Global Food Security: Feeding Another Three Billion People — Critical for the World, Critical for Australia

29 September 2011

A hallmark of foreign policy is to look beyond the horizon to analyse the new great global challenges facing us in the future.

Today I want to talk to you about one such challenge — food security, which now finds itself at the forefront of the global policy agenda.

Population growth means that by 2050 the world will need to feed approximately 9 billion people, over 2 billion more than today when we already have 1 billion people suffering chronic hunger.

This means by 2050, to eliminate food insecurity we need to adequately feed 3 billion more people than we do today.

This is a massive challenge which will only be complicated by the contraction of arable agricultural land in many countries because of the impacts of urbanisation, environmental degradation and climate change.

The solution to the challenge of food insecurity in the 21st century will be multifaceted.

Improving agricultural productivity is one of the fundamental building blocks of the response.

So too is the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices — what this conference calls 'Conservation Agriculture'.

So too is the opening of global agricultural markets to provide long-term price incentives to encourage expanded production in developing countries — as well as the necessary investments in rural infrastructure to get product effectively to markets at home and abroad.

Australia intends to be a core player in these global efforts.

As a member of APEC, the EAS, the WTO, the G20, the Commonwealth and all the principal agencies of the UN, Australia will seek to use its role in international bodies to develop a global response to food security.

We also need to address the past failings of the Food and Agriculture Organisation so that it is fully integrated and fully effective in supporting this great global challenge of developing sustainable agriculture.

Australia — the 13th largest economy in the world and the fourth largest in Asia after China, Japan and India — is a middle power with global interests.

As such we intend to be a significant part of the global response to this great challenge of our century.

We should not underestimate the challenge of food security.

To feed 9.3 billion people by the middle of this century, we will need to raise global food production by around 70 per cent.

The irony is that the majority of people currently suffering chronic hunger are the rural poor who work in agriculture — working in the fields, transporting crops, looking after animals or catching fish.

A food-secure world requires that those currently living in rural poverty become able to produce agricultural surpluses, allowing them to sell the excess for income, to invest in better agricultural practices and to insure against the bad seasons that from time to time will inevitably come.

This income derived from surplus is also essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The most food insecure in this world are also the victims of floods, droughts and other natural disasters as well as armed conflicts.

Another key group of people we need to focus on in the context of food security are the urban poor, who produce little food and often lack the means to buy all they need.

At the beginning of this century, around 2 billion people lived in cities.

By 2030, this figure will have doubled and much of this growth will take place in the developing world as people move from rural to urban areas.

For the first time in humanity, more than half the world's population now live in cities.

This is a global development of historic proportions with unprecedented implications for demands for food and resources as well as the new demands it places on the planet.

Already the developing world represents 95 per cent of global population growth. And if this rate continues, by the middle of this century 86 per cent of the world's population will, in fact, live in developing regions.1

Significantly, the population of the 50 most underdeveloped countries today are set to more than double, from 0.8 billion in 2005 to 1.7 billion in 2050.2

Coupled with this rapid explosion in population in rural and urban areas, is a new and rising threat to food security — that is, climate change.

Predicted global temperature rises, and the increased threat of natural disasters and environmental pressures more broadly will have a huge impact on global food production and food distribution. And we've already seen that no country or region is immune.

Last year alone, we saw a severe heat wave and drought in the region of the Black Sea which reduced grain output in Russia and Ukraine, as well as serious floods in Pakistan and China which hugely affected crops and livestock production in those countries.

This year's devastating floods in Queensland showed Australia will not be invulnerable to this threat, proving again how nature can be hugely disruptive to a country's food production and its national economy.

Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of temperature rises between 1.8 and 4 degrees Celsius by the end of 21st century would be significantly detrimental to agricultural yields in seasonally dry regions of the world.

And modelling by the International Food Policy Research Institute, a key member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), suggests that even a sustained increase in temperature of 1 degree in the next 4 decades could cause grain prices to rise between 30 to 100 per cent from current levels.

Failing to address the challenge of food insecurity will also have political, social and broader security repercussions.

It has the potential to precipitate conflict over arable land and broader food resources and security.

It has the potential to destabilise governments.

And it has the potential to cause large, chaotic movements of people across the world as environmental refugees.

