• 10Mar

    The Economist recently published a report that condenses food security issues to a manageable reading size:

    “Not just calories” deals with the question of nutrition vs calories. Is the problem of feeding the world a consequence of our distortion on what a good diet means?

    “The 9 billion-people question” discusses ways to boost yields of the main crops, considers the constraints of land and water and the use of fertiliser and pesticide, assesses biofuel policies, explains why technology matters so much and examines the impact of recent price rises.
    “How much is enough?” discusses the shift of dietary changes towards increasing quantities of meat.

    Other sections include a discussion on the politics of food, the growth of the biofuels industry and its effect in food production, food waste,the feasibility of increasing efficiency in farm production, and others.

    Unfortunately, this 16-page resource is not freely available (however, try this link for a free preview). Highly recommended for those who want a quick run down on the current state of global food security.

  • 14Oct

    Nowhere in the world governments can expect taking “things” away from communities without giving something in return. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

    What “things” are being (or proposed to be) taken away from the Australian agriculture & food industries so far?

    -A reduction in water allocations for irrigators of between 22% and 29%.
    -A reduction of $60 million in rural R&D funding by 2020.
    -Cuts at state level in agriculture research, business support and biosecurity.
    -A reduction in import restrictions of fresh vegetables and fruit, thus forcing the industry to be price competitive with countries that do not face environmental restrictions, or labour scarcity.

    What is being given?

    -A responsibility to farmers in maintaining food security, in a backdrop of water scarcity, declining arable land, declining nutrient inputs, declining agricultural R&D and deteriorating climatic conditions.
    -A disappointing outcome from the Senate inquiry about food production in Australia, which reveals a lack of interest from the government to help food producers.
    -A disconnected view of the food chain, where government attempts to tackle problems such as obesity and health through a Preventative Task Force. Yet issues such as the production of Australian food, prices, accessibility and availability of food are not seen as part of the health equation.
    - A draft report published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) that promotes “environmentally-friendly” diets, based on assumptions as to what exactly these diets encompass and a lack of comprehension as to how farmers are to achieve this ethereal benchmark.
    -Conditions that have led to a slowdown in agricultural growth rate in the past 10 years.

    OK, both lists are incomplete. But I am sure you get the picture.

    As things are,20% of all processed and fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in Australia are imported. About 30% of all seafood is also imported. In 2008-09 our international food trade surplus was $150 million, indicating a shift toward a greater dependency in imports (KPMG, 2009). Imports, particularly with current and proposed Labor policies, are just going to increase in the next years.

    Which brings us to other issue that should have a place in this discussion:food safety.

    While Australia ranked 2nd best in food safety systems in a recent international study, trade partners such as China and Thailand have been highlighted as countries that register high numbers of food safety transgressions (see Nepusz et al, 2009) . Is the Australian food safety system ready for increased imports from high risk countries? Or are we going to learn things in the hard way, as has occurred in the USA?

    And then, we have the impact of carbon footprints on Australian food chains: as we increase our dependency in imports, supply chains will become longer and will require more complex transport networks to arrive to the consumer.

    It is debatable whether carbon footprints will actually increase or decrease in all cases/products, because this issue is not as simple as it seems (i.e. higher food miles do not always mean higher overall environmental impact). But overall, larger amounts of imported foods are likely to increase our food carbon footprints.

    It becomes then a circular argument: the government is trying to decrease water environmental impacts through means that will lead to land environmental impacts. Has any assessment been done on which of these is the greatest evil? I doubt so, as aspects that are also crucially important such as the impacts on the very people that feed Australia were also underestimated in the Plan.

    My recommendation to policy makers? Take a holistic view about food chains, people. All aspects of food production, consumption and trade are connected. Expand your minds, and listen to others. Don’t just look at the results of a computer model and expect that all will be fine because a model says so. In the modellers jargon, if you put crap into a model, you will get crap out.

  • 13Oct

    I recently attended the conference Food, Farming & Health in Warragul, Victoria. The motto of this conference was “ Nurture the land, nourish the people”. It was very appropriate, too. The meeting was an eclectic gathering of about 150 nutritionists, farmers (not many), concerned rural and city consumers (several), non-for-profit organisations working in food distribution and Government organisations involved in education, research and policy making. And of course, consultants such as me, who are working in this emerging and converging area of food systems.

