The great crises of this century are predicted to involve water, soil and food. While financial failures and political and religious disputes claim the headlines, the reality is that we need to feed up to 10 billion people by the 2060s in a world where the resources to do so are becoming scarce.
History has shown on many occasions that when food supplies fail, governments fall and people fight. The opposite is also true: a well-fed world is a more peaceful world. Most of the instability today is in those regions where soils and water are scarce and food supplies unreliable: well-fed places such as North America, Europe and Australasia are far more peaceable. Hunger is one of the underlying triggers for division and conflict.
It is time for Australia to demonstrate leadership and expertise in restoring the health of our landscapes and, in so doing, to assist others in critically vulnerable regions to do the same — because if we don’t, the refugees fleeing famines and wars across land and water borders may be in the millions. We have two white papers on the policy table — agriculture and defence — and it is time to connect the two.
When we shop for our food in the supermarket, few of us spare a thought for the soil that produces it. Yet without that 15cm of precious topsoil we wouldn’t be here today. The trouble is, the soil is vanishing, degrading. You can see its drivers in our incised creeklines and the impact of bushfires. You can see it in the big dust storms that sometimes grip our continent, you can see it in our turbid rivers and streams. You can see it in the loss of coastal corals, including the Great Barrier Reef.
Worldwide, according to estimates by American scientists Bruce Wilkinson and Brendan McElroy, humans dislodge about 75 gigatonnes of topsoil from cropland every year. To make that huge number more comprehensible, it means that every meal we eat costs about 10kg of soil. As author Julian Cribb puts it: ‘‘We’re devouring our planet.”
At the same time the world’s cities are expanding so rapidly that by mid-century it is estimated that together they may cover an area of land the size of Australia.
Meanwhile the energy sector and cities are competing for farmers’ water. All this makes the future of the world food supply highly problematic, even with better redistribution and a concerted effort to reduce waste.
While Australians manage their landscapes a good deal better than many nations and are supported by some excellent science, about 60 per cent of our continent is degraded and in need of restoration. We know from the experiences of our best farmers that the damage is repairable, that with the right knowledge, technology and investment on the part of governments and the community we can reverse the cycle of degradation to produce positive economic and environmental outcomes.
This is know-how we can share with the world that it desperately needs.
Unfortunately, we Australians also have a love affair with cheap food. Few realise that our tiny economic signal — paying farmers minimally for what they do for us — ends up as increased stress on the landscape, as lost or degraded soil, lost water, lost native species.
We need to rethink the destructive economics that externalise the true cost of food, and not only pay our farmers a fair price for what they produce but also reward them as stewards of the agricultural and pastoral landscape on behalf of urban Australia. This is a job they now perform for free and under considerable limitations.
It’s not just about protecting soil but water too. The proposed solution is to build more dams — but useful as some may be, dams lose water through evaporation. What we need most is to store more water in the root zones of our soil by managing it better and increasing soil carbon.
Again, good farmers across the continent have already proved this is possible but their wisdom is not yet a national wisdom. Of every 100 drops of rain that fall on this continent we store just two drops in our dams and 10 in our rivers. Half the rain that lands on Australia evaporates wastefully.
If we could store just a few of those lost raindrops in our soils by re-greening our continent, it markedly would improve our food and water security in a world becoming less and less secure in those commodities.
In recent decades Australia has made what I regard as poorly thought-through cuts to the science that underpins our soils and water. To me, as a soldier, it’s like disarming as conflict looms. Without that knowledge it is going to be very hard to sustain our food supply into the future.
It is therefore pleasing to see the federal government’s recent agricultural research, development and extension strategy moving to correct this. As national soils advocate I am proposing we formally measure long term the economic and environmental outcomes (including soil carbon) from 100 of our best farmers across Australia, and share their knowledge where appropriate nationally and globally. This concept is already attracting substantial overseas interest, including from the US.
People sometimes ask me why, among all the great issues that surround us, I’m so focused on soil and water. Well, as a soldier I know that when people starve they usually fight; that having sufficient food and water is fundamental to world peace.
As governor-general I was privileged to visit farms and rural communities across this great nation and overseas to see first-hand the impact of poor management of our landscapes and — much more hearteningly — that the damage could be reversed by wise conservation farming.
But the thing that really concentrated my mind was being a grandparent. It forced me to ask myself: what can I do to help ensure a safer, healthier and more sustainable world for my grandchildren and their future children? A secure supply of healthy, nutritious food and clean water is the basis of a better world for everyone.
Australians are learning from our aged, demanding and arid continent how to better manage drought, fragile soils, scarce water, climatic shocks, floods, bushfires and native landscapes.
We are becoming quite good at it — but with the right investment we can be better still. And we can take that knowledge to a world in increasingly desperate need, both as an export and as a humanitarian gift.
Australia cannot remain physically secure in a food and water insecure world. We are not isolated from the stream of history. But we can play our part in shaping a tomorrow where the risks of hunger, famine, crisis and conflict are lower than they are today.
Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.