In an article published in The Mercury on 4 October, Jan Davis, former CEO of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, writes that rising population and inefficiencies in the food chain must be addressed if people are to be fed. This is in light of Australia’s drop in ranking from 5th to 14th place in the Global Food Security Index.

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Australia has plunged in food security rankings, writes Jan Davis

FOOD is a fundamental requirement for survival. When it becomes scarce, people will fight for it, yet when it is abundant, we often waste it. The transition from abundance to scarcity can happen rapidly. A major drought, a natural disaster or war, can suddenly plunge a community into famine. While the transition to hunger can be rapid, escape can be slow, painful and difficult.

The world’s population is increasing rapidly — with forecasts it will reach nine billion by 2050. And all these people need to be fed.

This is why “food security” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, even though there is not clear agreement on what that actually means.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” .

The World Health Organisation has a “three pillars” approach to food security: availability (ensuring there is a reliable and adequate food supply); access (being able to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet); and use (using it properly on terms of storage, preparation and optimum nutrition).

The sixth annual Global Food Security Index, which was released last week, provides a global ranking of how well countries can feed their own people. This report takes a more holistic approach, including for the first time added metrics based on climate and naturalresource risks. The measures now cover four categories: affordability, availability, quality and safety, natural resources and resilience.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that global food security fell for the first time in five years. They attribute this to increases in the number of refugees, weather disasters and a decline in global political stability.

According to this research, Ireland is now the world’s most “food-secure” nation, having improved affordability, availability, quality and safety of food over the period since the last report. For the first time, the US dropped from the top spot, as concerns about agricultural research spending and government policy trends may make the world’s top food exporter a less-certain place to get a meal. That was surprising, I have to say.

However, the stand out element for me was the fact Australia has fallen from 5th to 14th place. This was one of the largest drops in the surveyed countries.

According to the UN, the number of people suffering from hunger rose by about 38 million to 815 million in 2016. Climate change is seen as a driver of increasing weather volatility which is contributing to famines in developing nations. This year, adverse weather combined with conflict was tied to famine and severe food shortages in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

Richer nations have fewer problems providing inexpensive, plentiful and safe food to their citizens. Still, risks remain, and some are increasing, according to the study. One of the factors that mitigates risk is government support for agricultural research, which the study says is important in keeping nutrition inexpensive and available as food needs increase.

This is where Ireland has excelled, building off the learnings of the 19th century potato famine which saw half a million residents migrating largely to the new world countries of Australia and America.

It is also where some wealthy countries including Australia, the US and Canada have fallen behind. These countries have highly productive food systems. However, government investment in agricultural research is decreasing and that is impacting on production efficiencies. Agricultural systems in these countries often use more water than they need to, leaving them more vulnerable to increasingly severe droughts expected because of climate change. Furthermore, strains caused by an ageing population which pays less in taxes and demands more social services are also resulting in increased food insecurity.

“Food security is in reverse,” said one of the report’s authors. “If we’re aiming for zero hunger, we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Australians have never been hungry — and we take our food for granted. That’s not a given in today’s tough business climate, where our farmers are burdened with more and more costs and lower and lower returns.

There’s an old saying that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher; but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.

We need to be sure there are enough farmers around to feed all the world’s people, three times every day.

Jan Davis is an agribusiness consultant and former chief executive of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.