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Food for Thought: A Thought for Food

By Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme

For two centuries, Australians have coped with the challenge of producing food on a continent where 70 per cent of its surface is at best semi-arid.

The legendary Australian ingenuity has met this challenge through a combination of innovation, determination and world-class science. By harnessing the country's river systems and deploying a range of fertilizers and chemicals, Australians have enjoyed bountiful supplies of meat, grains, vegetables and dairy products that in many developing countries with similar climates and conditions are so often in short, life-threatening supply.

Australia's governments and citizens however know that this bounty has come at an increasing environmental cost. Even with innovative schemes such as LandCare, Australia's farmers, politicians and citizens are facing new and confronting challenges, not the least of which is climate change that may decrease rainfall in critical food growing regions such as the already stressed Murray-Darling Basin.

Australians are not alone.

The world's newspapers are currently heavy with grim headlines of food riots, food shortages, and the escalating prices facing families across the globe. Various causes have been cited, including food stockpiling, commodity speculation, and the current theory that production of energy crops for conversion to biofuels is linked to the decline in food production in some parts of the world.

These are simplistic and perhaps short-sighted scapegoats - convenient distractions for what is so often in reality poor management at national and international levels. They do, however, point to the inescapable fact that food security is intimately linked to national and international security.

A point recognized by Prime Minister Rudd in putting world food security on the 2020 Summit along with climate change and his call to "shake some new ideas loose from the tree".

Eventually this current food shock will fade from the front pages like the oil shocks of the 1970s. Just like those shocks, however, this will be only a temporary respite unless we tackle the fundamental issues of food production and supply, ranging from a distorted trade regime to feeding a population that is set to mushroom from over 7 to over 9 billion by mid-century.

The business-as-usual temptation might be to clear more forests, drain more wetlands, and dam or divert more river systems, while pouring even greater quantities of fertilizer and pesticides on already chemically saturated soils. This approach is likely to prove an environmental dead end, and a market failure of enormous and far reaching consequences.

We are now pushing—if not pushing past-the very limits for many of our economically important ecosystems that support pollinating insects, keep soils fertile, and replenish the water supplies that make agriculture possible. That's the conclusion of scientists from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, the UNEP Global Environment Outlook-4 published last year, and the UN and World Bank International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology released last week.

Add to this environmental stress the likely impacts of climate change, and the future is sobering indeed. With more than six years of persistent drought in many regions, Australia has already experienced the bitter taste of likely future impacts from climate change.

We need to do business on planet Earth differently – a 'business un-usual' approach that unleashes a wave of creativity and intelligent management reflecting the realities and knowledge of the 21st century.

Australia has an extraordinary opportunity. If the country can accelerate investment in its world-class scientific research base, including sustainable dry-land farming, it could not only contribute to solving current and future food crises, but also become a global agriculture leader prospering in a carbon constrained world.

Innovation and a 'greening' of the global economy are emerging on several fronts including a multi-billion dollar boom in renewable energy development; the growing carbon markets and the trillions now under responsible investment policies

Australia can and must be part of this transformation so urgently needed to achieve greater resource efficiency, cut greenhouse gas emissions and realize a post 2012 climate convention deal.

However, somewhere some country is also going to rise to the opportunity of developing true 21st century agriculture—agriculture that fully reflects the need to conserve rather than run down the natural life-support systems of the planet; that will feed three billion extra mouths and that is adapted to a globally warmed world.

In doing so that country will lead the way in generating sustainable and profitable farming that generates food security at home and new export markets in agricultural science and skills abroad.

That country will also be a beacon of hope and help to the less well off in the even more vulnerable arid economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Why not Australia?

Copyright 2008, United Nations Environment Programme

A Landcare group in Australia planting eucalyptus trees to control groundwater



Further Resources

UNEP Global Environment Outlook-4

Agriculture - The Need for Change
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (Press Release 15/04/08)

LandCare Australia

Climate Neutral Network - CN Net

UNEP Year Book 2008

UNEP Resources on Climate Change

World Environment Day (WED) 2008


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