Opinion article

The age of food: Julian Cribb

Food will be a defining issue of our time with Australia well placed to capitalise on market demand for clean produce. Julian Cribb discusses food sustainability and production.

Sustaining human food supply is the challenge of our age. It is a field in which Australia is superbly qualified to contribute to and make a true difference. It should be among our highest national priorities, if not the highest.

Every meal you eat costs the planet 10 kilos of topsoil and 800 litres of fresh water. Furthermore it uses 1.3 litres of diesel fuel and a third of a gram of pesticide.

Multiply that by 7.3 billion people, each eating around a thousand meals a year and you begin to gain a feel for the huge cost which our modern food system - and all the resources it requires - now imposes on our planet. Over the next 50 years that load will double due to economic and population growth combined. 

The world currently loses around 75 billion tonnes of topsoil a year, mainly to unsustainable forms of agriculture. Despite progress in countries like Australia, global soil degradation is getting worse, not better. At such rates, scientists warn we will start to run out of good farming soils by mid-century.

The same goes for water: humanity presently uses around nine trillion tonnes a year, more than two thirds of it to grow food.

Worldwide groundwater is now being mined unsustainably and not replaced. Furthermore water in most major industrial economies is now so polluted with hydrocarbons, pesticides, nutrients, pathogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals as to be unfit for use without heavy and costly treatment. Farmers worldwide are in a fight for survival against huge coal, gas and oil companies and cities which covet their water - and the world food supply will be the loser.

At the same time global supplies of premium grade phosphorus and potash for fertilisers are running down, while the world wastes around 40 per cent of all the food we produce. This points to a looming nutrient crisis by mid-century.

This is all happening at the same time as climate change threatens to reduce the world harvest significantly. Failure to act on climate change could halve world food production at the very time it needs to double. Four degrees of global warming is predicted to cut American corn yields by as much as 60-80 per cent, the Indian wheat crop by 45 per cent.

Meanwhile the world has effectively halved its investment in agricultural science aimed at raising food output. In fact, as a species, we now spend 35 times more on better weapons than we do on better ways to feed ourselves.

A vital issue – still unrecognised – is that three Australians out of every four now die from a diet related disease. This is the main factor underlying our spiralling healthcare costs. The modern diet is neither safe nor healthy: it is driven by money, not good nutrition.

All these challenges are taking place simultaneously. We cannot solve one without addressing all the others. We have to solve all of them together – and that in turn involves rethinking food, and how we produce it.

This is a field of prodigious opportunity, involving new kinds of food, safer, cleaner, healthier and more sustainable systems, the recycling of vital resources like water and nutrients, the creation of new industries, new jobs and professions, the rewilding of farming land to save the world’s fast disappearing animals and plants.

This is a task tailor made for the talents, skills, creativity and resourcefulness of Australians and New Zealanders.

For instance there are 27,600 edible plants on Earth, only about 1000 of which are regularly consumed. The rest represent vast new industry, health and food prospects not yet exploited. We have yet to really explore the culinary potential of our home planet.

Worldwide consumers are deserting the toxic, industrial food produced by global corporates using chemical-intensive, cruel, unsafe and degrading systems that destroy farmers, farm industries landscapes and communities. Over time this trend will open major new markets for safe, local, clean and healthy produce.

There are intriguing new food systems emerging – biocultures, algae farming, food printers, entomoculture, synthetic meats, sky farms, designer livestock, urban permaculture and food specially created for the health and genetic profile of individual consumers.

Together these forces will alter the nature of food dramatically, for all time. If the 70s were the age of music, the 90s the age of the internet then the world is now entering the age of food.

Never has world cuisine been so spectacularly diverse – or so far short of its true potential.

Food is one of the most creative acts which humans perform, and Australians have a chance to be global leaders in its reinvention to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. .

How well and how thoughtfully we do this will define our nation’s future and, indeed, the human future, now and for all time.

About the authors

Julian Cribb

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Julian is the principal of JCA, specialists in science communication. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

From 1996-2002 he was Director, National Awareness, for Australia's national science agency, CSIRO.

A journalist since 1969, he was editor of the National Farmer and Sunday Independent newspapers, editor-in-chief of the Australian Rural Times, and chief of the Australian Agricultural News Bureau.  For ten years he was agriculture correspondent, science and technology correspondent and scientific editor for the national daily The Australian.

He is the author of The Coming Famine (2010) and Poisoned Planet (2014)

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