Alexandra Meldrum

Alexandra Meldrum, Engineers Australia Sydney Division

The issue of food security – the guarantee of a sustainable food supply – has been an area of international concern over the last few decades. Recent national discussion around science, innovation and industry development has rekindled this debate.

While the idea of a food crisis is far removed from everyday Australian reality, global uncertainties present real economic opportunities, as well as humanitarian and security challenges for us. To address this, we need to ensure that our agriculture and food sectors are front-and-centre in the minds of policy makers.

Simply put, food security, both domestic and international, needs to be part of the everyday whole-of-government considerations, across all portfolios, instead of a minor consideration.

Part of the answer to this challenge is about access to resources, research and appropriate technologies, in order to upgrade the efficiency of our land use, reduce wastage and improve productivity across the sector. Engineers have an important role in driving this. We need engineers, with a broad range of skills and experiences, to bring technical expertise, innovation and entrepreneurship to these opportunities and hurdles.

The number of engineers employed in the food manufacturing sector saw annual growth of five per cent between the Census years of 2006 and 2011. Interestingly, there are now more engineers employed in the food production sector than there are employed in the scientific research sector.

So from paddock to plate, engineers are involved in the production of food. This also means they need to be at the forefront of tackling the challenges associated with our food sector all the way along the supply chain: sustainable and efficient land use, water and soil management, climate change response, food infrastructure development, enhanced transport systems, integration between food production and processing, market and product innovation and skilled personnel constraints across the process, to name a few.

Innovation, especially by engineers across all disciplines, who design, construct and maintain the processes and plant used in agricultural production and food processing, can play a role in delivering a sustainable, profitable and most importantly secure food production system. Opportunities can be realised through the right policy settings that encourage rather than inhibit research and investment by private organisations as well as government.

Take the Clean Energy Finance Corporation as a case in point – an organisation often maligned by political opponents. The reality is that CEFC projects have unlocked a staggering amount of value across the agricultural and food sector in a very short time frame.

Here we see projects that embody the very innovation and technical expertise that Australia so desperately needs, whether it is beef production and export, pork production, or any number of horticultural operations. Innovative technologies are driving productivity and sustainable economic activity.

Energy efficiencies in particular are delivering huge savings in agriculture. Improvements in refrigeration processes, harnessing more solar energy, replacing natural gas with biogas and harvesting energy from waste recycling processes are some of the projects the CEFC has invested in to improve the productivity and sustainability of Australia’s agriculture sector.

Further down the chain, advanced refrigeration technology is cutting the costs of food production, logistics and retailing. Even lowering the cost of lighting and other energy usage is improving the productivity of food manufacturers and retailers.

These improvements and savings are only the beginning. Australia is effectively harnessing innovative financial models to enable high-tech innovation. The CEFC model works, so why not explore how it can be applied to solve wider food production issues?

Needless to say, if Australia is to successfully transition from a resource-dependent economy to a high-tech, high-value economy, then innovation will be essential. The same argument applies to our food sector.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risksreport looks at the decade ahead and maps 31 global risks in five categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, technological and societal. According to the report, the top 10 global risks of highest concern in 2014 include food crises. Food crises occur when access to appropriate quantities and quality of food and nutrition becomes inadequate or unreliable.

Australia would be well-placed to meet these food crises head on if organisations such as the CEFC were enabled to get on with the job. Department of Agriculture data show that the value of Australia’s food imports sits at approximately $10 billion, compared to $40 billion worth of food exports. Unsurprisingly, the large proportion of these exports represents primary produce and agricultural commodities, and a large volume of imports represent processed products.

Australia can be far more than a supplier of raw commodities. Our locally-grown engineering expertise can transform our economy, and through innovation, overcome the “tyranny of distance” from global markets.

As with base agricultural commodities, primary producers across the world are beholden to the uncertainties of market fluctuations and the influence of rent-seeking and speculation. Building a technically advanced domestic food production capability will change this picture and help our domestic producers become price makers, rather than price takers.

Engineers are central players in transforming knowledge to practical ends, and we must not allow ourselves to overlook this critical step. Our country needs a highly skilled technical workforce, and we need more engineers to ensure that we can compete with the global powerhouse economies across our region.

Australia has a phenomenal natural advantage in our agricultural sector and investing in applied research and technological innovation would ensure that we complement this primary production capacity with an ability to transform agricultural produce into high value-add export dollars.

Securing a thriving and advanced food production capability requires active policy attention. Australia needs to invest in training the best and brightest, enhance the sustainability of our agricultural endowments and celebrate the technical advances and practical innovations that are the hallmarks of this country’s success.

Alexandra Meldrum is president, Engineers Australia Sydney Division, a chartered engineer, lecturer and consultant. She currently specialises in providing strategic advice to business and other organisations on sustainable change management and performance improvement. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New South Wales Australian Graduate School of Management.