Feeding vs housing the world. No right or wrong choices

In our endeavour to share the great stories of agriculture with as many young people as possible through the Archibull Prize we give as many points in the competition for the multimedia elements as we do for the artwork on the students Archie

One of the key multimedia elements is the blog. In this element the students are asked to produce a weekly web blog which documents the journey of their artwork and their learnings. As part of the program there are a number of compulsory blogs posts.

One of these blogs asks students to reflect on the challenges of feeding, clothing and housing the world and getting the balance right.

This is a big gig and is only going to get bigger in their lifetimes and they have some tough decisions to make. What they will find is there will be no right or wrong choices, just the best choice at that time.

As always we want to know what everyone thinks before they start the program. Lets have a look.

We asked both the primary school students (blue) and the secondary school students (red) what land use they thought was the most important. They had to choose between mining, housing, natural parks and food OR all of them

Which land use is most important

Do you find it fascinating the students think its more important to have more land put aside to look after our native flora and fauna than it is to house people?

But in the main most people thought all of them were equally important. So how do you get a balance and what challenges do our farmers face to feed and clothe people and compete with land for mining, natural parks and housing

Just a few challenges I can think of

  • Growing population – Increasing demand for food
  • Urbanization
  • Globalization
  • Changing patterns of consumption
  • Regulations & market conditions (local / national / international)
  • Limited natural resources land, water, biodiversity, soil, energy
  • Climate change & environmental impact
  • Bio-energy
  • Health & wellness
  • Food safety & emerging pathogens and pests
  • Public acceptance of modern farming practices

Its too big of a wicked problem for me so I am going to defer to some expert opinion I came across recently  in The Conversation

Firstly this article ‘Growing out versus filling in: how about we all grow up?’

A number of issues raised in the article resonated with me

The enduring nature of the debate suggests that we’ve reached a stalemate that is unlikely to be broken by proponents of either side simply shouting louder.

This is not a simple black and white argument, and there are often unacknowledged trade-offs that arise when one stance is pitched against the other.

Food production

Concern about the loss of traditional farmland for urban development has been growing in recent times in Australia. Media and academia alike have warned of a threat to food security as cities rely increasingly on mass-produced agricultural products from distant Australian and international producers. Concern over food miles has led many commentators to call for greater protection of peri-urban agricultural land.

Simultaneously there are calls for the growth of urban agriculture. Food produced within the urban matrix can occur in high density urban contexts, but it’s perhaps most effective in low-density suburban areas where backyards offer ample space. Designing cities to maximise urban agriculture may therefore have the perverse outcome of the expansion of city boundaries into traditional farmland.

Human health and well-being

The recent focus on neighbourhood design and its role in supporting health and well-being has also made its way into the debate about density. For example, low density arrangements usually provide better access to nature through the greater availability of (public and private) green space. Green space is important for exercise and social interaction, while contact with nature more broadly can improve mental well-being and provide psychological restoration.

However, due to their distance from the city centre, low density suburbs can be isolating. They often lack services and involve long commuting times; all of which have negative impacts on health (for example increasing sedentary behaviour). Although high density neighbourhoods can address many of these issues, they also have their own problems: noise and air pollution, traffic congestion, fear of crime and a deficit of green open space. In short, there is no right or wrong answer, since different aspects of health and well-being are accommodated more easily by high and low density urban arrangements.

Biodiversity conservation

As cities expand into the surrounding peri-urban landscape, swathes of native vegetation can been lost. Green open spaces such as parks, reserves, and riparian corridors and gardens are key to promoting biodiversity within cities. Promoting these spaces in urban planning may lead to a larger urban footprint and thus have both positive and negative impacts on biodiversity.

Energy efficiency

Cities with low density housing and high levels of car dependency are criticised for being energy intensive. Arguments are therefore often made for cities to be as compact as possible.

Maximising public transport connectivity and minimising commuting time are important. However, the energy consumed by a city is far more complex than whether it is characterised by high or low density urban form.

The design of suburbs, efficiency of building stocks, use of appliances and technologies, and how the daily lives of citizens are organised also play a significant role. Therefore, increasing density alone does not guarantee improved energy efficiency.

Then there is this thought provoking article The future of rural enterprises in the global food chain of which as few snapshots appear below.

