Episode 49      26 min 18 sec
How We'll Fare in the Global Food Crisis

Prof Snow Barlow, the University of Melbourne, backgrounds the sharp rise in food prices, and looks at how science and technology may provide solutions in feeding an ever growing global population. Also, Prof Rajinder S. Sidhu from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, India, discusses the impact of elevated food prices on Indian society. With Science host, Dr Shane Huntington.

"We need to double world food production by the middle of this century, when the global population will be between 9 and 9.5 billion people." - Prof Snow Barlow




           



Snow Barlow
Snow Barlow

Professor Snow Barlow is Professor of Horticulture and Viticulture, and Associate Dean (Strategic Relationships) at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment.

His research interests include Plant Physiology, Environment (H2O,CO2,Temp) determinants of grape growth and wine quality, Water use efficiency, Australian Viticultural Terroirs, Impact of climate change on Australian Agricultural Systems

Professor Barlow is currently President of Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) and a member of Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and innovation Council (PMSEIC).

Rajinder S. Sidhu
Rajinder S. Sidhu

Prof Rajinder S. Sidhu is Head of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, India.

Prof Sidhu currently engaged in two research projects. The first is the APN funded project on ‘Improving policy responses to interactions between GEC and Food security across Indo-gangetic plains of South Asia’.

The second project attempts to develop, validate and replicate the risk assessment models and insurance products under different farming systems in India. Subsequently, a decision support system (DSS) will be put in place. The DSS will be used by insurance companies for fixing premiums and insurance for different agricultural commodities grown in different parts of India.

Credits

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric Van Bemmel and Dr Shane Huntington
Audio Engineer: Craig McArthur
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi

Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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How we will fare in the global food crisis


VOICEOVER
Welcome to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Hello and welcome to Up Close, coming to you from Melbourne University, Australia. I’m Dr Shane Huntington. As the population of the planet grows, the need for serious consideration of meeting food production requirements is clear. Food shortages, certainly in poorer countries are not new. But as our global population soars, food shortages and the cost of food are impacting every nation. Addressing the problem of food supply will be one of the great challenges that we face in the 21st century. Today, on Up Close we are joined by one of Australia’s leaders in agricultural science, Prof Snow Barlow, Associate Dean, Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Welcome to Up Close, Snow.

SNOW BARLOW
Welcome. I’m enjoying it.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now, let’s get to the crux of the question first because although in my opening statement, I put it out there, I’d like your opinion on ‘is there a food crisis?’ Is it looming? Are we there yet?  

SNOW BARLOW
There is a food crisis now. But it is almost more frightening to think of the next 40 years through to 2050. Currently, we project that we are going to need about 100% more food. In other words we need to double world food production by the middle of this century, when we estimate the global population will be between 9 and 9.5 billion people.  

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now, what about food prices themselves, are they currently elevated? And if so, what is causing this particular elevation?

SNOW BARLOW
They are elevated. As we all know there have been food riots in a number of countries this year, from Italy to some of the developing countries. The FAO, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, predicts that we are going to see in the next three years a rise in the cost of food of something like between 30 and 50%.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
And what is leading to this particular cost rise? Is it mainly more people? Or is it changing dietary scenarios in various countries and other economic factors?

SNOW BARLOW
Shane, it is the perfect storm. It is certainly the inexorable growth in global population. But there are two other factors that have coalesced very quickly [and there is] another one looming. The first one is, there are certain policy decisions that have been made around the world to mandate bio-fuels for transport fuels, these and current technologies predominantly come from food crops, sugar cane, canola and corn. So, in the current situation the mandated levels of bio-fuels in the world for the next 15 years if they were carried forward would be equivalent of 400 million tons of grain. Or in other words, the whole world’s rice crop. So, that is one big pressure. The second big pressure is people are getting more wealthy. Particularly, in the Indian subcontinent and North Asia, and they are therefore changing their diet from a predominantly vegetarian diet, cereal diet, noodle diet, rice diet to one that includes more animal protein. And the cost, in grain, of feeding animals is higher than feeding it directly to humans, so, those pressures are forcing up prices. And we still haven’t seen the full grip of climate change yet. So that is something in the future.  

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You mentioned the perfect storm, I can see the substantial interactions there between climate change and food in that as we have more and more cattle there is more and more of an effect on climate due to us raising cattle. In addition to, as you were talking about the food crops, the traditional food crops and land clearing for food crops as being heavily influenced by the bio-fuels market. How do we get away from this with this strong push at the moment for bio-fuels?

