It was the Reverend Thomas Malthus who first hypothesised that the world may run out of food one day. Malthus, an economist, observed that agricultural production tends to increase more slowly than population. The inevitable result, he foresaw, was famine.
By and large, the last two centuries have proved Malthus wrong. Even as the world’s population has ballooned past seven billion, agricultural production has increased, thanks to big improvements in crop yields and farming technologies. But at various stages, the race to feed hungry mouths has been close. Devastating famines were still common in India throughout the nineteenth century; as recently as 2010, the Times of India reported that 45,000 children were dying of malnutrition each year in the state of Maharashtra alone.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the world started to win the war against hunger in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the so-called "green revolution". The green revolution was really about applying the methods of modern industrial agriculture to subsistence farming, by getting peasant farmers to grow more productive crop varieties and use fertilisers for the first time. Big money was also invested in agricultural technologies in developing countries, and there was much effort devoted to reaching out to famers to give them access to the new crops and methods. It worked: cereal production in Asia between 1970 and 1995.
The green revolution has been controversial in environmental circles, however, because of the damage it has wreaked on fragile soils and waterways. The adoption of modern crop varieties means farmers now require fertilisers and pesticides to gain better yields, and there has been a corresponding loss of biodiversity. In general, the quality of soils around the world is in decline, as David Montgomery points out in his fine book on the topic, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations.
Despite the great improvements of the 20th century, the ideas of Malthus are getting a more sympathetic hearing of late, under the rubric of "food security." The reason? The challenge of feeding the world isn’t getting any easier. Global crop yields are starting to flatten out after their rapid growth through the second half of the 20th century, but the world continues to add hungry mouths to feed. With world population expected to level out at around 10 billion by the end of the century, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that we’re going to have grow 60 per cent more food by 2050. Climate change and over-fishing are only going to make the problem harder.
We’re already seeing a hint of what the future might look like. Food prices have spiked alarmingly in recent years, leading to the return of famine in many parts of the world. In 2008, for instance, a rapid increase in grain prices sparked food riots in dozens of countries across the world; these scenes were repeated in 2010-11 and may have played a part in the explosion of public unrest that led to the Arab Spring.
When the rains don’t come, problems quickly follow. Estimates vary, but there are probably more than a billion hungry people in the world right now. In the Sahel belt in the drylands of Africa, an erratic and late rainy season in 2011 has led to widespread hunger in the region for the third time since 2005. The World Food Program is handing out food to millions of hungry people there. The crippling US drought currently baking much of America’s west is also expected to have a big impact on world food prices, with some predicting it will lead to a new round of food riots.
Another issue is biofuels production, with much of the US corn crop now being used to create bio-ethanol for cars instead of food for people. Shenggen Fan, the director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, has called for biofuel production to be stopped.
The growing concerns about food security are also beginning to be felt in Australia. Australia is a major agricultural exporter, and our own drought through the 2000s contributed to the increase in world wheat prices. Now that the drought has broken, farmers have been enjoying healthy prices for their crops.
The coming crisis in food security offers significant potential advantages for Australia. A recent study by Port Jackson Partners for ANZ predicted that Australian agricultural exports could double by 2050, gaining an additional $710 billion worth of exports between now and the middle of the century. However, competition will likely be intense, with countries such as Malaysia and Brazil expected to ramp up their production in coming decades. Australia’s agriculture sector is also in desperate need of more capital investment and a greater research and development effort. Dominated by small firms and a fragmented industry structure, productivity growth has been lagging.
All this worry about food has spurred a global land grab for arable cropland, particularly in Africa. According to the World Bank, more than half of land that could potentially be used for expansion of cultivated area globally is in just 10 countries, five of which are in Africa. Millions of hectares have been bought up by foreign investors in countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan.
Investors are also showing an interest in Australian farm land. The high-profile purchase of the vast cotton combine at Cubbie Station in south-west Queensland has caused significant disquiet in the region, and brought maverick Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce into conflict with many of his Coalition colleagues. Joyce has long been outspoken on the need to ensure stricter controls on foreign investment to retain Australian farm land in local ownership. Over in the west, there’s also been an outbreak of Liberal-National tension over the deregulation of wheat exports.
The thorny political issues of agriculture aren’t going to go away. While rising demand means that in some respects the future of Australian agriculture looks rosy, there are major challenges on the horizon — particularly environmental challenges. If we are going to capitalise on this demand, we will have to farm more sustainably.
A major new report released today by the Centre for Policy Development (with which I am associated) underlines the problem. Australia’s soils are in poor shape: the report cites data that suggests that since clearing for agriculture, Australia’s soils have lost 40 to 60 per cent of their organic carbon. Over 20 million hectares of farm land are affected by soil acidity, over 3 million hectares are affected by salinity, and unsustainable rates of erosion has damaged almost 40 million hectares in river basins with intensive agriculture. The report recommends a big investment in redressing soil degradation in order to protect Australia’s agricultural industries, particularly wheat farming in Western Australia. "We need to farm smarter, not harder, to capture future opportunities," the report concludes.
But to do this will require more investment, both by governments and the private sector. It won’t be politically easy to farm more sustainably, either; the long-running saga of the Murray-Darling Basin shows how hard it is to wind back damaging and unsustainable irrigation practices. More money will also have to be invested in agricultural R+D. All of this will mean higher prices for fresh produce, which consumers won’t like.
All in all, there’s no easy option. After decades of food surpluses, the world became complacent, to our cost. Now we’re playing catch up.