When complacency poses a risk to the Australian food system

At first glance, Australia might be considered one of the most food-secure countries in the world. Its 86,500 farm businesses on average each produce enough food to feed 600 people, 150 at home and 450 overseas; farm exports totalled about Aus$45 billion in 2016-17 (£25 billion)[1]. A high-level of biosecurity has kept the most severe pests and diseases from threatening its agriculture.

Dr John Ingram

“Australia is the land of plenty”; “We don’t worry about vulnerability; we don’t think about resilience”; “We are blessed with ‘Brand Australia’”. These were statements I heard during my recent six-month OECD Research Fellowship based at the University of Queensland, where I investigated the views of policy, business, civil society organisations and academia on the resilience of the Australian food system. Certainly the geographical scale of Australia and the multi-seasons when you look nationally (with Queensland able to produce year round with a summer dominant rainfall, and southern Australia mostly having a Mediterranean climate), means that there are very good opportunities for growers.

The optimistic and popular Aussie phrase “She’ll be right, mate” encapsulates how food system resilience is regarded in Australia. It’s an outlook that conceals some less palatable home truths.

Since the late 1980s, Australia’s food imports have been increasing by 4.8% a year on average; imported food now accounts for 15% of total consumption. Australia is now a net importer of seafood, processed fruit and vegetables, soft drinks, confectionary, bakery products and oils and fats. There’s another food security issue too: seven in ten Australian men and one in four children are overweight or obese. Add to this a multitude of ethical concerns in the Australian food system such as farmer welfare, food waste, food system workers’ rights and it’s fair to say the picture is not so sunny.

Climate change is placing a growing strain on the global food system, fuelling the risk of geopolitically motivated food-supply disruptions. While these global stresses alone could seriously affect the Australian food system, there are also a range of more Australia-specific shocks and stresses. These include increased incidence and severity of droughts and floods which can lead to political conflict over water rights; an aging farmer population; and a new economic ‘landscape’ caused by changing trade and Direct Foreign Investment. Further, a set of recent shocks, such as weather extremes affecting food distribution and the 2018 food safety crisis in the strawberry industry (which cost the industry Aus$500m), or potential shocks such as a reduced ability to export beef to China due to bluetongue disease, could seriously impact the system. Add to this the confident “she’ll be right” attitude, and such impacts could well be amplified.

In the ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’ programme, we define resilience as the food system’s capacity to maintain a desired state of food security when exposed to stresses and shocks. In our recent policy brief, we set out three notions of resilience, which we apply to the food system outcomes, (the ‘what we get’ from the ‘what we do’ in the food system activities, e.g. producing, processing, retailing and consuming). Outcomes include food security and a host of other socioeconomic goals, and environmental condition. These three notions are:

Robustness ­ – with an aim to resist disruption to existing food systems outcomes

Recovery – with an aim to return to existing food systems outcomes after disruption

Reorientation – we accept alternative food systems outcomes to minimise risk to stresses or shocks, or after disruption

All of these involve Reorganisation, i.e. making changes to the food system activities and policy settings.

In Australian terms, a robust approach could lead to even stricter biosecurity measures or trade deals aiming to diversify the market. Recovery strategies could include temporary imports of food until the situation bounces back, or consumers replacing bananas (the #1 category fruit product) with other fruit products after a cyclone wipes out the Australian crop, until the banana crop returns. And reorientation could see targeted reductions in red meat consumption by shifting supply across the protein products (red meat to white meats to pulses) as price relativities and consumer attitudes change. Individual agrifood businesses do regularly change production mixes in response to their judgement of business outlook with resulting effects on the product offer for consumers; thus all parts of the food system in Australia are regularly involved in reorientation to some extent.

There are nonetheless still strategic policy challenges to enhancing resilience of the Australian food system in each of these notions. These include the impacts that changing world patterns of demand and consumption might have. This could play out in a number of ways such as by increasing the average price of food products for Australian consumers, which would increase the proportion of the population who simply cannot access an adequate diet (the current example is doubling the price of eggs by moving rapidly to entirely free range). Or reducing the current level of flexibility and adaptive capacity of the system through overcommitting to international markets (possible with increasing long-term investment and supply chain relationships).

Pervading attitudes may also pose a barrier, e.g. a population resistant to consuming less red meat (although, like in other developed countries, younger consumers are leading this dietary change), and a lack of foresight exercises which means there is limited planning. Existing policy-related literature takes a modular approach rather than viewing the food system as a whole.

Australia may indeed enjoy a reputation as the land of plenty, but the overall food landscape is changing and it cannot rest on its laurels. UK examples of research, industry and policy priorities might provide the foundation for making change. But more fundamentally, developing a cohort of skilled people who can work with the complexity of the system, enabling policy, business and social innovation by taking a joined-up systems approach will be needed in Australia to develop a more resilient food system.

About the author

Dr John Ingram is the Coordination Team Leader of ‘Global Food Security Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’, a major Interdisciplinary research programme that aims to enhance the UK’s food security. He is also leads the Food Systems Programme at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.


[1] http://www.nff.org.au/farm-facts.html

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