SNOW BARLOW
These things need global action. Because if there is not global action, individual countries, as they have at present and these are developed countries – the United States, the EU and Brazil has proceeded with mandating certain minimal requirements for bio-fuels. Now, if countries continue to do this, we will have these pressures that will continue to grow. So, we need international agreements that give a preference of food over bio-fuels that actually consume food.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Snow, with the prices of foods and the food markets, is this just a steadily increasing thing at the moment, or is there a skittish aspect to the way in which prices are being dictated and, as a result, the way in whi ch our farmers and so-forth are having to react to those?

SNOW BARLOW
There has been a rapid rise in these global commodities of food at present. Effectively, the cereals of the world: wheat, rice and corn. And, perhaps, to an extent canola and soy beans as well. This has really been driven, in the first instance, by bio-fuels. You know, there is, in a sense of, in excess of 100 bio-fuel plants that have been built in the mid-west of the United States in the last three to four years. And this has caused the price of wheat, on this Chicago grains exchange, which is a global barometer, to double. So, wheat has gone from something that might have been $200 a ton, to in excess of $400 a ton, in between 2006 and 2008. So, it is not a skittish market, it is actually a market reacting to demand.   

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now, let’s just extend a little bit with regards to the production of food: we need water and we need land. What sort of limitations are we seeing there and is this going to get a lot, lot worse in the future?

SNOW BARLOW
I think the supply of land and water is going to be under increasing pressure. It is not a matter of increasing the amount of land that we have available for cropping in the globe, unless we globally commit to even more disastrous deforestation, which I don’t think any of us want to do. But there is an inexorable push from cities, over agricultural land. There is also the ravages of climate change that will impinge upon the value of agricultural land in particular latitudes around the globe. For example, in Australia we expect southeastern Australia and southwestern Australia to become 10% drier in the next 30 years. Now, that is going to impact on how we can produce grain and we are exporters of grain. The unknown in all of this, is, what the effects of climate change are going to be – particularly in the northern hemisphere. If you think of northern United States, the Great Plains of Canada, Ukraine, Siberia. These are large land masses, that are pretty high northern latitudes and, we hope that some of those actually become more suitable for grain production. So, there will be some gains, as well as these losses. And, what we are trying to model in a global sense at present, whether the gains are going to compensate for the losses. Or, whether the losses will outweigh the gains. And, the best we can do at present is to assume we might hold even.  

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Snow, I am curious when you talk about these shifts in climate and how it affects our ability to produce food in various parts of the world. Are we talking about changes in – I guess – seasonal periods, as in when spring starts and things of that nature, or entire bands of certain latitudes being unsuitable for particular food crops, or both?  

SNOW BARLOW
Well, it is really both. You see, we know from the word called ‘phenology’, in other words, when certain perennial plants like apple trees, grape vines, burst their buds every year and flower and ultimately ripen, that these things happen earlier every year. For instance, you might be surprised to know that in the famous wine region of Champagne, the harvest has actually crept forward a whole month in the last 25 years. So these are the shifts that we are starting to see around the world. Now, what we see, the second thing in terms of grain production is the availability of water. With these perennial crops, in theory we can just move further north or south, so, we can move with climate change if we wish. But, we can’t do that with the great cereal bowls of the world. Where, they are constrained with – sitting in Australia here – to move south in Australia would be to move into the southern ocean. Not a very good place to grow wheat. So, there will be those constraints, of moving whole agricultural areas and the northern fringes for those of us in the southern hemisphere will be threatened by drying conditions. So, it is really the moisture that is probably going to determine it.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Are there also scenarios whereby certain crops need a particular type of cold snap just prior to spring and so-forth for them to germinate and to be able to be grown? Is that a limitation, as well, where it is that variation in weather that helps you grow things?

SNOW BARLOW
That is a potential limitation. The move of technology, for instance, crops, such as cherries, peaches that do have these, what we call, ‘chilling requirements’, so they need a certain amount of time in winter every year where the temperature remains below 10 degrees. We have found various varieties of these species that actually require less of that. So, I think agricultural science can adapt to those sorts of things. There will be a few things that might be a bit recalcitrant, a bit tough to move, but in most cases, we can adapt those issues and we can probably move them further south if we have to.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You’re listening to Melbourne University Up Close, I’m Dr Shane Huntington, and we are speaking with Snow Barlow about the global food crisis. Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, India, is the home of the Green Revolution in India, during the 1960s, funded with money from the Rockefeller Foundation. They staved off the wide-spread starvation for 40 or so years. We cross now to Prof.Rajinder Sidhu, head of the Department of Economics, Punjab Agricultural University in India. Welcome to Up Close, Prof Sidhu.