    Some outstanding presentations that set the tone for the conference during the morning sessions were:

    Andrew Campbell: Food, farming and Victoria’s progress to sustainability.
    Veronica Graham: Victoria’s progress to a healthy population.
    Prof. Linda Tapsell: The link between food and human health.
    Kirsten Larsen: Sustainable and secure food systems.
    Sue Brumby: Healthy farm families: helping farming families to make changes for better health.
    Bruce Kefford: Victorian farms and trends in agriculture.

    In the afternoon sessions we had a very dynamic format, with 3 forum sessions and 7 speakers at each session presenting several interesting topics in 5 minutes. A poster-like session followed, where the forum attendees joined the speaker of the session that they were most interested on. My presentation about food distribution systems brought a group of people working in dairy, fruit, research, direct marketing channels grower-consumer and policy, we had a fantastic exchange of ideas. Among the ideas thrown in to further work on the issues raised in regards to food distribution was the organisation of a new conference to deal with this aspect only. The outcomes of each session will be later made public by the organisers. I will let you know when the information is available.

    From these talks and the feedback from the public in the Q&A sessions, a new picture of food production started to emerge. Food security is not only an issue of producing more. Instead it is a multifaceted concept that includes producing nutritionally wholesome foods, ensuring that the workforce behind this production is sustainable, encouraging distribution formats that decrease its vulnerability to extreme events while decreasing carbon footprints, increase the engagement between rural farmers and city consumers and increase the availability of quality foods to all Australians.

    All these attributes are easily said that done. For example, we know of the emerging health gap between farmers and city folks. A male farmer is likely to have six years less to live than a male living in the city. Stress levels can also damage a farmer’s health (think about drought, operations costs and the consequences in the family farm). Yet, small rural towns find it hard to attract doctors and the necessary health infrastructure to provide adequate levels of health care. In the past two conferences I have attended, I heard a few cases of people migrating from the city to rural towns, only to find out that they could not access medical services when they needed them. This reason alone was sufficient for many of them to go back to the cities.

    More than 50% of the human population lives now in urban areas. In Australia, 89% of the population lives in cities. Yet, the national food system depends a great deal in farm productivity (we import a very small quantity of food but the volumes are increasing). Over 20% of the total workforce in manufacturing is employed in food and drinks manufacturing and the system depends on Australian farmers. So we better ensure that they have the right environment and support to work and grow their businesses.

    Further, we live in an age of consumer awakening. As consumers, we have grown tired of the deceptive promises of ‘empty’ foods claimed to be nutritionally sound. We can see through the ‘let the market sort itself out’ statement as a way to avoid the hard decisions and cracking on unfair trading practices. In fact, we have lived through a financial downturn that was created by this very phrase. We have seen the detrimental effect of unchecked use of energy, chemicals, water, packaging on the very food system that uses these inputs. We are yet to fully grasp the magnitude in which us, Australian consumers, waste food and other resources. But we will get there.

    All these fundamental changes in consumer attitudes herald a new era in the way we produce and eat food. Conferences such as the Warragul Food, Farming & Health forum are no longer the territory of scientists and researchers. Consumers and farmers are now present, voicing their disappointment on current food systems and proposing novel ways to nourish (as distinct to ‘feed’ ) the population. I sure hope that those key players in the food system are listening…


  • 30Sep

    After posting my note yesterday about the need of having a national agenda for the food industry, it was refreshing to hear that at least one Government agency is concerned about food security. The CSIRO has indeed stepped up to the challenge of ensuring that at least part of the resources to this agency are channeled to food security.

    In her address to the NPC today, Dr Megan Clark talked about the key role that Australia could play in food production and manufacturing. Australia trades 3 times the food volume required by its current population and many products go to countries that already face limitations on the amount of food that they can produce (e.g. Asia).

    An interesting piece of information shared by Dr Clark was that in the next fifty years, the world’s food needs would equal the food production that has been grown, milked, or harvested in the entire human history.

    Given that there is no known technology that can double the quantity of the arable land available for food production, we have to look at other, more innovative alternatives. Examples include:

    -Genetic engineering to develop agricultural crops that can adapt to the expected climate changes and product quality traits that overcome quality issues arising due to climate change.

    -Development of fertilisation technologies and products that lead to decreased use of fertilisers without affecting the output. Preferably, new fertilisers should be less dependant in fossil fuels.

    -Better irrigation systems that decrease both water use and the energy required for irrigation.

    -Decrease food wastage along the chain and find alternative uses for re-utilisation of food waste. Food waste from households, commercial and industrial sources comprises between 10% and 15% of the 20 million tonnes of waste that ends in landfill in Australia each year [1] [2]. The current recycling rate for food waste is only 10%.

