The Greatest Challenge

The pollies have got it all wrong. The greatest moral challenge of our lifetime is not climate change but global food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates the world’s food requirements will double by 2050 due to population increases and higher living standards, at a time of accelerating urbanisation, land and water degradation and rising energy costs. Sharp rises in global food prices in 2008 and 2010 have demonstrated that supply is no longer meeting demand. More recently, food shortages and rising costs have seen the fall of two governments (Tunisia and Egypt), and political instability across many more countries. These types of upheavals already impact on Australia in the form of mass migrations and regional instability.

Although Australian farms produce enough food to feed 60 million people, we have faced crises for specific foods, such as the banana shortage following Cyclones Larry (2006) and Yasi (2011). The prolonged drought and catastrophic summer floods also saw fresh food shortages in other commodities that were shipped around the country wherever there were shortages, at a higher price to consumers. The penultimate food crisis would be a disruption to our food transport, distribution and storage systems in the event of a major epidemic restricting the movement of people and materials. But perhaps Australia’s most serious food security issue relates to how we consume and use food, where poor nutritional choices made by many in the community are becoming an increasingly important public health issue.

Food security issues were the focus of the recent National Sustainable Food Summit organised by the 3 Pillars Network, an independent think tank for sustainability in Australia, where scientists highlighted food shortages as the greatest challenge facing civilisation this century. The purpose of the summit was to explain the nature of the food security challenges for Australia, to share ideas that could form a vision for Australia’s food system in 2030, to examine the challenges and constraints of the current food system, and to explore opportunities for change that would support a transformation to a resilient, adaptable and sustainable food system. Ideas ranged from putting a goods and services tax on food that reflects the true cost of production, to buying land in Mozambique to counterbalance foreign purchases of farming land in Australia to shore up Australia’s food supply.

Food is a fundamental requirement for survival and global food security will demand the development and delivery of new technologies to increase food production on limited arable land and without relying on increased water and fertiliser use. Australia can make a significant contribution to meeting these food security challenges. The key advances are expected to come from new breeding technologies, proven resource management systems, and a greater understanding of the relationship between food composition, consumption and health. For more information about these and other food security issues, go to the proceedings of the National Sustainable Food Summit (

Steven Carruthers

PH&G July/August 2011 – Issue 119