'Food bowl' rhetoric or reality: Part 2
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. This is part two.
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Part 2 - Can we feed more people?
In the previous article How many people can Australia feed? the Australia as a ‘food bowl’ to Asia claim was exposed as rhetoric. Here we explore the questions - if Australia isn’t a food bowl, then can it be, and what can be done to increase the calorific volume of production from Australian agriculture and thereby feed more.
There are a number of changes that Australia could make to feed more.
One option is to shift land use to food away from other land use uses. Yet, this comes at a high opportunity cost for those other land uses, such as fibre, biofuel, energy, urban development or environmental services.
Another option is to ‘shift’ food production to more of the higher calorie and nutrient dense foods per hectare, such as vegetables and grain. Yet, growing more vegetables is not always economically viable or even possible. Vegetables are typically grown on some of the most fertile soils in Australia, under the most intensive input regimes close to the population centres. Therefore, large-scale conventional vegetable production is somewhat ‘limited’ in its expansion possibilities. There are more options to expand broad acre cropping, especially with new crop varieties and technological advances.
The option to shift land use is generally accompanied by a recommendation to produce less meat. The argument is that, because there is an efficiency loss when plant material is fed to animals and then we consume the animal product, it would be more efficient for people to eat the plant material directly.
However, this ignores many ways that livestock production can be complementary to cropping, rather than at the expense of it. Grazing can occur on land that is not suitable for other crops, such as the rangelands of Northern Australia. Furthermore grazing livestock can occur in agricultural systems in a way that doesn’t undermine cropping output – such as part of a fallow phase of land use rotation, grazing of crops that have failed because of seasonal conditions, animal consumption of grains or plants that are not fit for human consumption, grazing crop stubble after crop harvest, or grazing of pastures between crops such as fruit trees. Low intensity grazing can also co-exist with some environmental services from land, unlike the typically monoculture regimes of broad acre cropping. Even some of the energy seemingly wasted when livestock consume food is not necessarily wasted to food production. Livestock manure is a rich fertiliser growing in its importance in crop production.
To feed more people in a world of fixed land supply, it is also possible to increase inputs like fertiliser, labour and technology, including precision agriculture. Particular hope is also held for new crop and pasture breeds, including from genetic modification – through traits such as higher yields, lower costs or greater tolerance of environmental constraints like salinity, pests, drought or lack of nutrients. These not only increase production per unit area, but can also increase the land area for agriculture. Even small changes in yields or costs in Australia can have big implications for the land area that is viable for cropping or improved pastures, because of the amount of land we have that is otherwise marginal.
However, increasing inputs can only go so far, before production faces constraints of inputs that can’t be increased. For much of Australia, the main constraint is water availability.
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. It will likely never be.
Ultimately Australia could feed more people than it does today. However the methods to achieve this appear to lie in achieving greater input efficiency and technology adoption, rather than drastically shifting production or eating less meat.
So, if Australia isn’t a food bowl to Asia, then what are we? In a future article we explore the role Australia does, and should, play in global agribusiness markets.