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The Importance of Food, Extreme Events, from RIG News #11

2011 February 1
by Webmaster
The importance of food

Feature article – Kate Peake, Northern Territory Horticultural Association

The Importance of Food

Droughts are now a distant memory in most parts of the country. Although it was not so long ago that farmers were praying for rain, recent floods and tropical cyclones have shifted everything on its axis yet again. “Said Hanrahan” by John O’Brien was first published in 1921, demonstrating that this cycle of hardship was the way of the Australian landscape long before Climate Change entered the discourse. Such is the endless plight of the Australian farmer.

So what have we learnt through 90 years of struggle? Apparently not much. In the intervening period some things have changed dramatically, we now have almost three times as many people sharing the planet. But even without increasing pressure from population growth you might expect that having some confidence in our food systems should be pretty high on the priority list. Instead evidence suggests the opposite. Demand for food is growing, the resources to produce it are diminishing, climate specialists are telling us that extreme weather events are going to become more common, and yet farmers are dropping further and further down the political agenda.

If we can agree on the basic premise that ensuring the availability of reliable and high quality food is important then what should we be doing on the ground to address these local and global pressures? Well, while the answers might be underpinned by complex science, on the surface they are remarkably simple. So simple that one might tell the story in common English proverbs…

Since ‘It never rains but it pours’ it is important not to ‘Put all your eggs in one basket’

If we have learnt one thing from droughts, floods, cyclones and plagues it is the true danger of having agricultural production too heavily centralised in a few regions. Our banana industry is perhaps the most profound example of this. Bananas are the most commonly consumed fruit in Australia and they grow well across the tropical and sub-tropical zones. Despite this wide regional potential 90% of Australia’s bananas are grown in Queensland. Cyclone Larry highlighted this risk in 2006, five years on Cyclone Yasi struck the same stretch of Queensland coast. In the intervening years virtually nothing had been done to address this risk to Australia’s biggest horticultural industry. Modern agriculture has been characterised by growing single crops on a grand scale in specific regions. While there are clear and immediate advantages to these mass monocultures the disadvantages are often cumulative and are becoming clearer as time passes. Diversification is the key to addressing a range of growing threats in the agricultural industry.

Experience tells us that ‘Prevention is better than the cure’, therefore ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’

Australians are comfortable, perhaps even smug, in the belief that food security is a third world problem. This idea does not, however, stand up to scrutiny. Both natural and man-made forces are placing increasing pressure on Australia’s agricultural sector, no one in Australia could be oblivious to the impact of the recent Queensland floods or the collapse of the Murray Darling. There are also some more hidden threats. In the battle between agriculture and urbanisation agriculture is almost always the looser and good productive land is being subdivided to facilitate the ‘great Australian Dream’. Additionally it seems that outsiders are quicker to recognise Australia’s potential than we are and foreign acquisition of our agricultural sector is causing growing concern. To date Australia has had virtually no food policy to speak of, resulting in steadily decreasing investment in research and development and allowing for a spectrum of short term drivers to insidiously undermine long term food security outcomes.

‘Actions speak louder than words’ and while the task can be overwhelming ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’

There is still a great deal to be learned about the production of food, indeed many would argue that there is a great deal that we have forgotten and need to re-learn. However, what we need to be doing now to address many of the challenges we are currently facing is largely known. We know that highly intensive production places pressures on our natural resources and is risky in the event of natural disasters. Spreading our production spreads our risk, not only the short term risk of crop loss but also the long term risk that production gaps will be filled by imported product thus making it harder for Australian farmers to re-establish themselves. Furthermore, while it may be a very large continent we inhabit relatively little of it lends itself to intensive agriculture. We need to secure good agricultural land for future generations. Prioritisation of and investment in our agricultural sector is inevitable, the real question is at what point we recognise the need because with every passing year the challenge grows.
Affluence has made Australians short sighted but the problems driving the food security debate elsewhere can all be found here, they may be less widespread or less immediate but they are no less real. The importance of improving agricultural productivity and sustainability is global. Let’s hope that recent political murmurings about local food security represent the beginning of a regained focus on the importance of food, the most basic tenet for life.

Article kindly provided by Kate Peake, NTHA. The NTHA is a RIG Partner Organisation and is also represented on RIG Network’s Advisory Group.

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RIG News is written and produced by Anthea Fawcett for RIG Network.

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