The state of agricultural business in Australia

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that there are around 137,447 agricultural businesses operating across Australia. Over the past decade their numbers have decreased by about 3.5% and there has been a decline of around 10% during the same period in the amount of arable land used for farming. For example, in 2001 Australia had some 456 million hectares of land committed to farming, but by 2011 this had fallen to 410 million hectares.

Despite these falls in the number of farms and the amount of land used for farming, the overall productivity of Australia’s farmers has increased substantially. The amount of land used for crops has grown by 31% despite the reduction in overall land used, and the gross value added from agriculture has risen by about 34% since 2001. These trends can be illustrated in the following graph.

Trends in Australian agricultural businesses ABS 2012

This suggests a trend in which the number of farms operating across Australia has shrunk but those that remain have become more productive. These trends are likely to continue well into the future, but there are some serious challenges facing the nation’s farmers that deserve greater attention from our political leaders.

It was part of the discussions that took place on 10 April at a “Food 2050” symposium held in Perth by the UWA Institute of Agriculture. This drew together a cross-section of experts in a range of fields who examined the challenges facing farming communities and the longer term security of our food production system. My task was to address the issue of the state of rural enterprises and this article is based on the speech that I gave there.

The “farm problem”

The problem is caused by the interplay between rising agricultural productivity and the inelastic nature of food demand.

This has led to continual decreases in real farm prices and decreasing returns to farmers. Increasing competition in the food market has meant that any efficiency gains made by producers within their farm businesses are actually captured more by the consumer than the producer.

To counter this trend farm enterprises have sought to expand their area of production, develop new or additional crops or pastures, or grow large via the amalgamation of farms. This has led to the “get big or get out” mindset that has occurred across many of our rural areas in past decades.

However, many farmers lack the financial capacity or the opportunity to expand their business operations. This will result in a few much larger farms and the smaller farms that still exist will generate only minimal income.

Current state of the global food system

To understand the forces that are impacting on our rural enterprises it is important to take a look at the current state of the global food system. Despite farmers experiencing difficulties with farm gate prices the actual price of food rose significantly over recent years. The diagram below shows the Food Price Index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which illustrates the trend.

Food Price Index UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2013)

Another problem is the productivity within agriculture at a global level. Many rural producers around the world are undercapitalised and lack the land or technology to significantly enhance their efficiencies. The food to people ratio of productivity is estimated to need to rise by 70% over the next 40 years if food production is to match supply.

However, there is a lot of wastage. For example, the UN FAO estimates that as much as 1.3 billion tons of food is lost between the field and the table each year due to poor logistics management and storage.

Maintaining sustainability of the food system

There are a number of forces likely to shape the global demand and supply of food over the next 40 years. The first of the factors driving demand is the rising population levels around the world.

By 2050 the world’s population (currently just below 7 billion) will rise to over 9 billion people. China will be expected to see its population peak around 2030, but India’s population will keep growing and the population of Africa is expected to double. For countries across Europe and for Japan the outlook is for population decline.

The rise in population will not only see a demand for more food, but there will be a growing demand for more luxury foods such as meat and dairy, and for foods to be supplied out of season via global supply chains.

The growing population will increasingly live in major cities and there will be a growth in supermarket and fast food retailing operations. In short, people will be wealthier and they will want more processed food, and exotic foods with a change in diets from primarily vegetarian to more meat and protein foods.

The ability for rural producers to meet this rising demand will depend on a range of factors of which one of the most important is the ability of farmers to keep increasing crop yields. Over the past 50 years there has been a dramatic increase in crop yields; however the rate of such increases has slowed each decade.

Our farmers’ capacity to produce more food by 2050 is likely to be dependent on R&D that can result in breakthroughs in technologies and farming practice. This will require the adoption of new animal breeding and husbandry techniques plus new varieties of crops.

Working against this rise in primary production is the impact of climate change and concerns over food safety and ethics. For example, climate change is already impacting on weather patterns generating floods or drought and while scientists continue to debate the nature of this impact, there are already signs of climate change negatively affecting already fragile river systems and associated fish stocks.

In the oceans the supply of fish is also under pressure. There has been a growth in the past 50 years in the world’s fishing fleets and over the past 40 years this fleet has increased sixfold. However, most of the world’s fish stocks are now harvested to full capacity or over exploited and fish harvests are either static or declining.