    -Improve supply chain efficiencies by adopting innovative distribution systems, sharing of infrastructure, network re-design and the introduction of telematics and computer vehicle routing.

    -Invest in water “harvesting” technologies. See example of the Seawater Greenhouse below.

    -Introduce renewable energy technology in the agri-food sector.

    -Improving glasshouse (protected) production to decrease the energetic needs of these operations and make use of renewable energy sources.

    How innovation can change the way we produce food

    Take as an example the Seawater Greenhouse concept: it uses seawater to cool and humidify the air of a greenhouse and sunlight to distil fresh water from seawater.

    The greenhouse is driven by solar and wind energy. Sunlight is separated into (a) visible light, which passes through the roof and drives photosynthesis;and (b) infrared light, which helps to convert seawater into water vapour.

    The structure itself acts as a ‘wind-catcher’, facing into the prevailing daytime wind to assist ventilation. Fans are required under most conditions. The wind-fan combination moves air through the front evaporator and chills the sea water, which then provides cooling for the rear condenser. The condenser in turn generates fresh water.

    The overall process is extremely energy efficient. For example, 1 kW of electricity expended on pumping will remove 500 kW of heat. Water can be produced at low energy costs (<3 kWh/cu m).

    The development of each greenhouse of this type requires a heavy use of computational fluid dynamics modelling, because the balance of components to get the required rate of humidity, energy and wind varies depending on the climate of each site. Projects of this type have been completed in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Tenerife (Spain).

    The Seawater Greenhouse is an alternative for sustainable provision of water for agriculture in arid, coastal regions. It presents interesting possibilities for Western Australia, which has the longest coastline of any state. However, some inland regions below the sea level could be potentially used. Inland areas present lower relative humidity, which leads to greater potential for water extraction. We have been told that Seawater Greenhouse Ltd has now selected a site in which they will showcase the first Australian Seawater Greenhouse.

    PS. Thanks to Gerry McEvilly for alerting me to the Seawater Greenhouse technology.

    [1] Oke, M., et al., Waste and recycling in Australia. 2008, Hyder Consulting. A Report Prepared for the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts p. 1-141.
    [2] Morgan, E., Fruit and vegetable consumption and waste in Australia, VicHealth, Editor. 2008. p. 1-54.

  • 01Jul

    The International Institute of Refrigeration released a paper discussing the role of refrigeration in food safety and security.The statistics presented are of interest to all those concerned about food security. Given the nature of statistics, different sources present slightly different estimates. For example:

    -The world’s population is currently 6.77 billion people. The IIR paper says that by 2050 the world’s population is likely to reach 9.15 billion, but other reputable sources indicate that the population may be as low as 7.4 billion or as high as 10.6 billion, with the average being 8.9 billion.

    -According to FAO, one sixth of the world’s population (or about 1 billion) is currently undernourished. The IIR paper presents a slightly more optimistic view. In either case, we are already late to reach the goal of reducing by half the number of undernourished people by2015,set in the World Food Summit in 1996.

    -Food losses are estimated to range from 10 to 28% worldwide. In particular, losses of fruit and vegetables are placed between 15% and 40%. However, an ACIAR project on shelf-life extension for leafy greens in China measured losses for these products, showing that in some cases losses can exceed 50%. The extent of losses was mostly related to transportation distances from farm to market, seasonality, handling and storage practices.

    The consumer link is not tackled in the IIR paper. Yet, losses in the consumer side are likely to be much higher than those occurring during the commercial supply chain. For example, available Australian figures suggest that food wastage at households ranges between 20-25%, mainly due to poor purchasing and storage practices (Hamilton, C., Denniss, R., and Baker, D. Wasteful consumption in Australia. Discussion Paper Number 77. March 05. The Australia Institute). In comparison, average losses from farm to retail in developing countries are about 10%.

    The IIR figures indicate that about 360 million tonnes of food are lost annually due to insufficient refrigeration worldwide. It is tempting to assume that this is a problem in developing countries only. However, the refrigerated capacity in Australia seems to be insufficient to cater for primary producers in some regions. Lack of precooling facilities was an issue raised in the study: Northern Territory Tropical Fruits Industry –Market Opportunities (Hudson Howells report to RIRDC, July 2004). Similarly, shortages of refrigeration trucks in peak harvest season have been reported in recent years.

    The IIR makes a strong point: food security requires a holistic solution encompassing the production of foods and the reduction of post-harvest losses across the supply chain, right through to the consumer. Gone are the days where food security meant increasing production and ignoring the distribution and use of foods.

    The entire IIR paper can be found here.