OPINION: AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put innovation at the heart of the government’s efforts to improve the country’s global competitiveness.
The government’s renewed focus on the pivotal role innovation plays in helping us overcome complex challenges is welcome.
And I can think of no more complex challenge than sustainably producing enough food to meet rapidly rising global demand.
It is hard to not be alarmed by the looming collision of a rapidly growing population and a changing, more volatile climate.
Climate change is destabilising the global food supply just when we are grappling with how to feed a rapidly growing population projected to hit 10 billion by 2050.
The impact will be felt far and wide including Australia.
Unsurprisingly, the World Economic Forum identifies agriculture as one of the most susceptible industries to climate change.
The organisation points to repeated studies that demonstrate that staples such as maize, rice and wheat are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
This is a concerning development when faced with the prospect of feeding the world’s current 7.5 billion people.
It is even more daunting when you consider that the United Nations now forecasts that Africa and Asia alone will be home to a combined 9.3 billion people by 2100.
Population growth coupled with rising incomes in emerging markets and urbanisation is already resulting in huge increases in demand for food and animal feed.
These megatrends, along with challenges such as water scarcity, political instability and the degradation of arable land, will exert further pressure on natural resources.
However, meeting the rising demand for food will become even harder thanks to declining agricultural productivity growth in Australia and globally.
Achieving this productivity growth in a manner that does not impose unacceptable burdens on our environment is a significant challenge.
The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, has called for a “paradigm shift” towards sustainable agriculture.
He said a variety of options including climate-smart agriculture and genetically modified (GM) crops should be explored based on science and evidence rather than ideology.
The FAO also says improving agricultural productivity through sustainable intensification plays a key role in improving food security and nutrition.
This is particularly important for the 90 per cent of the world’s 570 million farms which are managed by an individual or a family and produce more than 80pc of the world’s food.
So, are we truly willing to move past ideologies and embrace the best of human ingenuity and innovation?
Let’s consider the ongoing debate about GM crops.
The technology continues to face some resistance despite two decades of safe use, rapid adoption by farmers and its role in reducing carbon emissions, pesticide use and soil erosion from agricultural practices.
Here in Australia, GM crops have helped farmers improve their income by $885 million since their introduction in 1996.
Local cotton farmers have embraced GM technology that, along with other innovations, has allowed them to produce yields triple the global average.
GM technology has also allowed growers to reduce their pesticide use by 95pc which is significant when you consider almost all of the cotton grown in Australia are GM varieties.
Independent research by UK-based PG Economics revealed that in 2013 alone, GM crops reduced global greenhouse-gas emissions from agricultural practices equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year.
In the same year, GM crops also prevented an extra 18 million hectares of land being farmed to maintain current global food production.
GM technology is by no means the silver bullet – it is a tool.
But let’s be clear: we simply do not have the luxury of turning our backs on innovations such as GM crops if we are to protect the global food supply from the impact of climate change, including in Australia.
This is why opposition to GM crops in some states is so concerning and short sighted.
Australia’s political leaders should encourage the adoption of proven innovation to allow our farmers to improve their international competitiveness and able to meet consumer expectations about the sustainable production of their food and fibre.
And we should never forget that scientific and technological advancements have helped establish Australia as a globally respected producer of clean and green food over many decades.
Daniel Kruithoff is managing director of Monsanto Australia and New Zealand.