In many regions there is a decline in soil productivity and the clearing of new farmland is fraught with environmental concerns due to the impact this has on carbon emissions. For example, it is estimated that on average the clearing of land for farming leads to net CO² emissions that are 6 times greater than those generated by other forms of land use.

Overcoming the climate change sceptics

Yet many primary producers are resistant to the challenges of climate change. In a study of Australia’s Farming Future the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, surveyed 1,000 farmers in relation to their attitudes towards climate change. They also surveyed 1,000 people from urban areas.

While 58% of the urban population believed climate change was real and caused by human activity, only 26% of primary producers held this view. As illustrated in the following diagram these farmer groups were segmented into different types of sceptic. Some were sceptical but had been hit by drought and therefore were prepared to start taking action. Others were sceptical and had not yet felt any environmental impacts so they felt no need to take action.

Primary producer segments in relation to climate change Donelley, Mercer, Dickson and Wu (2009)

The ‘strugglers’ were not only sceptical but had no resources to apply to any remedial action. Even those who accepted climate change science were of the view that government assistance was required to allow them to take action.

These attitudes amongst rural producers are important as they will determine how readily many farmers adopt more sustainable farming practices, reduce new land clearing and introduce programs such as enhanced biodiversity of cropping, interlocking crop cycles, dense polycultures, biochar and carbon management.

Consumer Confidence

Feeding into this mix will be market based pressures over food safety and the ethical treatment of animals. Consumers are increasingly concerned over use of genetic modification in foods and the safety of foods. The complex nature of food supply chains makes it more likely that accidents will occur.

They also result in government regulators and major food retailing groups imposing more stringent food safety codes of practice. These factors impact on rural producers by forcing up the cost of food production and supply.

Supply chain funnel in the agrifood sector

One of the problems facing agricultural producers is the “supply chain funnel” that has emerged in the agrifood sector. As shown in the diagram below there is a “choke point” in the area of buying desks that are increasingly no longer in farmer or government control.

Supply chain funnel in the Agrifood sector Gereffi and Lee (2012)

The diagram comes from a study by Gary Gereffi and Joonkoo Lee from Duke University in a paper published in 2012 in the Journal of Supply Chain Management on the state of global supply chains. The model is from the European Union (EU), but it shows a trend that is found increasingly around the world.

The power of global buyers has also been enhanced by the concentration of ownership into fewer large retailing businesses. These firms and large global buyers now dictate quality and the timing and price of food from producers.

Major retailers and buyers will demand more quality and stricter controls over food safety issues. Some will work with small groups of selected, often large scale producers, to supply produce at pre-determined levels of quality, price and delivery times. Many smaller farmers will not meet the necessary standards.

Where to from here?

So in conclusion there are at least four major trends that are likely to impact on rural enterprises in the food sector over the next 40 years:

The first of these will be the mounting pressure on primary producers over food safety and also the need to supply more diverse, wholesome and “authentic” food. This will require producers to innovate and find ways to market their products differently to reflect value adding.

The second major impact with be that of climate change. In order to deal with a changing and uncertain climate there will be a need for more biodiversity of cropping and animal husbandry to avoid mono cultures that are less resilient to climatic change. This may see the emergence of regional brands with shorter food supply chains to local markets focusing on healthy, wholesome foods.

The third trend relates to the need for rural communities to collaborate for their own self-interest. There is the need to enhance their bargaining power against the concentration of increasingly global buying and distribution organisations. Such supply chain structures leave the farmer with a “price taker” role regardless of their attempts to enhance farm level productivity.

A final trend is the need for enhanced innovation in farming and land use practices as well as waste disposal methods. Farmers will need to move to more flexible land use, adaptive cropping methods and carbon capture and management processes. This will be assisted by use of information management tools to aid in farm business modelling and the monitoring of markets.

In summary the pattern that emerges is one of a globally competitive market with a highly concentrated buyer and retailing channels. Producers will need to get larger, find niches or cooperate. Future sustainability and productivity in the face of climate change, water scarcity and food safety concerns will pose significant challenges.

Perhaps this is part of the solution


Links to The Conversation articles



Revolutionising the Urban Farm


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