There have been many instances throughout history where food security has been a key factor in protests, social disruption and revolution.

For example, the great potato famine in Ireland caused the deaths of an estimated 1 million people between 1846 and 1851, with around 2 million people emigrating around the same period.

The 2007-08 global food price spike caused economic social and political disruption for many developing countries.

Recently, when the first protests erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, shortages in the global supply of wheat caused the price of bread in these countries to rise by 30 per cent in a year.

In dealing with the global challenge of food security, governments also need to be mindful of the wider set of political, economic and environmental implications of their actions (or inactions) for the future.

Therefore, the debate about food security should not be at the margins of the global political and policy agenda.

It belongs at the centre.

Food security requires that governments, global organisations, policymakers, scientists and farmers work in partnership to develop the best possible strategies to rise to this great global challenge of our time.

Securing the world's food requires growth in productivity, driven by innovation. This in turn is driven by agricultural research.

To simply maintain pace with population growth, we need to raise agricultural productivity across the globe by 1.5% annually, and importantly by an average of 1.8% in developing countries. These rates do not account for the additional challenges presented by climate change, loss of arable land, declining water resources and urbanisation.

And this is where many of you in this room come in.

Agricultural research will remain pivotal to lifting agricultural productivity in the next 50 years as it has over the past 50 years.

Since the beginning of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, gross global food production has increased from 1.84 billion tonnes per annum, to 4.38 billion tonnes — an increase of almost 150 per cent. 3

This is truly a remarkable achievement given that land used for food production has only increased around 5 per cent.

As Dr Pedro Arraes, President of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, EMBRAPA, noted in his keynote address earlier this week, Brazil has achieved an increase in production of 228 per cent while only increasing land use by 31 per cent.

To put this in perspective, if Brazil were still using the same technology it was in 1975, it would need four times the land area to match today's production.

In much of the world, the rise in global food production has been largely spurred on by higher yields driven by farming innovation and agricultural research.

One of the best ways Australia can contribute to feeding the world and tackling food insecurity is to help boost agricultural productivity through our own significant agricultural research program: our expanding development assistance program which is now at work across the developing world, as well as our many globally active agri-businesses.

Under this Government, our aid budget has doubled in the last five years.

We are currently on track to double it in the next five.

We currently are the ninth-largest aid donor in the world, in absolute dollar terms.

And on current projections, by 2015-16 it is estimated that we will be the sixth-largest.

To ensure value for money, I recently commissioned an Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness.

The Review, and the subsequent Government response, concluded that the aid program should focus on the following five core national priorities:

First, saving lives by improving public health; by increasing access to clean drinking water and sanitation; by improving access to child and maternal health; and by increasing large scale disease prevention, vaccination and treatment.

Second, promoting opportunities for all through universal access to school education, the economic empowerment of women and enhancing the lives of the disabled;

Third, sustainable economic development by investing in food security; developing the private sector; and by reducing the impact of climate change;

Fourth, effective governance by improving service delivery, reducing corruption and building civil society; and

Fifth, better preparing for and responding to disasters and humanitarian crises.

Within the food security priorities, the Government further agreed on two specific objectives.

First, "improving food security by investing in agricultural productivity, infrastructure, social protection and the opening of markets".

Second, "reducing the negative impacts of climate change and other environmental factors on poor people".

These core objectives prioritise food security — not just emergency food aid (although we are one of the world's largest donors to the WFP, and currently the fourth largest to the current crisis in the Horn of Africa) — but long-term sustainable agriculture to help reduce food crises in the future.

As a result, Australia has taken a 'three pillar' approach in its development assistance program in addressing food insecurity.

They are:

The promotion of agricultural productivity;

The stimulation of rural livelihoods;

And encouraging the creation of social safety nets to protect the world's poorest.

We expect to spend $1.8 billion on concrete efforts to promote food security in developing countries in the next five years.

Australia is a world leader in agricultural research. We grow enough food to feed not only our own population of 22 million but also enough to feed another 40 million more.

We are home to world-leading agricultural research systems and have some of the greatest scientists in the world.

We are also uniquely placed in the developed world, with such a diversity of natural environments in which our agricultural industries operate.

It makes sense that we share our world-class expertise in boosting agricultural productivity with the developing world and with those most vulnerable to food insecurity.

