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ARE WE ...really... FOOD SECURE?

We are living through a very different time.

A time where only a handful of people globally can recollect an event similar.
In Australia, the bushfires earlier in the year and now the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the public’s concept of normal life across many subjects. Especially in activities that we all normally take for granted like going to a shop or a supermarket to restock. For many people this is the first time they have experienced empty shelves. The first time we’ve really been forced to fear a lack of food security.

Not Such An Uncommon Occurrence

Toilet paper is one item that everyone has noticed has been in short supply, but also long shelf life food items such as pasta and pasta sauce.  We have also experienced shortages of eggs, milk, rice and frozen vegetables that have been sold out or limited in quantity for purchase.

In fact, we are so used to seeing shelves full all the time, that any absence is alarming and tends to evoke an emotional response, even if it is minor. We are just not used to see blank space. We feel something is wrong.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, empty shelves and a lack of access to food is actually normal and not the exception. If we lived in the Soviet Union during the 1980’s, only four decades ago but accessible though review of old television broadcasts, this the reality for its citizens. Or at the extreme, many nations in East Africa that are experiencing famine. A situation unchanged since the Soviet Union existed and kids in school were doing the “Forty Hour Famine” to raise desperately needed funds.

Food You Can Trust Sad Boy

So is Australia evolving into becoming like other nations around the round the world where we will see regular shortages in terms of food and other products.

What Food Security Is, And What It Isn’t

Firstly, we need to understand what food security is and isn’t. Food security is not food insecurity. Food insecurity is a lack of access to food due to personal circumstances, which is largely driven by a lack of money.

Food security is the ability of a country or state to be able to meet the food requirements for its population, either now and into the future.

Upon visiting Foodbank WA back in October of last year, I learned that they provide for 18,000 breakfast meals each week for school kids in WA. That is in addition to the numerous charities and individuals that Foodbank help each week. A situation that has been made worse by COVID-19 as regular donations from supermarkets have not been as regular as expected. That is because supermarkets are selling out of food products due to panicked buying and hoarders during the early part of the COVID-19 crisis.

Food insecurity is driven through personal factors and food security is driven by macro factors.

In the joint publication “The Situational Report for the Food Security Plan For Western Australia” by Curtin University and the Perth Natural Resource Management Association, ten factors were outlined that affect food security in WA. These are:

  • Biosecurity
  • Climate Change
  • Land Use
  • Population Growth
  • Salinity
  • Soil Acidity
  • Water Availability
  • Agricultural Exports
  • Consumer Behaviour
  • Aquaculture & Fisheries

These factors influence food security at a sustained high-level comparative to the acute nature of food insecurity.

So What Is The Biggest Driver Of Food Security?

The biggest determinant to food security is population growth.

The more people living in your state or country, the more food you need to feed the masses.

The production of food and other consumable products requires the use of environmental resources. To feed a growing population, the country or state must use more of its environmental resources (essentially soil and water) to meet the needs of more people or organise and pay supply lines to get food in from other countries or states.

This then brings up some initial questions.

Do we have enough environmental resources to meet a growing population here in WA? Which is a food security question. Could we feed five million people living in the state of Western Australia?

If couldn’t grow the food and products ourselves, could we bring more and more food in from interstate/overseas? Would that be affordable for the most vulnerable within our society? Which is a food insecurity question.

This is a question that is increasing over time and has been highlighted by the recent COVID-19 isolation period. With more people forced out of work and unable to generate an income, coupled with shortages at the point of sale, the situation has really come to fore of the public’s collective view.

The trash can is my best customer 

There is also the subject of food waste which is directly influenced by consumer behavior and population growth, including how much we throw out, goes rotten or passes use by date and is dumped at store or restaurant level. I once met an American lettuce grower. He was growing in California (very similar in many respects to Perth, as the climate tends to make most farmers 365 day participants). He said in jest that his best customer was “the trash can”.

This is a problem globally and Australia is not blameless in this arena. According to the Foodwise website, on average Australians throw out $1,000 of food a year. If we consumed mindfully and only bought what we would consume, that would also help food security.

Whether you grow it yourself or import it from elsewhere,  there is an impact on the environment somewhere to produce food, even if it is not in your backyard.

Not every country is as blessed as this one, where we have large expanses of land available for production and an abundance of sunshine for growing seasons. However, you still need water for production of grains, livestock, dairy and horticulture. WA is a drying climate and large portions of the nation are in drought. We have seen cost of water per pumped kilolitre ever increasing in South Australia and New South Wales. In WA, we don’t have the same annual cost structure of pumped ground or surface water. It’s still by and large essentially free to use for production provided various compliance hurdles are met.

Things are different in broad acre grain crops in WA. These crops are reliant on rainfall.

The Impact of Climate

So when we overlay climate change in WA, and the changing weather pattern that includes variability in rainfall and higher ground temperatures, the certainty of cropping is also changed. I grew vegetables commercially for 9 years and I personally found no two years being the same for weather. In my first year, the summer was blisteringly hot and there no rain over summer (90 straight days). There were also many mild summers. Some years there would be gale force eastly winds that destroyed seeding. Other years, they wouldn’t appear. Sometimes there would be sudden deluge of rain in autumn that turned acres of crop into Olympic sized swimming pools. And some years that wouldn’t happen. Weather patterns are not as static as they once were and this affects production of food.

The effect on our soils of farming over the past 50 years in WA is also an issue. There has been a steady decrease in soil health due to acidity and salinity over the journey. Poor soil equates to lower yields. The major causes of soil health issues have been due to the way we have farmed since the green revolution of the 1950s. Mechanised agriculture gave farmers the ability to produce more per hectare than ever before. However, many of the practices including excessive use of man made fertilisers, chemicals to control pest and weeds, and constant tillage have seen yields decrease markedly over times. This has lead to many farmers trialling methods that promote soil health and help to restore the environment.

Food You Can Trust Stormy Paddock

Farming does have an impact on the environment, starting from the moment the land is cleared for the crop to go in. There are other less impactful growing methods that can support our demand for food. One such example is the use of protected cropping including the use of specialised glasshouses that will continue to emerge as they use substantially less environmental resources to produce food.

So, back to the original question…

Are We Food Secure?

The answer is yes. For now.

We grow and produce the vast majority of food we consume in this country. That is a major advantage we take for granted when we visit the shop.

We have seen the supply chain rise to the challenge of increase demand during these times of uncertainty from both the bushfires and COVID-19. Shelves are starting to retain more stock of essentials such as eggs, milk and pasta. Will we face other similar events in the coming years that will also be as disruptive?

Food You Can Trust Bushfire

The biggest concern is with all the factors that affect producing food including climate change and its effect on weather variability, we need farmers more than ever to meet the challenges of feeding our growing population head on. If farmers don’t continue production, we don’t eat.

If we suddenly double the demand for food in WA as it is projected to reach by 2050 in the aforementioned Food Security report, is the state of Western Australia and its farmers ready to meet the increase?

We need to start now to ensure food security for the future.