Food production is increasingly cast
as being based on practices which are needlessly harsh on the
environment.Why are we allowing vast areas to become like deserts
through exploitation? Why do we persist in using chemical
I hope to show that, far from being an expendable
monster in the environment, modern food production techniques are
in fact a crucial part of our collective futures, and of protecting
We hear of the negative effects of modern food
production systems - irrigation schemes damaging wildlife habitats,
salt rising to the surface in dry land and irrigated areas of
agriculture and poisoning the land. All suggestions that we have
mismanaged food production systems at the expense of the
So, how do we manage food production systems? In fact
we have only been doing it on a widespread basis for some 150
years, although the Romans did use manure and limestone on soils.
They also knew the benefits of legumes, plants which convert
gaseous nitrogen from the air in soil for their own and plant use -
today a critical part of Australia's agriculture.
There is little doubt that modern intensive food
production continues to impact on the environment and humankind.
Some parts of the solution are in our own hands already. For
example, it is likely that cheap water encourages overuse or other
We see the effects of such misuse in the Murray
Darling Basin where we lose thousands of hectares of land each year
as the rising water table increases salinity and sodicity in soil.
So why not solve this environmental blight by avoiding such
offensive agricultural practises?
Such dreams are based on the assumption that food
production to meet global food demands is possible from alternative
agricultural systems such as organic farming. Unfortunately, our
current knowledge does not allow such a luxurious consideration. It
may be possible in a few rich countries where we could accept the
cost of turning land over to producing green manure crops to apply
to cropping land. We could accept the cost of foregoing export
income from food exports - but what of those persons in countries
where such land does not exist and where population is high?
World population is expected to double in the next 50
years. We can be confident that we will need about twice as much
food as we presently produce unless there are major changes which
we do not foresee.
Population has outpaced the current ability of
science to increase yield. The last time we had this concern the
population was half that of today. We are now talking of it
doubling from today's figure and we have implemented all of the
easy solutions and some of the more difficult ones - some of which
have clearly impacted on the environment.
By the year 2015 more people in the poor countries
are expected to be living in cities than rural areas. And, of
course, these people in cities do not have the same facility to
produce their own food. The need for additional food from modern
food production systems may be far greater than we have previously
Food is produced for profit by some and for survival
by many more. So there are three factors which we need to balance -
social, economic and environmental interests.
How can we improve this balance? The solution to such
issues is not in any one argument be it that of the fervent
financiers, the subsistence socialists or the evangelistic
environmentalists. It is in the blessed balance of the three.
The essence is understanding the world's food demand
and minimising environmental impact - not reducing food production
to protect our own backyards. And yet we are not behaving as if
this is true. We do not behave as if the essence is understanding
the wider human plight for food.
Is it simply, that we who are well fed, clothed,
housed and living comfortable and healthy lifestyles, now wish to
further enhance our well-being by improving our surrounding
environment? Is it a hypocritical response to dress up our concern
for nature without considering the inevitable conclusion that this
leads to for persons in poor countries?
It is a realisation that may be hard for us here in
this Arcadian garden of Australia to accept. Yet, food production
must increase and we must maintain a global responsibility in both
food production and environmental care.
The alternative is to focus on our own Australian
environment for our own personal comfort while ignoring the
environmental destruction and food shortages of poorer countries.
To build a metaphorical fence to insulate our comfortable
lifestyle. To value our own lives and lifestyles more highly than
those of other persons. The outcome of this approach is not a world
we should wish to hand to our grand children.