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  . 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.
 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.
 Morgan, E., Fruit and vegetable consumption and waste in Australia, VicHealth, Editor. 2008. p. 1-54.