RAJINDER SIDHU
Thank you very much.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
How are the higher food prices affecting the different socio-economic strata of Indian society?

RAJINDER SIDHU
During the last six or seven months, Prof Shane, we have seen double digit inflation in the Indian economy. And we have seen substantial increases in food prices during the last four years. In the case of wheat, in the year 2008 over the year 2004 it was around it was around 62%, in the case of pulse it was around 50%. So, that means the food prices have increased tremendously over the last four years. According to a World Bank Estimate, the poverty ratio in India is 42%. And on the basis of the estimates of [the] Asian Development Bank, the poverty ratio is around 50%. The poverty ratio is very, very high. And when the food prices go up, they have got very strong impact on the consumption pattern of the low-income people. In the case of the small farmer, who is operating on less than five acres of land as well as the landless agricultural labourer, their consumption pattern is hit very adversely because of the rise in food prices. And when we talk about urban areas, it's basically the average labourer household and other low-earning people, in whose case their consumption goes down because of the increase in the food prices. This is happening because the share of these low-income people in terms of their food consumption relative to their total expenditure pattern is around 65%. And when the food prices go up, it becomes very difficult to cope with the higher food prices. For example, last year we were conducting a survey in the urban and rural areas on the food consumption pattern in Punjab state, which is very, very prosperous. But we have seen the low income people, the landless agricultural labourers as well as industrial labourers, they were cutting down their consumption of pulses simply to cope with the sharp increase in the pulse prices. So, what they were doing? They were consuming the cereals with the pickles only. Earlier, they used to consume the cereals in the shape of the wheat flour, cooked the chapatti with the pulse. But because of the sharp increases in the prices of pulse they couldn’t afford it and they were taking the bread with the pickles only. So that is why they were making adjustments in their consumption pattern, simply to survive.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Is it likely that India will need to rely increasingly on imported food in the future?

RAJINDER SIDHU
When you talk about the Indian population, it is about 1.12 billion. At the moment and it is increasing at the rate of 1.7% per year. On the basis of these estimates, that means on the increase in population, increase in per capita income and changes in the dietary pattern, it has been estimated also the demand for food has been estimated at 235 million tons in 2012 and 281 million tons in 2020. And to meet this projected demand the rate of growth in food grain production, should be around, you can say, 1.922%. Last year, the government of India launched a mission which was known as [the] National Food Security Mission. It is for five years: 2007 to 2012. And the basic aim of this mission is to increase the production of food grains in the low productivity but high potential area. By and large it covers three crops, wheat, rice and pulses, and the area, by and large the central area, the north east India and the eastern part of India. And, under this mission, they have allocated Indian Rupees 500 billion to be spent during these five years of period, from 2007 to 2012. And there is a tremendous turn around which we have seen in the last year. In the year 2007-8 the food grain production has touched the level of 230.7 million tons. It is the highest food grain production in the country. And that is why the pressure has eased and India has postponed its decision to import wheat and rice from other countries.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Prof Sidhu, thank you very much for being out guest on Up Close today.

RAJINDER SIDHU
Thank you so much.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
That was Prof Rajinder Sidhu, head of Department of Economics, Punjab Agricultural University, at Ludhiana, India. Snow, our colleagues and friends in India seem to have an extraordinary strategy for moving forward and maintaining their food supply and minimizing their imports. In Australia, do we have similar strategies? Are we going to remain as sustainable as we currently are or are we going to rely more and more on imports into the future?

SNOW BARLOW
Australia is a food exporting country. Fundamentally, 70% of all the food in Australia is exported, it varies a little between industries but it is in that order. So, Australia will either have to decrease its food production a lot, or increase its population by very much before we will be a food importer. Not to say that there is not food importers into Australia, the same way as there are exporters. I think the interesting figures in Prof Sidhu’s [interview] was that they had estimated that the Indian agricultural required a productivity gain of, in the region of 2%, and that is what the globe will have to do. I think that figure is probably a little low. The current Goldman Sachs figures are, if you figure-in bio-fuels into the global grain needs, that in the next 15-30 years, agricultural productivity has to increase to meet the demand at a rate of something like 2.5% per year. Currently, over the last 30 years, the totality of the world’s agricultural land areas have increased their productivity at a rate of about 1.5%. So, somehow with new technologies, new science, and a new intensity, in the investment in innovation and research we’ve got to increase our rate of productivity gain by about 1% or basically another third. In Australian agriculture, there have been areas in Australian grain farming, where we actually have done that in the last 30 years. In Western Australia, the state of Western Australia, the western Australian grains industry has achieved those productivity gains of about 2.5% over the last 30 years. So, it is possible, but it is going to take a big global effort.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You’re listening to Melbourne University Up Close, I’m Dr Shane Huntington, and we are speaking with Snow Barlow about the global food crisis. Snow, one of the things we haven’t covered yet is a solution that there is a lot of commentary about and that is the introduction of genetically modified foods and crops. Do we need to go down this path? Is this a solution that will get us out of trouble in the future?

