The fine balancing act of global food security

By John Rivers, Dr Norman Warthmann and Justin Borevitz

As the global population continues to rise, the challenges of giving people access to healthy and nutritious food grow by the day.

In 1996, the World Food Summit agreed that "food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".

Food security is an essential part of our future.

It depends on agriculture's ability to supply nutritious food, and to increase the supply as needed. Agriculture, in turn, depends on water, fertile soils, and favourable weather.

These are services, provided to us by the Earth's ecosystems.

We take them for granted, but such ecosystem services are themselves becoming insecure.

Globally, more than two-thirds of the land currently under cultivation is at risk of degrading, and climate change further jeopardises the stability of agricultural production.

This comes at a time when our society faces the challenge of feeding a prosperous 21st century population.

That population will increase to nine billion human beings by 2050. Ensuring everyone has access to the food and nutrition they need is a priority.

But so is protecting the ecosystem services that agricultural production depends on. Without that, food security cannot exist.

To meet demand, we will need to double food production by 2050.

Many of the two billion people in Australasia are already undernourished.

The numbers are sobering.

How will we keep pace with increasing demand for food, which directly competes with feed and fuel, and indirectly with fodder and fibre?

How will we need to produce more whilst regenerating water cycles, soils and ecosystems and stabilising our climate?

How will our environment hold up?

The large increases in agricultural production of the last 60 years have come at the expense of the environment by vastly expanding the area under cultivation, often through deforestation.

A combination of management techniques were used, such as irrigation, pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertiliser along with tailored crop varieties, especially cereal grains.

It boosted agricultural production to unprecedented levels and saved millions of lives, but widespread use of inputs harm natural ecosystems.