This year has been a year of shocks. So far in 2008 the price of oil jumped to extraordinary levels, food prices dramatically spiked, and interest rates rose. Australians are “doing it tough” the media screamed. Then the world suddenly found itself in a global financial crisis. Media attention and government action here and elsewhere shifted to fear of a global economic slow-down and possible recession. Interest rates were cut and economic stimulus packages rolled out. Oil and food prices declined sharply.
However, the potentially devastating long term food crisis did not go away. It simply ceased to be a problem in the rich world. But for the poor in developing countries, who may spend up to 80 per cent of their incomes on food, the price of food is always a concern that will grow worse, unless decisive action is taken.
The nub of the long-term problem is that demand for food will double within the next 50 years. The global population is projected to increase by between two to three billion to about nine billion. Demand for a wider variety of more nutritious foods will increase as incomes rise in middle-income countries. Conversion of food to alcohol fuels will further push up prices.
Food prices have trended down over the last 30 years. We were living off the fruits of the scientific advances of earlier decades. These were the foundation for the Green Revolution that enabled the massive increase in cereal production in much of Asia where population grew rapidly: diets improved and fear of famine ended.
But as is their way, governments lost sight of the reality that the foundation of economic development in poor countries remains a sustained rise in agricultural productivity. Investment in agriculture in developing countries fell away, including support for agricultural research. Overall productivity in agriculture continued to increase but at a diminishing rate, including here in Australia. We too have been living off accumulated scientific research.
Official foreign aid, including Australia’s, to the agricultural sector fell drastically, declining from about 18 per cent of total aid in 1979 to about 3.5 per cent in 2004.
What can Australia do to prevent a hunger catastrophe in the years ahead? We can respond in two ways: first, by increasing our food exports, and second by helping developing countries that share some of our geographical handicaps to create productive, sustainable farming systems backed by policies appropriate to their particular circumstances.
The value of Australia’s exported food and fibre is some four times as much as the value of our consumption. Our goal should at least be to maintain that ratio. Though the continent is not well endowed climatically, and lacks large expanses of fertile soil, the history of agriculture in Australia shows that enterprising farmers backed by first class research and good policies can overcome those disadvantages.
The hotter, drier climate likely to emerge in much of Australia may impede our ability to take full advantage of our potential to help ourselves and others. This could be prevented if we step up appropriate research, stimulate its rapid dissemination and invest in necessary infrastructure.
Precisely because we stand to benefit economically from the likely long-term rise in agricultural export prices, much will be expected of us. Even more than today, in a more crowded world, Australia will be seen as privileged, enjoying advantages not shared by more densely populated countries in Asia and Africa. The climate changes that affect food production here are already doing so in parts of Africa and Asia. It will be increasingly important that Australia gives special attention to help developing countries steadily increase agricultural production and gain access to developed country markets.
The Millennium Development Goals commit the international community to progressively eliminate poverty and its surrogate, hunger. The danger is that world leaders, notwithstanding their good intentions, will be distracted by more immediate problems affecting the finances of their constituents. The current global financial crisis is an extreme example, but in years to come there will inevitably be other crises demanding urgent attention. As is frequently stated, the world’s poor have no votes in rich countries.
The long-term hunger challenge is not just a challenge to our altruism. Dealing with it successfully is in our national interest. Failure to significantly reduce poverty could eventually destabilise world peace and security to say nothing of the impact of global famine on the movement of peoples.
There is therefore a need for consistent long-term international leadership. As a middle power that aspires to “punch above its weight” in global affairs, and with unique capacities and responsibilities for agricultural development, Australia can play a valuable leadership role. Our report provides a blueprint that will assist our government to do so, if it grasps the challenge.
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