Beefing Up Global Food Security

16 May 2016

Australia prides itself on its world-class beef exports and UQ researchers are committed to understanding our prime production systems to help the world’s starving communities become self-sufficient.

The world population is on track to exceed nine billion by 2050, and food production will need to increase by 77 per cent to meet this demand. Australia will play a role in addressing the global food security issue, but our role is often misunderstood amongst the hype. Australia prides itself on the export of high-quality food. We rely on such export income as one of the mainstays of our foreign earnings.

Australian beef exports for 2015 were valued at $9.3 billion, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), a massive 84 per cent above the 10-year average. ABS figures also show that Australia exported beef to 94 countries in 2015, six fewer than in 2014.

While there may already be enough cereal produced in the world to provide everyone on the planet with 2900 calories a day, often this food simply does not reach starving populations. Even the world Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) “is cautiously optimistic about the world’s potential to feed itself by 2050”, predicting that 75 per cent of the food demand could be met by increasing crop yields rather than expanding the area of production.

However, such production must occur where food is required as it cannot be sustainably met by importing food aid from countries like Australia or the United States. The issue is not as simple as calorific requirements alone. Requirements for protein, for example, will increase along with ensuring a proper balance of nutrients overall.

Therefore, the issue of food self-sufficiency within a growing population, largely in the tropics, has to be solved at the local level. We can’t possibly fix malnutrition internationally by giving away food. It works in an emergency but is not a sustainable, long-term solution for world hunger. We must enable people in areas who need food to grow the food and move beyond subsistence farming. That underpins the growing middle class and increases the Australian-targeted market. UQ, through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), is heavily committed in this area.

Certainly, Australia must continue to produce food with a large focus on exports but, using beef as an example, our current key export markets are in the Asian middle-class. These markets are becoming increasingly sophisticated, demanding higher-quality product. It will be challenging to continue being competitive in more traditional commodity markets long term, due to high labour costs, fierce international competition and the increasing variability of climate. Thus, Australia may not feed the world but we do have a very important contribution to make in supplying high-value, safe food – notwithstanding some ongoing challenges.

At UQ, our focus is on the Australian production systems, particularly the northern beef production systems. UQ has about 100 researchers and staff working in this area, from business, nutrition, health, and genetics and reproduction. I use the word “systems” as the varied systems we have in northern Australia are not always appreciated. We do it an injustice calling it the northern beef industry because there are multiple production systems in the north. If you lump them all together you are not addressing particular issues for those producers in any one system.

In the harsher environments, a harvest system may be in place where animals are rounded up once a year for monitoring, care and drafting for market or live export. By the very nature of the system it is difficult for producers to capture data on these animals, such as birth date or growth rate of calves, or reproductive traits such as calving interval in cows. Such measurements are required to gain maximal improvements to the system.

In central Queensland, the system is different. The feed base is much better when not in drought, and the producers tend to see the animals more often. So how these producers improve production is different to how producers of cattle in harsher environments achieve improvements. Producers in Central Queensland can better control the breeding cycle, and can achieve improvements similar to southern producers.

Then you have the impacts of the wet and dry season. There are pressures from parasites, heat, and poor winter pastures, which all impact the animal and increase the need of a cross-bred or pure Brahman herd. The parameters we have around genetic improvement of cross-bred animals, such as Droughtmasters and Santa Gertrudis or even pure Brahman, are much less developed than those temperate breeds, such as Angus. In addition, solutions like genetic evaluation, nutrition or health management are not yet economically viable for producers, even in the better beef cattle producing areas.

There are some common issues. Tropically adapted cattle have lower reproductive rates than temperate animals, due to their adaptation to harsh environments. But some animals within that population are more fertile. The genetics underlying this discovery are just beginning to be understood. Higher reproductive rates and lower calf loss will lead to an increase in productivity, but will the value of the product increase as well? This has to happen to make everything work. Researchers at UQ work across all of these issues, but funding opportunities mean the effort is often piecemeal rather than integrated. The current funding situation for northern beef has been impacted by the long drought in western Queensland, which may continue through a fourth year.

So, where should we focus? Rather than dealing with one issue at a time, we need to work across disciplines to address the overall sustainability of the system. This means first looking at economic sustainability. If we cannot produce beef at a profit, then we should seriously reconsider the business model. The production system needs to be put in the context of environmental sustainability, because not considering this means the business model will again fail due to run-down of pastures or even external intervention, to protect the reef for example. Animals need to be matched to the environment for peak performance, and productivity needs to increase in order to improve the bottom line for producers – even meeting requirements of things like methane production limits. Product quality also needs to improve consistently over time to keep pace with changing market demands for high-value product. All these things are impacted by interacting components such as pastures, genetics, animal management and health. To capture the value of this will require appropriate value chains in which everyone within the system can benefit from improvements. Meat Standards Australia (MSA) and, more recently, the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS), which provide an objective, marketdriven meat quality assurance target with premiums paid for compliance, are a good start towards meeting this objective.

Can we do this? Yes, if we can have an industry-wide approach while acknowledging differences across regions. We should be optimistic despite the sometimes reticence of the system to change. Market forces will be the ultimate driver and the industry will profit if it can lead – rather than follow – market forces.

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Professor Stephen Moore is a highly regarded research scientist who, prior to his appointment with the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), worked for the cattle industry in Alberta, Canada. He has more than 20 years experience in bovine genomics, including his role as Chair in Bovine Genomics at the University of Alberta from 1999 to 2011. In his role as Chief Executive Officer of Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta, Professor Moore led many successful projects to identify genes that underlie production and quality traits in cattle. The expertise he brings to QAAFI’s Centre for Animal Science reflects the centre’s capacity to embark on research to help Australian and international livestock industries flourish now and into the future. Professor Moore took up his appointment as the Director of the Centre for Animal Science at QAAFI in September 2011.