Food bowl rhetoric or reality part 1

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'Food bowl' rhetoric or reality: Part 1

Agribusiness Bulletin

In recent years there has been increasing excitement over the potential for Australia to be the new ‘food bowl’ to Asia. This article series investigates how many people Australia currently feeds and what can be done to feed more.

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Part 1 - How many people can Australia feed?

Recent years has seen increasing excitement over the potential for Australia to be the new ‘food bowl’ to Asia.

But how many people does Australia feed? And what can be done to feed more?

There have been several attempts at calculating the number of people that Australia can feed through its agricultural production. One approach suggests that Australia currently feeds approximately 60-70 million people, based on the top-down logic that says that Australian agriculture currently feeds the domestic population, and we export about two thirds of our production.

Another way of looking at the same question is to consider the average calorie needs of people and how many calories Australia produces, an approach previously undertaken by the Australian Farm Institute. In this article, we undertake a similar exercise using 2012-13 agricultural production data1.  

The exercise shows that, in 2012-13, Australia produced enough calories to feed just over 130 million people. This estimate is derived by calculating the per tonne calorie content of each food commodity, then multiplying this by total Australian production for each commodity, and then dividing it by the annual calorie requirement for each person (i.e. 1.2 million calories per person per year or 3,265 per day). 2012-13 was a year of slightly above average production volumes. In 2011-12 Australia would have fed more than 130 million, but in most years of the millennium drought years it would have fed much less.

3,265 calories is what we do consume, on average. It is not what we should consume. Using a more conservative - and dietary recommended - daily calorie requirement figure of 2,100 calories, the 2012-13 population fed rises to approximately 200 million.

In terms of Australia’s macronutrient balance, approximately 29% of Australian agriculture calories come from proteins, 43% from carbohydrates and 28% from fats. This is broadly consistent with the Dieticians Association of Australia’s Dietary Guidelines. Not only is Australia feeding over 130 million people, it is doing so in a nutritionally ‘balanced’ way.

The calorific content of food varies significantly between commodities. Australia is a major grain producer, which has a high calorific content per hectare feeding one person for every 0.2 hectares under production. This is second only to vegetables, which thanks to the typically intensive input regime only takes 0.1 hectares to feed one person on average. The lowest is meat production (beef and lamb), which requires around six hectares on average of improved pastures to feed one person – even more if unimproved grazing lands or rangelands are included.

Australian production in 2012-13 and people fed (based on 3,265 calorie requirement per day) – select commodities
 

Total production
(000)

Calorie content
(000 calories per tonne or per 1,000 litres)

People fed
(million)

Total hectares 
(million)

Hectares required per person

Milk (‘000 litres)

9,200

676

5.2

2.2

0.4

Cereals (tonnes)

34,678

3,300

96.0

18.4

0.2

Other broadacre crops (tonnes)

7,503

3,700

23.3

10.4

0.4

Meat (beef and lamb) (tonnes)

2,891

2,720

6.6

40.0#

6.1

Vegetables (tonnes)

2,831

505*

1.2

0.1

0.1

Fruit & nuts (tonnes)

3,458

451*

2.3

1.8

0.8

Australian total

 

 

134.7

72.9

 

Source: Deloitte Access Economics calculations based on data from: (a) USDA Agricultural Research Service National Nutrient Database; (b) ABS Agricultural Commodities 2012-13 (cat. no. 7121.0); (c) ABS Meat and Livestock, (cat. no. 7218.0.55.001); (d) Dairy Australia, Dairy Industry in Focus 2014.

*This represents the weighted average of production and calorific content of the sub-commodities of fruit and vegetables
# This represents improved pastures only

How do these figures play out at a sub-national level? NSW feeds the highest number of all States at 54 million, and the lowest is Tasmania at two million. On a calorie per capita basis, South Australia is the highest. At a regional level, the NSW rice and wheat growing region of the Murrumbidgee/Murray/Lachlan feeds around 23 million, and Western Australia’s wheat belt feeding around 21 million3.

So what does this mean for per capita land area requirements for food? For a family of five seeking a tree change move in pursuit of self-sufficiency, around 8.5 hectares will be needed on average across Australia. But, as illustrated below, this land requirement varies greatly throughout Australia, from less than one hectare in fertile areas of the North West of Tasmania, Corangamite in Victoria and the irrigated NSW Murray region, to well over 50 hectares throughout most of the interior.  

This map of people fed by hectare looks different from a map of net primary productivity. Most notable of the differences in the fertile, high rainfall areas of the south east and east, which either produce the low calorie per hectare commodities of livestock, dairy, or premium wine, or they focus more on fibre rather than food (such as cotton, wool or forestry). In general, the broad acre cropping areas produce the highest per hectare calorie production, especially those that also irrigate such as Northern Victoria. 

By providing food for just over 130 million people, Australia supports a population over five times larger than its own. However, in the context of a regional Asian population of approximately 4.5 billion, Australia is a long way off being a ‘food bowl’ to Asia.

So, if Australia isn’t a food bowl, then what can be done to increase calorie production? In forthcoming article, we explore what Australia can do to increase its food production. 

We then go beyond the volumetric metrics discussed here to more fundamentally ask – if Australia isn’t the food bowl to Asia then what is it, and what should future prosperity in Australian agribusiness look like?

Read part two: Can we feed more people?
References

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 71210DO003_201213 Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2012-13
2 Which recommend 15-25% from protein, 45-65% from carbohydrates and 20-35% from fats.
3 This represents the combined amount from Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions of Avon and Northern Agricultural

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