World food security, as Australian consumers are soon to discover, is at its lowest since records were first kept almost half a century ago.
The precipitous fall in world grain stocks in the last seven years (see chart, above) is a forewarning of what we may expect as the world runs low on water, land, nutrients, technology, as marine harvests collapse, as biofuels grow and as droughts intensify under climate change. It means, year on year, humanity now eats more than it produces.
In Australia, debate on the future of agriculture has largely been about drought and predictions of a hotter, drier climate, and has tended to overlook the fact that the world may be entering a prolonged period of shortages and famines at a time of vastly increased demand for food.
At our top policy levels there is apathy about a potentially extremely grave problem. Sixty per cent of all conflicts in the last 15 years have had, at their core, a scarcity of food, land or water. A major driver of refugeeism both internal and international, is scarcity of food , land and water and the conflicts between different groups it precipitates.
Australia has not yet understood that agriculture policy is defence policy. It is refugee policy, immigration policy, environmental policy as well as health, food and economic policy. We persist in seeing it as an issue all on its own.
This is the only explanation for the long slashing of agricultural research by governments, state and federal, by universities and by science agencies at a time when agricultural scientists are retiring and university science enrolments collapsing. We are now heading into a second sort of drought: an agricultural knowledge drought.
However the decline in agricultural science in Australia in the past 25 years may be minor compared to the crash to come. Thanks to the drought, for every dollar that farmers can no longer contribute to R&D, the Commonwealth will take away a dollar also. Once the cash reserves of the main funding bodies, the R&D corporations are exhausted. Hundreds of agricultural scientists will lose their jobs and new recruits leave or be turned away. At precisely the moment in history when the world is running out of food, we will abandon one of the few scientific fields in which Australia can genuinely claim international leadership. This at a time when everyone else is leaving it also and the human race most needs it.
The Commonwealth has recently announced a $10 million top-up for rural research, but this must be some sort of black jest. Fifty times that would be closer to what is needed.
To understand why, consider the solution to Australia’s food problem proffered by Senator Bill Heffernan. He advises to move agriculture north to where the water is. This is fine on paper. Its weakness has been our almost complete failure, over many decades, to establish modern high-production broadacre farming systems for the tropics. No country in the world has yet achieved this (which gives an idea how difficult it is). It will require a massive input of scientific research, equivalent to all that has gone on in the south in the past 100 years, before food can be produced reliably, sustainably and in large volume in the north.
Australia has plenty of land where food can be reliably produced around the southern coast, but chooses to put racehorses, golf courses, van parks, resorts and cities on it. If parts of the wheatbelt and Murray-Darling Basin have to be returned to pastoralism due to water shortages and climate change, Australia’s total food production will contract - just when that of the world is contracting.
This is crazy in three respects. First it will make us food insecure (and subject to very high prices) at a time when the whole world is also insecure. Second, we will lose the economic benefit of having a substantial exportable food surplus. And third we will lack the scientific skills to help stabilise other neighbour countries’ food production, leaving us with far more refugees and regional conflicts to deal with.
There is a national outcry over the shortage of doctors and some attempts to remedy it - but about the coming shortage of food which is potentially far more serious, there is silence. There is an outcry over the national shortage of geologists to create future mineral booms - but of the dearth of people who can unlock the nutritional wealth of this continent there is silence.
No side of politics seems to appreciate the central importance of science to modern agricultural systems, the scale of new knowledge needed to maintain food production in hot, dry times or to open up the North sustainably. No side seems to fully grasp the role of agricultural know-how in preventing conflict, refugeeism and ecological crises in our region.
Both sides say this election is about the future. If, in the coming weeks, you encounter a politician, ask them about food - and the reply will quickly tell you whether or not they have any grasp of the future.