved crop varieties and technologies - critical for the country's independence and economic development.
The project has already released new varieties of cassava, a staple food in East Timor, which yield up to 65 per cent more than traditional varieties.
Australia's involvement with Iraq, through the project, ‘Development of conservation cropping in the dry lands of northern Iraq', in partnership with ICARDA and supported by ACIAR and AusAID and training of young Iraqi agricultural scientists at Australian universities, is another example of Australia's strategic involvement in war-torn countries.
According to ACIAR CEO, Dr Nick Austin, "agricultural science can be a catalyst for lifting many of the world's estimated 1.4 billion poor people from poverty".
Addressing the annual ABARE Conference, he said in the past 50 years, agricultural R&D had been pivotal in lifting gross world food production by 138%, from 1.84 billion tonnes to 4.38 billion tonnes.
At the moment, it's closer to a nightmare, for those going to sleep at night with an empty stomach and this is something that is unpalatable to caring, thinking human beings with the capacity to make the changes necessary for everyone to be adequately fed and cared for.
We simply can't claim global food security when one in seven people today still do not have access to sufficient food, and equal number are over-fed.
Many of our global problems, such as food, water and energy shortages and climate change, are related and it's clear we can no longer take a linear path to a solution. I believe appropriately funded and strategic R&D has the capacity to drive agriculture and, in turn, global food production, to the point where food security can be more a reality than a dream.
Strong political leadership and social planning are also equally necessary to achieve these desired outcomes.
Australia has contributed significantly through joint education and training initiatives in developing the next generation of scientists, agriculturalists and farmers - the people the world will depend on to solve the greatest challenge of human history - food security in the 21st century.
Published in ATSE Focus 164
Winthrop Professor Kadambot Siddique is Chair in Agriculture and Director of The UWA Institute of Agriculture and Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
He has developed and commercially released several grain legume varieties that have superior yield, quality and disease resistance.
In 2005 Professor Siddique was elected a Fellow of ATSE, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Australian and international agriculture, particularly innovative research and leadership in production agronomy, farming systems, crop physiology, germplasm development and breeding of grain legumes and cereal crops of benefit to the grains industry in Australia and overseas.