Australia’s farming future: can our wheat keep feeding the world?

It’s getting harder to grow a lot of wheat. Stephen Mitchell

Australia’s status as a major wheat exporter means we have a special role in helping the rest of the world eat. But with a changing climate, and so much of the world’s wheat being used as animal feeds and for ethanol production, that role is going to become more difficult.

Changing outlook

Various projections for temperature, rainfall, drought and storms suggest that maintaining current grain yields will be difficult for Australia. In Western Australia, our biggest wheat growing state, WA Agriculture has predicted a 10% reduction in wheat yield. That reduction will be up to 30% in the most northern wheat growing areas. One of the greatest concerns is air temperatures rising above the optimum wheat growing temperature of 23°C.

We have fragile soil resources, and increased yields over the last 60 years have benefited from phosphorus and nitrogen fertilisers. The world’s phosphate fertilisers are produced from largely depleted guano and rock phosphate mines. How will agriculture adapt when readily available supplies may be largely exhausted over the next 50 to 100 years?

Seasonal conditions in the grain-growing regions are also critical to world supply and prices. The current Australian wheat crop looks bigger than the last, but is well down on the huge 2012 harvest. Luckily, it looks like a bumper harvest is coming from the Russian Federation. But a poor season in one or two of the countries can have flow-on effects around the globe.

Beef is second to wheat as Australia’s biggest agricultural export commodity, but beef export is often wheat export in a different form, as demand for grain-fed beef grows. Feedlot cattle are now among the biggest users of grain in Australia; this young Australian industry now consumes about 3.7 millions of tonnes of grain. The feedlot industry strongly objects to the biofuel industry receiving government support and forcing up the price of grain.

Why does the harvest over here matter over there?

We no longer live where we grow our food. Most of us live in cities, and produce little of our food supply. At a larger scale, many countries do not produce enough of the basic food commodities to feed themselves. The problem is exacerbated by the world-wide exodus from country to city. Half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and in Australia the proportion is even higher. And global growth in urban settlements often consumes productive farmland.

Should we be grain-feeding beef? Neeta Lind

Most of the world population now relies on imports of basic food commodities, even if the import is within a country from the farm to the cities. Food supply in the modern urban world is now more dependent on infrastructure and complex transport and distribution networks. It also makes urban communities vulnerable to fluctuations in market supply and prices.

In wealthy communities, where such a small proportion of income is spent on basic food commodities, this may be a trivial concern. But for many desperate families in developing countries the weekly food bill can make the difference between survival and starvation.

What should Australia do about this?

In 2011, the Australian Prime Minister established the Australian International Food Security Centre. This group seeks to improve agricultural production and improve food security in vulnerable communities. World Vision Australia, a leading NGO, contributes with emergency food aid programs as well programs to lift food production. The Australian Government’s AusAid highlights “food security” as a key global issue. It’s currently funding more than $400 million in aid programs.

We urgently need to prepare for the changing ways the world gets its food. Major food exporting countries such as Australia, the US, Canada, Russia and Brazil have a particularly important role in making sure the global poor can get enough to eat.

Research and development is needed to help the most food insecure communities feed themselves, and to help us feed others.

Our agricultural practices need to carefully respect the condition of Australia’s fragile water and soil: these are the natural resources that the fate of humanity rests upon. Food contamination from industrial pollution, poor waste management and misuse of agricultural chemicals will remain a major hazard, particularly as there is increasing mainstream demand for chemical free organic wheat.

The rest of the world is relying on Australia. When we think about conserving water, protecting soil from salinity or productive farmland from urban growth, we aren’t just thinking about ourselves. We have a responsibility to preserve our agricultural productivity so the rest of the world can eat.