Just as it makes sense that our agribusinesses are active in emerging markets around the world where we have significant competitive advantages.

Our research partnerships with developing countries through our aid program are already doing this.

In its 30 years of existence, the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has completed over 1,200 agricultural development projects in 60 countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

At present, we have 187 projects running across the world.

These projects have ranged from examining policy settings in China, ensuring smallholder farmers did not miss out on the benefits from China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, to helping re-establish agriculture in East Timor following Independence.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Seeds of Life project in East Timor and saw firsthand the difference that it is making to the lives of the country's farmers.

It's done this by boosting crop yields by between 25 and 100 per cent through trialling and sourcing a number of improved crop varieties without increasing other agricultural inputs.

Conservation agriculture is one of the newest success stories in this quest to impart Australian knowledge to help feed the world.

We, as a country, have the highest take-up of conservation agriculture on the planet.

Its three core principles of minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and a crop rotation process that acts as a natural insecticide or herbicide have proven popular in ensuring sustainable and profitable farming here.

Australia does not have a monopoly on this development, with Latin America, notably Brazil, and the United States pioneering work in this area. However, we have played a pivotal role in supporting research partnerships with many developing countries, through ACIAR, that have introduced the methods so far to China, India, Iraq and several African countries.

Already the results are encouraging.

In China, it's been estimated that the potential long-term benefit in adopting conservation agriculture would be around $408 million for wheat alone.

The challenge has been convincing Chinese farmers, whose traditional practices and methods date back almost 4,000 years, to adopt these modern systems. But they and the Chinese Government are now enthusiastically embracing conservation agriculture, being won over by its benefits of higher yielding crops and reduced soil erosion.

It's a similar story in India where we've helped introduce the zero till drill, an Australian invention, born out of the efforts of Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research. It's proved so successful that it's now known in India as "the Happy Seeder", having boosted average per capita incomes by 0.5 per cent for those farmers using the technology.

This is just the beginning.

One of the greatest achievements of these conservation agriculture projects is that they were developed through strong partnerships between scientists, farmers, policy makers and governments.

Australia's core support for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and our partnerships with its 12 associated specialist research centres, including the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), show the true value of investing in international agricultural research.

The Australian Government recognises that more work needs to be done in the Asia Pacific to address food insecurity there and we will certainly continue to increase our efforts in the region.

But we also recognise the responsibility we have in sharing our expertise with the poorest continent on this earth, Africa.

Looking forward, we want to make Africa a new pillar of our work on food security.

The continent of Africa is at present the most off-track in reaching its Millennium Development goals by 2015.

Africa is the only continent on earth that does not grow enough food to feed all of its people, and 30 per cent of people on the continent suffer from chronic hunger.

This is just plain wrong given that within its shores, Africa holds 60 per cent of the world's uncultivated arable land.

And right now, Africa remains a primary focus of humanitarian efforts on emergency food aid.

Working together with the governments of Africa and the international community, we need to change all this.

For a range of reasons, Africa did not benefit much from the Green Revolution that swept the rest of the world in the 1960s and 70s.

Its small holding farms produce much lower yields than global averages, a staggering 75 per cent lower in fact.

Therefore the potential productivity gains from applying existing and improved agricultural technologies and techniques will be huge.

Australia is already working with our African partners to help improve agricultural technologies and techniques, especially in helping introduce conservation agriculture.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, AusAID, and a range of Australian and African partners, many of whom are here today, are working on agricultural research and market development.

For example, a food security project in Southern and Eastern Africa called SMILESA, is supporting the research, testing and development of farming techniques for drought-affected regions.

It's led by the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre (CIMMYT).

It's a project that the Queensland government and the University of Queensland are also partners in through a consortium with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

And being back here in my home state, let me say, the University of Queensland is ACIAR's largest university partner currently working with ACIAR on 15 different projects around the world .

This particular project is helping to develop drought and disease-tolerant maize and legume varieties and to educate farmers about new farming technologies in conservation agriculture in five African countries.

In the first eighteen months of the program, we've helped train more than 150 agricultural researchers from Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania and trialled conservation agriculture in 215 fields owned by local farmers.

It's on track to reaching its target of increasing crop productivity of maize and legumes by 30 per cent on around half a million African small farms within 10 years.

