Should we worry about food security?

The push for greater local food production in urban and peri-urban areas makes no economic sense in a country where there is abundant farm land, and hence I was pleased to learn about the views of a University of Queensland expert on food security, Michael D’Occhio, in Queensland Country Life today (Food security ‘overblown’):

…with Australia producing a huge surplus of food relative to its population, “I think we’re a little bit indulgent when we talk about food insecurity in Australia”.

But a combination of fears about food security and food miles (how far the food travels before it gets to the table and hence how much greenhouse gas is created) is driving urban planners to promote inefficient agriculture within and close to our cities. For example, in a piece at the Conversation today, Griffith University Professor of Urban Management and Planning Paul Burton writes (Grow your own: Making Australian cities more food secure):

A significant opportunity exists to support the re-localisation of food production, processing, and consumption. While cities historically grew as places where local food surpluses were traded, urban food supply lines have become increasingly long, complex, and vulnerable to disruption by a number of factors, including climate change but also by natural disasters and by wars and other conflicts. By growing more of our food within our cities and in their immediate peri-urban hinterlands we can become less dependent on these vulnerable supply lines.

I find it hard to worry about supply lines getting disrupted, as any disruption is likely to be temporary and there are still other supply lines to ensure our cities won’t starve. The risk of all the potential supply lines – roads, rail, shipping, air freight – getting knocked out at the same time for an extended period seems very remote to me, outside of a nuclear war, in which case a bunker full of baked beans and pop tarts would be the best contingency.

Hence I agree that concerns about food security domestically are overblown. All the discussions I’ve had with people in rural communities in Queensland suggest there is clear potential to grow more food, but economics dictates it isn’t feasible (e.g. it can’t economically be grown at current prices, or it can’t economically be taken to the port because there isn’t a rail line nearby).

Regarding concerns about food miles, these are best addressed by encouraging the adoption of a price on greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. a carbon tax) throughout the world. Otherwise it’s difficult to weigh up exactly how much more carbon dioxide is released through the shipping of olive oil from Italy and its distribution in Australia, compared with producing olive oil in Australia, which may have to be moved a long way on a truck across Australia.

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2 Responses to Should we worry about food security?

  1. KS says:

    Interesting post on a fave theme of mine with which I am in much agreement. Somewhere in the last few years local food stopped being a lifestyle thing and moved more to an ideology. Freakonomics have a post challenging expansion of local food also, and Harvard’s Ed Glaeser has an excellent oped “The Locavore’s Dilemma”
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/06/16/the_locavores_dilemma/

  2. Gene Tunny says:

    Thanks for the link to that Glaeser article, KS. It’s a highly logical and informative piece.

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