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We have plenty of resources that could stop us falling off the edge. Chris Philavanh

Can we resolve the ‘peak everything’ problem?

With world population exceeding seven billion, there is renewed interest in the limits to growth concept first articulated by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. How can a growing population with growing affluence sustain itself on a finite planet without wreaking havoc on nature and civilisation?

The potential for major economic and political shocks from the world’s energy, food, and water systems, with their vulnerability to climate change, is concentrating attention on food, water and energy security and their interdependence.

Is it reasonable to assume that the human population is on an inevitable and catastrophic collision course with the planet? Or will human ingenuity and innovation inspire successful adaptations that achieve an historic decoupling between economic growth and the depletion and degradation of natural resources?

Rather than rehashing a polarised debate between Malthusian determinists and technological optimists, we’d rather focus on what’s not “peak” and how we can make better use of resources that are abundant. These abundant resources include human creativity and capacity, global genetic resources, design solutions at all scales, and technological, policy and institutional innovations.

Human creativity and capacity

Problems created by humans are, by definition, amenable to human solutions.

People, their creativity and intellectual capacity, are among the most abundant resources on the planet. In the latter part of the 20th century, high population countries, including China and India, succeeded in bringing many of their people out of grinding poverty. Much of this population is young and increasingly well educated, with huge potential to contribute to global solutions. Unleashing this potential and using it to work out how to live within planetary means will be a major challenge of this century.

An ambitious, cooperative global innovation program focused on addressing the converging insecurities of food, energy and water could mobilise this potential. The world needs a 21st century “greener green revolution” that mobilises international global cooperation in developing integrated solutions to human energy, water and urban systems.

Global genetic resources

The FAO estimates that more than 10,000 species of plants have been used by humans for food since agriculture started approximately 10,000 years ago, of which a much smaller number have been domesticated.

Today, we rely on a handful of species for human food. The FAO states that just 12 crops provide 80% of food energy. Of these, just four (wheat, rice, maize and potato) provide 60% of global food energy.

Four crops make up 60% of the energy we get from food: it’s time to diversify. Howard Rawson

Yet the world is a treasure trove of genetic resources. Estimates of plant species used for wild harvests for food, fibre and medicines can exceed 40,000. Humanity now has unprecedented capabilities to systematically research the potential for new and improved economic crops drawn from the world’s genetic cornucopia.

This does not necessarily mean genetic modification to develop new crops. There are significant opportunities through traditional selection and plant breeding, and broadening the genetic basis of agriculture.

For example, Australia has over 1,000 species of eucalypts and approximately 1,500 species of acacia. These and other distinctive genera are yet to be systematically profiled, selected or bred for wood, tannins or nutrient-rich seed production. On the authors’ farms in Victoria, we have planted over 100 species of trees that produce food, fibre, fuel and fodder from temperate zones across the world.

A 21st century “greener revolution” would also focus on energy and biodiversity conservation, community economic development, improving nutrition and building local resilience and sustainability. Urban farms are one expression of the burgeoning interest in local and diverse food systems.

Design solutions – from agro-ecosystems to global institutions

Australia has already made significant contributions to global thinking on future agricultural systems through pioneering concepts such as Keyline, Permaculture and Landcare, which has now been taken up in more than 20 countries.

Integrating multiple complementary components to create systems that work is a generic design challenge. We see it at scales from households and village production systems through to the design of global institutions. Through good design, we can bring discrete elements together into systems that work more efficiently and effectively, hopefully resolving “peak everything” dilemmas.

For example, the same materials can be used to build energy-efficient, passive solar houses and offices, or poorly-oriented McMansions and “sick buildings”, hot in summer and cold in winter, requiring expensive, energy-intensive heating and cooling for the life of the building.

We need to step out of our silos. Michele Massetani

The best new systems of irrigated dairy farming use one-third as much water without compromising yields and profits. But such radical improvements require a redesign approach, reassessing the plant production system and matching a new one to the climate and conditions.

Technological, policy and institutional innovations

At a workshop in Thailand on water governance among the six countries that share the Mekong River, a local water official defined governance as “how society shares power, benefit and risk”.

Rethinking governance and innovation systems so that they can deliver large-scale, resilient solutions requires wide-ranging reform. This includes the way R&D is funded, delivered and evaluated.

Agriculture, like other sectors, needs to decouple production from energy and resource use and pollution intensity. Moreover, because biodiversity conservation, water and land use, energy production, carbon intensity, disaster management and global food supplies are all intimately linked, the 21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues.

For example, this means a much more integrated approach to land use planning, involving all tiers of government working together, with industry and the community. It may sound tedious and expensive, but the alternatives — staying in our silos, then wringing our hands after big shocks — are much worse.

Our innovation system (R&D, extension and education) needs to drive the rapid development of globally relevant solutions: scalable, integrated and appropriate to the constraints of a finite world.

Currently, our rural research is organised and funded around agricultural commodities: meat, wool, grains, cotton, dairy, sugar and so on. This worked well in the 20th Century, but as the Productivity Commission found, we now need much more effective cross-commodity mechanisms that redress the Rudd Government’s strategic blunder in abolishing Land & Water Australia in 2009.

As proposed recently by the Chief Scientist, Australia can play an important role in global R&D on sustainable land and water management, and innovative food systems that increase energy and water productivity while conserving biodiversity and restoring degraded landscapes.

Our most valuable export commodity, and our most renewable resource, is between our ears.

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