Western economies need to begin thinking beyond their desire for low-cost food, and place greater value on agricultural production to protect themselves from global economic shocks.
Central Queensland University Australia’s Professor Dave Swain says changes to energy and water availability, as well as changes to the climate, have potential to hit western food production systems and global food security.
“In developing countries, where food is more scarce, food is a more important priority and accounts for a much larger percentage of family expenditure,” Professor Swain said.
“But in developed countries farmers are increasingly bearing a high risk due to the constant push to drive down the price of food, which in time might have some perverse consequences.
“If we don’t value food and it becomes less abundant – for example due to a collapse in agricultural production because it becomes unviable economically – there is a possibility of social instability as a result.
“Just look at how exposed Australia’s dairy industry and regional communities were hit by their recent change in financial fortunes.”
Professor Swain was a keynote speaker at this week’s conference of the Society for Risk Analysis Australia New Zealand, held in Adelaide.
He leads CQU’’s precision livestock management research program, with his work focused on obtaining a more complete picture of how livestock behavioural strategies can be used to overcome resource limitations.
Professor Swain told the conference current agricultural systems may be hitting natural productivity limits, pointing to a significant slowing in the rate of improvement in total factor productivity and food outputs over the last 20 years, when compared to the previous 20 years.
“Given the growing global population, this trend could be an alarm bell for global food and therefore economic security in the future,” he said.
He said that while global agriculture had become dramatically more efficient in converting labour inputs into food outputs, this had been driven by fossil-fuelled technological advancements.
“The most recent and single greatest factor that has led to intensive agriculture has been the introduction of fossil fuels, which provide an abundant energy source that can be used in fertilisers, agrochemicals and machinery.
“This dependence has left Western economies and their farming populations exposed to demographic or political risks.”
However, Professor Swain said the outlook was not one of doom and gloom.
He pointed to the structural adjustments some nations had already made to increase agricultural outputs without fossil fuels.
“Since the implementation of US economic sanctions and oil embargos in the late 1980s, Cuban crop production output has in fact increased by between 145 per cent and 350pc, while agrochemical use has decreased by between 50pc and 70pc during the same period,” he said.
“Farmers have mastered the art of converting solar energy into chemical energy and we all need chemical energy – or food as it is often referred to.
“The challenge now is to balance the social, production, economic and environmental concerns.”