Some market gardens face being squeezed out by land-hungry developers. Flickr/Indigo Skies Photography, CC BY-NC-ND

We need to grow the right food to feed a healthier diet in Australia

Australia is regarded as a food-secure country and this is mostly true for bulk commodities such as dairy, grain and meat, which make up a large part of our diet. But many people are still failing to eat a healthy diet, and to produce enough of the right food for the future we must overcome several challenges.

There is a very important distinction, often overlooked, between food security and nutritional security. Nutritional security requires healthy eating, which incorporates adequate amounts of fruit and vegetables, in addition to animal protein as contained in dietary guidelines.

An extraordinary statistic from the National Heart Foundation is that only around 5.5% of Australians have the recommended daily intake of vegetables.

This figure is astounding and surprising given the clear link between food choices and conditions such as Type II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

The rise in prevalence of Type II diabetes cannot be simply explained by an ageing population. It is also occurring at younger ages and is often associated with childhood obesity. Type II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases make up about A$17 billion of the annual national health bill.

Efforts to encourage increased consumption of vegetables have produced only a 5% annual increase per person on average. Clearly, the community is not hearing or understanding the messages.

The need to eat healthier food

Given the annual health cost of lifestyle-related diseases, there needs to be a rethink on how dietary information is communicated. Possibly more needs to be invested in education.

Persuading people to make a healthier choice. Flickr/Niklas Morberg, CC BY-NC

The statistics make it clear that while Australia may be food-secure for bulk commodities, the nation is a long way from becoming nutritionally secure. The things that matter about nutritional security have somehow become lost in the national discussion on food security, which seems to be largely dominated by sovereignty issues around bulk commodities. These are not in short supply.

Because of the importance of fruit and vegetables in a well-balanced diet we need to highlight the risk to horticulture and what this means for healthy eating, as opposed to bulk eating.

Food needs land and water

Horticulture is the “big sleeper” in the food security debate in Australia. Until alternative forms of horticulture are developed, including hydroponics, horticultural production will continue to depend on high-value agricultural land.

This is land that typically occurs in association with major river systems and artesian basins, or rich coastal plains, such as the Murray-Darling Basin, Bowen Basin, Surat Basin, Gunnedah Basin and Liverpool Plains.

Irrespective of where horticulture occurs in Australia it is under extreme pressure from alternative uses of productive landscapes.

Since settlement, coastal horticultural plains have progressively shrunk and are continuing to shrink because of urban expansion. The figure (below) highlights the ongoing pressure on rich near-urban agricultural land.

Near-urban horticulture (green and blue) with urban expansion shown in white.

The water allocation issues in the Murray-Darling Basin and elsewhere are well documented. Other competing economic demands within high-value agricultural zones include coal, mineral and gas extraction.

Horticultural production relies heavily on fertilisers and there is considerable global pressure on sources and costs of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Horticulture is also reliant on the regular movement of food from farm to point of sale. This makes it highly vulnerable because of Australia’s heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels. An interruption to motor fuel could cause urban shortages of chilled and frozen foods within seven days and dry food within nine days.

Other interests in agricultural land lead to protests such as this over mining proposals in the Gunnedah Basin. Flickr/Kate Ausburn, CC BY

Even with the present low national consumption of fruit and vegetables, Australia is considered a net importer of vegetables when processed food is included.

The latter contributes a significant proportion to vegetable consumption by Australians.

Can we grow all we need?

A national campaign to increase fruit and vegetable consumption would need to seriously consider whether Australia has the capacity (land, water, nutrients, finance) to expand horticultural production on a scale required to meet the increase in demand.

Alternatively, what will be the future balance between domestic horticultural production and imported fruit and vegetables?

It has been suggested that an investment in agriculture of around A$600 billion will be required out to 2050 for Australia to fully realise the opportunity presented by the increase in global demand for food.

Can we grow enough food on our farmland or do we rely on imports? Flickr/Pete Hill, CC BY-NC

It is of interest that the focus of the investment is to produce more food for export. Perhaps this is understandable. Food producers see huge opportunities in global food markets and will make legitimate commercial decisions on where to invest and the markets they target – domestic or international – to maximise their returns.

But given the circumstances of horticulture noted above, industry and government leadership is needed to ensure an appropriate level of investment in horticulture, which would be of true national benefit.

Part of the investment should be in strategic science that leads to major transformations in horticulture. The transformation will likely include controlled environments to prevent the losses incurred in horticulture due to unfavourable weather.

Incremental advances in Australia’s horticulture are unlikely to be sufficient to produce the additional amount of fruit and vegetables required to achieve national nutritional security.