Australia has a big role to play in feeding the world

Joanne Daly, CSIRO; Rachel A. Ankeny; Richard Richards, CSIRO; Sally Gras, University of Melbourne, and Stephen Powles, University of Western Australia

This article is part of our series on the Science and Research Priorities recently announced by the Federal Government. You can read the introduction to the series by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, here.

Joanne Daly
CSIRO Fellow and former Group Executive of Agribusiness and Chief of Division at CSIRO

Agricultural and food industries are an important part of the Australian economy and national identity. They are set to remain so as global demand for food rises over the next four decades.

While not seen as a major part of Australia’s GDP, these industries provide employment across both rural and urban Australia. They sustain rural communities, provide the majority of food consumed in Australia, and underpin our retail and food services industries. They also provide important export earnings, while having important interactions with our environment’s water, soil and biodiversity resources.

Research and technological innovation have long been integral to the success of our agricultural and food industries. Our hard-won reputation for high quality, safe and clean food is founded upon this bedrock.

Research and innovation continue to grow in importance, as our industries look to respond to increasing global demand for food. Producers will need to overcome major environmental challenges due to climate change, land degradation and biosecurity threats while also sustaining and increasing rates of productivity growth. Processors will need to remain competitive with low cost competitors and imports.

The science and research priorities for food recognise the need for research into three broad areas: supply chains; barriers to accessing healthy food; and enhanced food production.

Agricultural and food industries are so pervasive in our society that the other eight research priorities – particularly Soil and Water, Transport, Advanced Manufacturing, Environmental Change and Health – will also have significant implications.

A recurring theme across the Food priorities is the integration of knowledge and cutting-edge technologies. This enhances connections between producers and processors to respond to ephemeral market opportunities and changing consumer preferences.

It allows us to better target inputs in production and processing, not only for profitability but also to better manage land, water resources and biodiversity resources. And it enables reduction and reuse of waste streams.

Sally Gras
Director of the ARC Dairy Innovation Hub and Associate Professor at The Melbourne School of Engineering and Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute at The University of Melbourne

The new research priorities address key issues facing Australian food producers, spanning primary production, post-farm gate manufacturing, distribution and export.

Food safety, stability and shelf life are essential for the export of Australian food products to distant markets across Asia. Research could improve fresh and long life food products, such as yogurt and UHT milk, while new packing and preservation technologies could assist both domestic distribution and export.

Research on provenance and clean, sustainable production could also assist Australian manufacturers to compete on food quality rather than price, potentially accessing higher value markets.

New methods to recover water and byproducts may improve the profitability and sustainability of manufacturing. Food waste could also be reduced and recycled across the supply chain. Energy consumption is not directly mentioned in the Food priorities, but novel technologies could be used to increase energy efficiency, while the Environmental Change priorities may also assist industry adaptation.

The Advanced Manufacturing priority highlights the need to de-risk, scale up and add value to Australian manufactured products – research that could stimulate both product and process innovation. The focus on healthy Australian foods also encompasses some aspects of nutrition.

The priorities are well aligned with the new Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre, which aims to improve access to global supply chains and international markets. The priorities also build on the research networks and strengths established through the Australian Research Council’s Industrial Transformation Research Program, and will allow broad multidisciplinary contributions.

Stephen Powles
Director of the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative at the University of Western Australia, and grain farmer, Kojonup, Western Australia.

I applaud and welcome that Food and Soil & Water are among the national research priorities. As never before, food is needed for a rapidly growing world. Australia already is a major food exporter, and being underpinned by research and development, we are poised to make substantially greater contributions to feeding the world.

Australia has competitive advantages in clean and green high quality grains, dairy and meats for global markets, especially booming Asia. However, there are many challenges and much R&D will be required if we are to sustainably deliver much higher quantities of quality Australian food.

