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The Gillard government has finally recognised that food security is an issue. But in the end, the problem boils down to a simple conflict: food security versus energy security.
Federal Agriculture minister Joe Ludwig has released the National Food Plan, an extensive 274 page document which warns us that with the global population heading towards nine billion, world demand for food is going to increase by 77 per cent in 2050. Significantly, the government’s plan says there is a need to manage the potential impact of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments on water resources and agricultural land. In other words, we need to develop a national framework with state and territory governments on coal seam gas that will address key community concerns on water management and multiple land use. We also need to help food producers adapt to the impacts of climate change and drought. But the real test of the national food plan is still to come.
Now, none of this is before time. In his chilling book The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb reminds us that the stakes are high. He warns that we are headed towards global food shortages in the next 40 years because of scarcities of water, good land, energy, nutrients, technology, fish and, significantly, stable climates. You can add to that population growth, consumer demand and protectionist trade policies.
"The coming famine is also complex, because it is driven not by one or two, or even half a dozen factors but rather by the confluence of many large and profoundly intractable causes that tend to amplify one another,'' Cribb writes. "This means that it cannot be easily remedied by 'silver bullets' in the form of technology, subsidies, or single-country policy changes, because of the synergetic character of the things that power it.''
The world is running out of farmland. Advanced farming depends entirely on fossil fuels likely to become scarce, supplies of nutrients for farming have peaked and fresh water resources are finite. With global warming, up to half the planet faces regular drought by the end of the century. Storms and the kinds of floods that have devastated Pakistan and Queensland are tipped to become more frequent and intense.
On the other hand, there is a push for energy security with rising fuel prices. Coal seam gas provides that, plus it offers a big export opportunity for LNG Gas which will put gas into the stoves, heaters and hot-water services of Shanghai and Seoul. Australia will become a big player in that market.
But when it comes to food security, the big issue here will come down to controlling the push for coal seam gas. It’s an issue taken up by GetUp on this video.
Dr Tina Hunter, an assistant professor of law at Bond University says both food security and energy security are critical for Australia’s future, and both are in conflict. “Many of the coal seam gas deposits occur in areas of high agricultural fertility. This includes the fertile Darling Downs area in Queensland, and the Liverpool Plains in NSW, which comprises only 6 per cent of Australia’s total agricultural area but produces more than 22 per cent of its food. This creates conflict in land use; farmers are understandably reluctant to allow their prime agricultural land to be used for coal seam gas extraction. However, as the law stands at present, even if a farmer owns the land, a government has the right to grant a licence to an energy company to extract the coal seam gas from under the ground, by drilling wells to extract the gas.”
It means one thing: if we are to have both food security and energy security, it will have to be carefully managed. Whether any Australian government is capable of doing that remains to be seen.