Australia is food secure – but for how long?

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Australia must increase its agricultural production and improve sustainability to satisfy export growth targets, according to new research.

The Global Food and Water Crises Research Program released its latest strategic paper, ‘Consumption Patterns and Food Demand in Australia to 2050’, which found that the prospects for Australian agriculture in the period to 2050 depends on its capacity to meet the growing food demand, both domestically and in Asia.

Australia is currently food secure, yet the growth of its agricultural sector may be vulnerable towards 2050 due to decreasing competitiveness in the production of key food commodities and the effects of climate change.

According to the Department of Treasury’s 2010 Intergenerational Report, Australia’s population will rise to approximately 35.9 million people by 2050. The report states that this will increase pressure on our domestic food system to maintain an economically healthy trade surplus, whilst also meeting export demands.

A changing Australian population will affect the industry as needs and preferences change, and an aging population will affect the industry as there will be an increased need for food access and nutrition in the aged care sector. Growing ethnicity in Australia will also drive demand for a number of new and imported food products, including imported and processed fruit and vegetable products, halal-certified goods and alternative cuts of meat. It is predicted that the predominantly urban Australian population will continue consuming conveniently processed foods, raising issues such as food waste.

Some consumption trends already developing are evident through patterns of wheat, seafood and dairy consumption. Wheat consumption has increased by 55 percent per capita since the 1970s, and despite a slight drop in consumption in 2013, growth in wheat consumption from 2010 to 2013 averaged 12.6 percent.

Seafood consumption has also increased, with Australians now consuming 16 kg of seafood per person annually, making it the fifth largest industry in the agricultural sector. Demand for dairy has also increased steadily in Australia over the last five years, and has been attributed to Australia’s ‘coffee culture’. Meat consumption has also witnessed an increase, contributing to 40 percent of the total household expenditure, with Australian’s consuming 111kg of meat each, per year.

Australia must also face a growing urban population, leaving rural centres and agricultural businesses with diminished labour pools.  Land availability may also pose a problem, with Australia’s total area sown to crops remaining stagnant at 25 million hectares per year over the last two decades. These problems are compounded by climate change, which may determine if Australia can increase or maintain its agricultural production. In particular, there is a concern that droughts will affect wheat production – Australia’s largest staple crop.

The report concludes that “Treasury’s prediction that agriculture will grow from its current 2.5 percent contribution to national GDP to reach five percent by 2050, is unachievable without driving up productivity in the agricultural sector, using current, or fewer, resources.”