Only through creative R&D will we be able to sustainably lift production from our fragile soil and our very limited water assets. Adverse climate change requires we attain even greater water use efficiency in our rain-fed Australian agriculture.

Conversely, in irrigated agriculture we have much to learn to better use water and to unlock the clear irrigated agricultural potential in northern Australia. Momentum is building to lift food production in northern Australia, and there are real opportunities but many challenges and underpinning R&D is essential.

At the post-farm gate level, Australia must establish how to build, label and capitalise on our clean, green, ethical and nutritious foods. With our high costs, sectors must develop and embrace all technologies to be competitive, including robotics in production and manufactured food items.

In my view, it is research and technologies in precision agriculture and robotics that require greatest attention if Australia is to substantially and sustainably lift food production and help feed the world.

Rachel Ankeny
Professor in the School of Humanities and convener of the Food Values Research Group at the University of Adelaide.

These priorities outline key issues facing the food industry if we view foodstuffs as products and expectations as primarily economic. They call for research on social, economic and other barriers to access to healthy Australian foods, which is to be applauded.

But what is largely missing are the challenges associated with human beings: producers, processors, retailers and distributors of food; consumers who make choices about what to purchase and eat; and policymakers who regulate the industry.

Also lacking is any explicit discussion about food security. In the narrowest sense, Australia is food secure; there is enough food per person on average. But there are deep social, political and pragmatic problems with making nutritious foods available, particularly in remote communities. Hence we experience food insecurity.

To build healthy and resilient communities (also covered in the Health priority), we must use (social) science to investigate the diverse barriers to food access and consumption.

Agricultural communities face challenges to their resilience, in part due to threats to their “social license to operate”. Sectors of the public are increasingly anxious about contemporary agricultural practices and their potential impacts on health, animal welfare and the environment.

They view efforts to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable as in conflict with historic shared values underlying traditional and small-scale family farming.

Hence the call to develop production capacity requires scrutiny not just as a technical problem, but in its broader socio-cultural context. “Sustainable” can refer to environmental, economic, and/or social sustainability. “High intensity” production, and especially novel technologies, are frightening to many and may continue to erode their trust in the food system.

Education alone is not sufficient. Understanding of technological and scientific issues associated with agriculture involves a mixture of values, attitudes, and knowledge.

Many opportunities exist if we read between the lines of the priorities about the types of research and ingenuity that are required to meet the challenges: social science is needed.

Richard Richards
Program Leader of the High Performance Crops for Australia group at CSIRO

Australia has been a world leader when it comes to food production in challenging environments. We have an enviable record, particularly in improving crop water-use efficiency whilst maintaining our clean and green image. The opportunities globally will open up for Australia if we can maintain this record as the challenges ahead globally are immense.

We must double global crop production by 2050 to feed 9 billion people. This must be done on less land area than we currently crop, with less water available and in the face of climate uncertainty. Food produced must not be at the expense of land degradation and it must be affordable, reliable and of high quality.

To achieve the productivity gains required by 2050, we must firstly close the gap between the theoretical potential yield at any location and any season based on temperature, water, sunlight and soil, and the current farm yield. This gap for our major food crops currently varies from 20% to 80%.

We must also aim to increase the potential or theoretical yield by increasing total photosynthesis and biomass. Ideally this will be achieved by increasing crop duration and light capture as well as improving the underlying biochemistry of photosynthesis. This will not only increase potential yield but also water-use efficiency.

This challenge is only achievable if there is additional investment in agricultural research. The rewards for Australia and the world are immense. Continuing economic prosperity for Australia will be one but also important will be reduced malnutrition, poverty, environmental sustainability and improved global stability.

Read more in the series on the science and research priorities here.

The Conversation

Joanne Daly, CSIRO Fellow, CSIRO; Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History; Richard Richards, CSIRO Fellow, CSIRO; Sally Gras, Director ARC Dairy Innovation Hub and Associate Professor, University of Melbourne, and Stephen Powles, Director Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.