The global food security threat: where do we begin?

Without doubt, the biggest challenge we, our children, and our grandchildren will face is the rising global demand for food and its impact on the environment, says Major General John Hartley, CEO of Future Directions International.

Future Directions International is a not-for-profit, independent research institute based in Perth, which conducts comprehensive research of important medium- to long-term issues facing Australia. Today, Hartley was one of the first presenters on day two of the 20th Australian HACCP Conference in Melbourne, and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

His presentation was titled Global Food Security in the 21st Century and Australia’s Role, and his message was clear: the single biggest threat facing the world today is an increasingly hungry population.

In the western world, the vast majority of us enjoy three meals a day, and with our ever-expanding waistlines it would be understandable if some westerners are at least a little skeptical that food security is a real problem.

But make no mistake, ensuring there is enough food to feed the world is a serious concern for today’s population, and becomes more pressing with each generation.

According to Hartley, nearly one billion people are hungry and malnourished today, and with the global population set to soar and food consumption expected to skyrocket by 75 percent in 2050 (compared to 2007) there’s never been more pressure on food producers to rise to the challenge.

However, climate change and the growing population’s increasingly reliance on natural resources represent significant roadblocks, if not deal breakers.

“Demand has outrun many of the natural systems on which we rely,” Hartley said, adding that as societies become richer, they tend to develop appetites for more nutrient-dense foods, and this is evident in the population’s rising (and unsustainable) meat consumption habits.

In June last year, research from the University of Exeter in the UK found that if we are to feed the 9.3bn people expected to inhabit the world in 2050, we will need to bring down the average global meat consumption from 16.6 percent to 15 percent of average daily calorie intake, which is about half that of the average western diet.

The aquaculture industry is expected to capitalise on any decline in meat consumption and is due to become a major source of the world’s protein over the next 20 years, quadrupling in size.

Jammie Penm, assistant secretary at the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), who also presented at the HACCP Conference today, said food producing industries are facing five key challenges in food production:

  1. Total factor productivity growth is weakening
  2. Land expansion is slowing
  3. Land degradation
  4. Water availability
  5. Climate change (640,000 ha of land in China is turned into desert every year, with climate change a key contributor).

But having enough land and adequate resources isn’t the only challenge the world’s food producers are facing. In order to adequately prepare for the future, consumer awareness also needs to be a top priority.

John Hartley says that some of the world’s governments are doing good work in this area, but overall, it’s not nearly enough. And while the National Food Plan contains worthy goals for boosting food exports and production, it falls short in terms of communicating just how pressing the issue of food security is.

“We need to convince the average person that we have a major problem,” he said. “We can only deal with an impending crisis if all contribute.

“We need to portray the findings of scientific communities in such a way that the public understand [the seriousness of the issue].

”Having said this, Hartley said the average global citizen is aware that globally, regionally and nationally, we need to produce more food, and that we need to invest in our food producers. Generally, farmers owe a lot of money, so investment is needed to ensure they can improve productivity and “get their act together,” he said.

Hartley provided the following stepping stones to managing global food security, breaking the food industry’s – and the global population’s – challenges into two categories: supply and demand. And while they might seem overly simplistic, once we get our head around the real issues at hand and understand the magnitude of what needs to be done, hopefully some real, valuable steps can be made to ensuring future generations are better off, not worse, than we are today.

Demand. We must:

  • Stabilise the world’s population
  • Eradicate poverty
  • Reduce excessive meat consumption
  • Reverse biofuel policies
  • Reduce waste (Around 40 percent of all food intended for human consumption in developed countries ends up as waste).

Supply. We must:

  • Stabilise the climate
  • Use water more effectively
  • Reverse decline in arable land


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