Food sustainability may aid Australian agri-woes

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, Agriculture

The food industry is failing to grasp the importance of adopting
sustainable crop techniques to protect against the effects of
climate change, says an expert on business agriculture.

While the food industry is showing some concern over raw material supply, it had yet to comprehend the full extent of the problems it is facing, according to Keith Jones of Croplife International, a global federation representing the plant science industry. In the last few years, climate change has already caused a surge in prices for many grains and foodstuffs, as changing climatic conditions and adverse weather continue to threaten stocks. In Australia the effects are already being felt. Due to these conditions and their affects on the country's harvest, grain value is expected to undergo about a 21 per cent rise over last year to AUS$273 (€166) tonne, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE). But even with such signs, the food industry remains blasé. Jones questions whether there is as yet enough commitment by food companies into sustainable agriculture. "I believe the impacts of global warming and its effects on global food supply have not yet been fully understood and are not therefore high on the agenda of food companies,"​ he told AP-Foodtechnology.com. While some food companies may not share his concern, Jones added that they were certainly seeing the affect of climate change on agriculture. "The current drought inAustraliahas meant yield reductions of up to 50 per cent,"​ said Jones. "Rice was not planted at all this year. Ironically, even if rains do now occur this is likely to result in flooding, which will also affect crops." ​ Many within the agri-business industry increasingly believe such changes to global climate will result in depleted plant and crops species in the years to come. According to experts at this month's Global Botanical Gardens Congress in China, hundreds of thousands of known and unknown species of plant could face extinction from just a 2-3 degree Celsius rise in global temperature over the next century. To better protect the food industry from these dangers, Jones suggested that a greater emphasis on new technology combined with local expertise will be required. "Changing climate is going to cause new pest problems in different regions, thus effective pesticides and integrated pest management strategies will be required, along with new plant varieties that are drought and pest resistant,"​ he stressed. "The use of these management systems will allow sustainable agriculture which can further production in an environmentally sound way." ​ Jones praised some steps being taken in the industry to drive sustainable crop production, but suggested that it should take greater consideration in adopting more innovation within the agricultural supply chain. "The food industry is promoting good agricultural practices, but often tends to respond to lobbying by pressure groups, rather than strategically developing a long-term plan,"​ he said. "This has resulted in 'bans' on genetically modified (GM) foods - exactly the technology that may be necessary to counter the effects of global warming." ​ However, these sentiments are unlikely to be matched by environmental organisations, which remain unconvinced that GM crops are both a safe and effective solution in protecting food supply. Groups, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, continue to oppose any use of GM crops on the grounds that the long term health effects remain unknown and could pose a risk to both consumers and the environment. While debate about sustainable methods is like to rage on, some in the industry believe it is too premature to make long term predictions. For example, the Agribusiness Association of Australia (AAA) says more study is needed for industry to commit itself to far reaching changes. "It is far too early to be slashing wrists at our plight,"​ said a representative for the AAA. "It is very difficult to judge short and long term effects except with years of hindsight."​ The AAA added that there was also an established pattern of drought cycles within Australia's eco-system, and the current one may be the latest. "Droughts are a regular part of the agricultural landscape inAustralia,"​ they said. "We have about four dry years in the 11 year El Nino/La Nina cycle. Our irrigated agriculture has for the first time in fifty years been faced with the possibility of very much reduced supplies from theMurray Riversystem." ​ The AAA suggested that the industry should wait for at least a further two years before making decisions regarding the true effects of climate change. While many organisations seem in agreement that climate change will prove to be a negative development for the food industry, some believe that it could have certain beneficial effects on agriculture. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a further 1 to 3 degree Celsius increase in temperature may boost agricultural output in higher latitude and tropic areas. In a report put together for policy makers the IPCC added that these changes could change the nature of Australian production, with a southern shift for the country's wheat belt and increased agricultural potential in Northern regions. Though all suggestions right now remain as speculation, the report conceded that mid latitude areas as a result could suffer difficulties in maintaining raw material supply.

Related topics: Sustainability, Ingredients

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