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Australia could lead response to global insecurity

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

woman in white sitting in field with vegetable crop and man washing livestock with a bucket

Feeding the world’s people is not as simple as producing more food. Last month at Australia’s Rural and National Press Clubs the now-departed CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Professor Andrew Campbell, explained why and outlined the role Australia might have in devising the solution.

As long-time collaborators with ACIAR on its Partners magazine, we were keen to hear what he had to say. Our strategy director Penny Fannin listened in.

Standing before dozens of the country’s Canberra-based journalists, a few hundred metres from Parliament House, Professor Andrew Campbell spoke of flooding in Pakistan, Masai cattle herders, how to ensure fish in the Mekong get upstream, and record sea surface temperatures in the Arctic.

His valedictory speech recounted the complex interrelationships that exist between food, water, energy, biosecurity, health and climate.

“If humanity is to thrive this century and bequeath a viable planet for our grandkids then the world needs to produce more and healthier food, shared more equitably, grown much more efficiently and sustainably, while using fewer resources - land, water, nutrients and fossil energy - and polluting and wasting far less,” Professor Campbell said.

These challenges are international and cross-sectoral. “Accordingly, the science needed to tackle them is an international enterprise; necessarily collaborative, multi-disciplinary and participatory,” Professor Campbell said, adding that Australia has the depth and breadth of expertise to play a vital leadership role in any collaboration.

The numbers that tell the insecurity story

Professor Campbell went on to discuss the statistics relating to what he calls the “converging insecurities” in food, water, energy, biosecurity and health. "These (insecurities) intersect and interact with each other in complex and often unhelpful ways and all of them are amplified by climate change; the great risk multiplier,” he said. “Together they feed into national, regional and global security risks through forced migration and conflict over land and water resources.”

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023 report, published in July by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the UN’s World Food Programme and the World Health Organization, showed that 29 per cent of people on Earth are food insecure and 11 per cent are starving or severely food insecure, exacerbated by COVID and the war in Ukraine and global heating, he said.

“The first week of July was the hottest ever measured and, almost certainly, the hottest on Earth for at least a hundred thousand years,” Professor Campbell said. “The floods that we saw in Pakistan (in 2022 flooding submerged more than a third of Pakistan) are just a small indicator of what's to come.

And it seems that peak water (when the world’s supply of fresh water is not replenished at the rate it is consumed) will arrive before 2050 and after that we'll have a drying scenario. This has huge implications for global food security and especially in our region - South Asia and South-East Asia.

How Australian innovation can lead change

Professor Campbell said all countries in our region were grappling with the shared challenges of feeding their people more and healthier food more sustainably while decarbonizing and coping with much more volatile and extreme weather.

“Available fresh water per capita continues to decline, deforestation accelerates and bigger, hotter fires in new places are making things much more difficult. So the science is very clear, and the evidence is in our faces, and we know what we need to do: electrify everything, shift to renewable energy, use land, water and nutrients far more efficiently, radically reduce waste, and protect and restore nature.”

Australia was well-placed to tackle these challenges, especially in agriculture, the environment and health, he said. “We've had to innovate to prosper on our ancient, depleted soils in a highly variable climate. Our scientists are very used to working with farmers and Industry in partnerships thanks to our rural R and D corporations and our cooperative research centres.

“I would love to see Australia leading big international missions in applied research for development, tackling these converging insecurities across our region, playing a convening, brokering and partnering role.”

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