SNOW BARLOW
Shane, the reality is we have gone down this path. There are now, this year, more than a hundred million hectares that have been planted to genetically modified organisms. This is in South America, North America, Europe, Central Asia, Asia, and of course our own continent just recently – we are the lowest of all those crops. My view is we do need globally to have a very good regulatory system to approve the use of genetically modified organisms on a crop by crop basis because not every application will be the same. And to date, there has been no application of genetic technologies that have actually caused any damage to human health. And to date, there has been no application that has caused damage to the environment. In fact, in the Australian situation we have done a lot for the environment through the decrease in the application of chemicals in the cotton industry. That is not to say, that we must not lose our vigilance. We must be forever vigilant in any new crop coming forward and ask those fundamental questions: is this dangerous to human health? And, is this dangerous to the environment? That aside, given the figures that we need to up our productivity gains to basically feed 50% more people from the same amount of agricultural land in an uncertain environment. We are going to need all the innovation tools that we can get our hands on that environmentally are safe. I think, and in the last 15 years, there have been, if you like, the second phase of genetically modified organisms where the inventions and the innovation has now moved to an area of addressing what we call ‘abiotic stress’. In other words, the environmental stresses of heat and water. And rather than the first phase, which addressed fundamentally, the disease and pest stresses. So, I think this new phase of GMOs has great potential, and is only just beginning to increase the resilience of our crops to environmental stresses. And in that way we can increase our yields at a greater level of water efficiency – so, drive the world’s water further and achieve these productivity gains which we must do.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Snow, how do we avoid one of the criticisms of this particular GM scenario whereby rich, multi-nationals in the west would control developing countries and their ability to grow food in the coming years?

SNOW BARLOW
Ironically Shane, I think the multi-national companies have moved into a complacent void that has been left by investment in agricultural research. To give you an example, the Green Revolution, which we all know about that actually moved the world from the brink of starvation – in fact, the last time, the global grain stocks were at a level of less than 50 days supply, where we are now, was before the Green Revolution. And the Green Revolution occurred because both philanthropic and government organizations invested in agricultural research around the world. Now, the rate of that investment has declined remarkably as the world has been complacent about the amount of food we had and moved off to do other things. Probably very good things to do, but we’ve taken our eye off the agricultural ball. Multi-national companies, gene technology companies have moved into that space and of course, they have made the investments and they are seeking to re-coup those investments. Governments and philanthropic organizations could make the same investments in the public domain which would provide that technology without the attendant costs of the commercialized properties. So, the technology is out there it is a matter of government spending and making it publicly available.  

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Certainly a logical opportunity for them to pursue. Now, Snow, just before we finish, I understand that your work or some of your work, in particular, is looking at the types of plants and the types of responses those plants will need to have in order to survive in a CO2 rich future environment. Can you tell us a little bit about what is happening here at the University of Melbourne in that area?

SNOW BARLOW
Yes Shane, one of the great ironies about climate change is that the very fact is the enrichment of the Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide that is driving our temperature up. Indeed in my scientific lifetime, we have moved the carbon dioxide concentration up by about 20%. Plants are chronically short of carbon dioxide, an essential nutrient for them. So therefore with each increase in carbon dioxide technically plants will grow faster. Now, the sorts of plants, plants all vary and some plants will make use of that extra carbon dioxide to a greater extent than others, and the research my team, and the team within the Melbourne School of Land and Environment is carrying out, is actually in the field where we are testing different varieties of wheat at the sort of elevated concentrations that we expect to be in the environment in 2030 and 2050. And starting to – one chart, what the water requirements of those plants in those environments will be, two, if there are discernible differences between different varieties of wheat and therefore the varieties of wheat that are more responsive to CO2 should form the basis of future varieties that would be developed. So, we are charting the future there, but we are also looking at the present.  

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Sounds like some very exciting research. Prof Snow Barlow, Associate Dean at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne, Australia, thank you for being our guest today on Up Close.

SNOW BARLOW
It was a great pleasure to talk about such an important issue.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Relative links, a full transcript and more “info” on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel.  Audio recording by Craig McArthur. Theme music provided by Sergio Ercole.  Melbourne University Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Dr Shane Huntington. Goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2008, University of Melbourne.


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