Securing our food
Global warming might be the headline of change in our living conditions in the immediate future, but for Professor Chris Ryan and his colleagues at the Victorian Eco Innovation Lab (VEIL) at the University, it is but one of a range of challenging factors that are affecting the security of Australia’s and Victoria’s food supply in coming decades.
“Put bluntly, under expected future conditions climate in combination with increasing population locally and worldwide, and a diminishing availability of oil and fertilisers will mean that the domestic production of a surplus of required foods for a nutritious diet – at either the Victorian or Australian level – must not be taken for granted,” says Professor Ryan, director of VEIL.
However, a 12 months project culminating in the recently released report “Victorian Food Supply Scenarios” – a collaboration between The University of Melbourne, VEIL, VicHealth, the CSIRO, the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development and Deakin University, has developed new concepts and methodologies to meet these challenges.
“There are resource allocation and management decisions being made now in Victoria, and Australia, that will have significant implications for the flexibility and options for our food supply in the next decades and for future generations of Australians,” Professor Ryan says.
“Our research explores how these decisions will impact on our ability to provide a reliable surplus of the foods for a nutritious diet, while providing for the ongoing health of the environment, the economy and ultimately the wellbeing of people and communities.”
Researchers from the VEIL at the University of Melbourne have created and projected three possible food supply scenarios to 2060, factoring in exports, imports, climate change, food production practices, fuel and water use, waste, environmental awareness, population growth and economic growth.
The Australian-first research has built an evidence base for examining how cumulative changes in complex modern food systems can impact on the fruit, vegetables, meat, grains and milk that ends up on our tables. Rapid climate change and concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been assumed in all scenarios.
The first scenario is adjustment, where the production of food is focused on getting the highest return, with land preservation a low priority. Food is more likely to be exported for top dollar than reserved for locals. If we don’t produce enough, food is imported from wherever in the world it can be efficiently and cheaply produced.
The results are a significant deficit of fruits, nuts and vegetables by 2030 that worsens by 2060. There is a large surplus of milk and plenty of beef and lamb to go around, but the sufficient cereal grains in 2030 have become an import requirement (for Victoria) by 2060. There will be more than enough dairy and meat for the population, even taking into account crop losses from extreme weather events. Energy and water insecurity accelerates and in the long term greenhouse gas emissions grow.
Under the second scenario of control, allocation of land and resources is nationally monitored and carefully managed by governments to seek food and energy security from domestic supplies. As a result, by 2030, there is sufficient or surplus in all food groups – including fruit and vegetables. But by 2060, the reallocation of grazing land for fresh produce leads to a shortage of milk, with lamb also in short supply. Australia retains a grain surplus but Victoria begins importing after 2030. Energy security is high, but early reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are not maintained. Water is threatened.
Finally, in the ‘Do it Yourself’ scenario, food production and distribution relies on a series of networks, with greater interaction between consumers and producers, increasing diversity of products and social pride in ‘local food’. Innovation and experimentation are encouraged. Greater environmental awareness occurs and there is a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, there is adequate supply of all foods in 2030, except cereal grains which are being diverted to biofuels at great rates. In 2060, fruit and vegetables are still sufficient but the gradual decline in milk and lamb production means there is less than needed. By 2060, there is not even enough oil crop to cope with both biofuel and food demand. While energy security remains problematic, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and stabilised and pressure on waterways is reduced.