Trends – Food and Nutrition Report

Australia’s Food and Nutrition Report 2012.

Modern agriculture has focused on just a few plant varieties intended for intensive farming – although 250,000 plant varieties are available for agricultural purposes, fewer than 3% are in use today – as a result, this has dramatically reduced the diversity of plants contributing to food supplies – this trend is known as ‘genetic erosion’.The production of 1 kilogram of wheat requires about 1,000 litres of water, whereas for meat-based foods about 5 to 10 times more water is required.

The loss of biodiversity occurring in food and agricultural systems is a risk to future world food security – fewer than 20 animal and plant species now provide most of the world’s food –  just three crop plants, wheat, rice and maize (corn), supply more than half of the world’s food energy – agricultural systems with low genetic variation are more susceptible to pests and diseases and are also less able to adapt to environmental challenges, such as climate change and water scarcity.

Since the 1950s, world beef and mutton production has more than doubled, world grain production has tripled and oceanic fish catch has more than quadrupled – world fertiliser usage rose from 14 million tonnes in 1950 to 141 million tonnes in 2010.

Over the past 50 years, global fish stocks have fallen considerably, with more than 70% of the world’s fish species now either fully exploited or depleted – more than 200 million people rely on fishing and aquaculture for their income and 1 billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein.

Australia is one of the largest net exporters of virtual water i.e. much of the water used to grow crops, such as wheat, rice and cotton, is exported.

Like virtual water, Australia is also a net virtual exporter of phosphorus from the food system – only 5% of phosphorus fertiliser used in agriculture ends up in the food Australians eat – the remaining 95% is lost as waste at all stages of the food system, or exported off our shores as agricultural commodities or fertilisers.

Despite having only 6% of Australia’s surface water run-off, the Murray-Darling Basin accounts for more than 50% of Australia’s freshwater use.

Nearly 90% of the world’s phosphate reserves are found in just 5 countries: Morocco/Western Sahara, Iraq, China, Algeria and Syria, with 70% under the control of Morocco alone – as fertiliser prices increase, this is likely to have major geopolitical consequences.

Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be captured from waste streams and recycled as a form of renewable fertilisers – as this element does not decompose, it is theoretically available somewhere on the earth, but extracting it is likely to become increasingly costly – although the global population consumes about 3 million tonnes of elemental phosphorus from food, about five times this amount is mined for food production – this is because large amounts of phosphorus are currently being lost throughout the food supply chain – from mine to paddock to plate and then sewage.

Compared with average world apparent consumption of various food commodities, Australians have much larger per person availability of alcoholic beverages (308% higher), meat (290%), milk (274%),and animal fats (267%), and moderately higher amounts of sweeteners (196%), vegetable oils (191%),fruit (156%), and seafood (147%) – in contrast, the availability of several categories is less than the world average, such as starchy roots (87% lower), vegetables (83%), eggs (75%), cereals (58%), and pulses (33%).

Bananas have the highest sales in fruit lines – average consumption per person is estimated to be 13 kilograms a year – this makes them one of the top 10 selling supermarket items – 70% are sold to Coles and Woolworths.

In recent years, consumers have preferred unblemished bananas that are large and uniform in shape – it is estimated that 10–30% of all bananas produced are discarded before they leave the farm with the majority of this waste due to the fruit failing to meet the product specifications set by retailers – over 52,000 tonnes of edible bananas are discarded each year due to cosmetic imperfections – embedded in this waste are large amounts of water (16 gigalitres) and non-renewable resources, such as oil (1,407 tonnes), coal (1,064 tonnes), natural gas (1.8 million cubic meters) and phosphate ore (681 tonnes) – in addition, the decomposition of this waste has the potential to generate 23,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.

Diet-related chronic diseases are now the major cause of death in Australia and their prevalence is increasing – male life expectancy is 79.5 and female 84.0.

The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes has more than doubled between 1989–90 (1.5%) and 2007–08 (4.1%), and by 2023 is expected to be the leading cause of disease – this increase is linked to the rising prevalence of people who are overweight or obese, and low levels of physical activity in the population – the incidence of treated end-stage kidney disease is also increasing, with diabetes the main cause.

As of 2011, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas – this represents a significant shift from the 1950s when the figure was less than 30% – 39% live in cities of more than 1 million residents and only 10% in mega cities of more than 10 million – globally, urban dwellers generally eat more meat, fruit and vegetables, whereas rural dwellers eat more cereals, tubers and roots.

Despite a 70% increase in the population, the world’s food system generates 17% more energy per person today than it did 30 years ago – the amount of food produced could supply each person on earth with at least 11,300 kilojoules per day – despite this, there are more than 925 million people without access to sufficient food, mainly due to poverty – in contrast, there are more than 1.6 billion people who are overweight and at least 400 million who are obese.

As countries become more prosperous, there is a shift in eating and physical activity patterns, characterised by people eating more fat, sugar and processed foods, and becoming more sedentary – 8 out of the 10 countries with the greatest increases in obesity rates are developing or newly industrialised nations – in countries such as China, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Morocco, obesity is increasing faster than in the Unites States – paradoxically, some countries, like Bangladesh, are experiencing increased rates of obesity and yet are still struggling with high rates of under-nutrition.

Each Australian household throws out an estimated average of $616 worth of food each year.

Greenhouse gas emissions arise from food waste include indirect emissions that are embodied in food from production, transportation, processing and refrigeration, as well as direct emissions from the natural processes associated with the breakdown of the waste.

 A by-product of organic waste decomposing in landfill is gas, with about half (55%) being methane which has a global warming potential 21–25 times that of carbon dioxide – therefore, reducing the amount of organic waste going to landfill would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions – household food waste is estimated to be responsible for 5.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from landfill, equivalent to the total emissions involved in the manufacture and supply of iron and steel in Australia.

CO2Land org has the view, cutting waste benefits all round – no excuse pun intended!

Thanks again the Garry Reynolds of NRM DAFF for these insights.

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