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Farmers will be heroes of the coming food crisis

08 December 2001, ScienceAlert

Most people think of farmers as the people ‘out there' who grow the food and, occasionally, gripe about the weather. The farmer of the 21st century, however, may be the person who rescues civilisation.

International agencies, like the World Bank last week, are belatedly recognising the global food crisis is much closer than the climate change crisis or even than the next oil crisis - as a string of food riots and disturbances round the world already suggests.  And only farmers can get us through it. Australian governments, it is almost redundant to say, have not yet woken up to it.

However, according to 400 scientific experts who have spent the last four years probing the future on behalf of the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, agriculture is going to mean vastly more to civilisation in future than merely tucker on the table.

The world's 2000 million farmers are the guardians of much of what is left of the natural landscape, holding the fate of thousands of threatened species as well as the world's remaining forests in their hands.  Agriculture currently uses three quarters of the world's fresh water. Its runoff has degraded the earth's major rivers, estuaries and even seas. It occupies 40 per cent of the world's free land surface. It is responsible for 30 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. And it represents an intractable locus of poverty, disadvantage and suffering.

That is the true cost of the cheap food many of us still enjoy. For the time being.

At the back of all this is the ‘inconvenient truth' that modern civilisation is unsustainable.  To exist, it relies on a continuous drawdown - sometimes amounting to total destruction - of the natural resources on which it depends for its existence. Africa's Sahel, Russia's Aral Sea and Australia's Murray-Darling Basin illustrate the principle. We live off our natural capital, rather than the interest it generates. And globalisation of the food trade has accelerated the process - as the country-of-origin labels in your local supermarket proclaim. As a consumer, your footprint now extends across Asia, Africa, India and many other places.

It is this principle of forever drawing down natural capital, say the 400 scientists of the World Bank's International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that has to change.

Resolving this issue is the scientific challenge of the Age, more pressing even than greenhouse, with which it is closely interlinked. It requires nothing less than the reshaping of the way humanity produces food, feeds itself and manages the Earth's natural resources - a system mired in 7000 years of cultural tradition and contemporary economic and political power.

According to IAASTD, farmers will not simply have to feed the world - a task requiring a doubling in the already immense global food supply - but also to restore its forests, cleanse its waters, protect its wild species, improve its soils and absorb a substantial percentage of the carbon we all emit as we go about our lives.

The IAASTD report has already unleashed a major storm as well as numerous lesser tornadoes.  The sheer immensity of the challenge, the unpalatable truths it presents and the controversial answers it proffers have the international commentariat foaming overtime. But when one drills into the essential facts it presents, it is hard to deny them, even though many may wish to do so. In our hearts we have known for some time humanity has been living a little high on the hog.

The solution, say these scientists, is to make the world's 2000 million farmers the guardians of soil, water, biodiversity and carbon with new technologies, education and ample funding to assist them.  It is to replant the forests and sow new agro-forests. It is to design farming systems that enrich the soil with organic matter, thereby absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere, instead of degrading it and releasing carbon. It is to filter, cleanse and restore the fresh waters. And it is to turn a renovated agriculture in the world's languishing regions into the engine of economic growth and prosperity that it has been for countries such as Australia and America, thereby tackling the Millennium goals of poverty, hunger and disease.

It's a big idea, and like all such concepts, its critics are already swarming with reasons why it can't and shouldn't be done. In some cases it will need new science, and in others, old science re-applied or better applied. Above all it will require the transfer of knowledge on an epic scale - the education of a third of the world's people in new ways of producing food.

It is also a challenge for which Australia is singularly well-qualified and which, a generation ago, we would have leapt at. Our farmers and scientists are already hammering out and trialling the basics of sustainable farming systems, of landscape renewal, of husbanding and cleansing precious water, of treading more lightly on the Earth, of locking carbon in the soil. Many of the pieces in this great revolution in productive thought are already in our possession. It also embodies equity principles Australia has long espoused, such as fair trade rules for all countries, the breaking of monopolies and free access to scientific knowledge.

It is a task we cannot, in conscience, ignore - either in our own country or in the wider world. It is also an opportunity like none other, for renewal of the natural world, for economic and rural growth, for the relief of human misery and for developing a sustainable basis for civilisation as a whole.

If ever there was a beacon to draw gifted young Australians in search of a life's mission back into science or agriculture, this would have to be it.

*  Julian Cribb is an adjunct professor of science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney and editor of

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