We are also working in Egypt, supporting improved crop and water management and assistance with urban employment programs as Egypt moves to critical parliamentary and presidential elections.

We are working on food security initiatives across the Maghreb.

And we've also sponsored 10 agriculture specialists from North Africa to come to Australia and attend this Congress who I believe are in the audience today.

The continent of Africa need not be in food deficit.

If sufficient reform is made, the ultimate goal should be an Africa in 2050 that is not only able to feed itself but one that has become a food bowl for the rest of the world.

Of course, there is still a long way to go before this can be achieved.

This year's devastating famine in the Horn of Africa, which has left an estimated 12.4 million people in need of urgent assistance, demonstrates the need for improving immediate humanitarian relief through food aid.

I visited the region in July.

With three-quarters of a million people at risk of starvation, I again call on the international community to act decisively now before it's too late and we witness a largely avoidable famine on a massive scale.

Somalia has proved to be the most vulnerable to the severe drought, unlike the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments who, with the help of international donors, including Australia, have invested in production safety nets and market chains, allowing their people to be more resilient to food shortages.

The famine in the Horn of Africa underscores the need for a comprehensive strategy for food security — short, medium and long term.

It is a comprehensive strategy that requires a united and sustained approach by the international community.

Australia will ensure that food security is a core element of discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth next month.

Close to 50 per cent of the world's hungry live in Commonwealth countries many of these are in Africa.

Similarly, we are working in the G20 to make sure that food security continues to be a critical part of its development agenda — and we will work for global action, not just words.

It's an agenda that we, the G20 Development and Finance Ministers, worked on last week in Washington as a core G20 priority.

It's also part of the work of the UN Secretary General's Global Sustainability Report to be completed in the lead up to Rio + 20 next year.

It must also be part of our rolling reform of our specialist UN institutions.

An area that has not fully given effect to its mandate in food security, quite frankly, is the work of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The FAO was established in 1945, tasked to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, while also increasing agricultural productivity and improving the condition of rural populations.

Its current annual budget is $1.2 billion.

It has the potential to improve international mechanisms in dealing with food security excess price volatility and agricultural productivity in the future.

However, many external reviews have found that the FAO has weak systems, poor controls, a lack of focus on delivering value for money and poor strategic vision.

All these factors have contributed to the FAO's disappointing results.

The Australian Government is currently undertaking an assessment of multilateral organisations funded through our aid program and the FAO is one of these; in fact, the assessment team had constructive meetings with the FAO just last week. The challenge for the FAO is to respond to the criticisms of it, and use the recent reviews to reframe itself, and to achieve better results.

The FAO has achieved a number of successes — which need to be built upon.

Australia hopes that the incoming Director General will act quickly to reform and revitalise the FAO.

Finally, there is the fundamental importance of allowing the correct price signals flow through to producers.

As I said in my remarks to the G20 Ministerial Meeting in Washington, "if we are expecting farmers in Africa and farmers elsewhere in the world to make long-term decisions about investment in agricultural development they need to have long-term signals in price."

A fundamental cause of this waste is the major distortion to global agricultural and food markets caused by subsidies and market barriers. It severely disadvantages farmers from developing countries in competing locally and internationally.

For the poor farmers of the world, we must do all that is possible to conclude Doha.

To deal with this great global challenge of the 21st century requires that governments, organisations, policymakers, scientists and farmers come together in coordinated partnership.

It will also require great leadership in all these fields.

It will also require global political leadership.

What is certain is that agricultural research will remain critical to food security by lifting agricultural productivity — as it did in the Green Revolution of the 20th century.

We need a new Agricultural Revolution of the 21st century if we are to feed a further 3 billion members of the human family.

As a responsible global citizen, Australia stands ready to play our part.

  • In research.

  • In aid.

  • In agribusiness.

Because if as a global community we fail, the consequences for all our peoples of a starving planet are potentially catastrophic — political conflict — wars — large numbers of internally and internationally displaced persons — affecting all our countries, including Australia.

That is why together, we must make a difference.


  1. World population prospects – 2010 revision Population Division, United Nations Dept of Economic and Social Affairs
  2. World population to 2030. Population Division, United Nations Dept of Economic and Social Affairs
  3. The Science of Food Security, NR Austin, ACIAR

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