‘Shockproof staples’: building greater resilience into our food systems

Wheat is a staple in the diet of 2.5 billion people globally, and, in many countries in the global south and developing world, it is people’s number one source of nutrition. Supply constraints resulting from conflict in the Ukraine have exposed vulnerabilities in our agricultural system and pose real and immediate challenges to global food security. In the longer term, there is a need to build greater resilience into our food systems to continue to feed a growing population in the face of climate change and increasing urbanisation.

It is with this backdrop that CEAT Fellow, Alison Bentley, this month presented a seminar at ANU about building a more resilient system for the production and distribution of cereal crops. Alison, who is also the Director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), discussed the social and political effects of food insecurity and proposed near- to long-term practical interventions to enable stability in the short term and build resilience in the long term.

Some of the key points Alison raised in her address were:

  • When the price of wheat and other staple crops rise, due to disruptions in production or supply, this has significant and dramatic impacts on the livelihoods of some communities.
  • Historically, interruptions to the supply of these staple grains have led to civil unrest, especially in parts of the world where food insecurity is at its highest.
  • The changing climate and increase in severe weather events is amplifying pressure on already-constrained agricultural production.
  • In addition to constrained production, there is a concentration of supply of wheat in the global market, with most of the world’s wheat coming from five countries.
  • At the same time, as populations urbanise, there is a shift towards a more wheat-based diet and increasing demand for a product, which, in many cases, needs to be imported.

In proposing solutions to these significant challenges, and setting out a pathway to a more food secure future, Alison challenged us to consider Australia’s role as a global citizen. In times when we are experiencing a ‘bumper’ year, while globally supply of wheat is low and prices are high, what is the role of Australian producers and the Australian Government in supporting those who do not have the same good fortune? This, and other questions, was the subject of discussion by a panel facilitated by award-winning journalist Alex Sloan AM and featuring inputs from Professor Sharon Friel, Professor Mark Howden and Dr Eric Huttner.

CEAT would like to thank Alison for a thought-provoking presentation, our panelists for generously sharing their time and perspectives, and Alex for facilitating what was an interesting conversation.

You can watch Alison’s presentation and the panel discussion in full on ANU TV.

You can also learn more about Alison’s work to stabilise global wheat supply by reading her recently-published Nature Food research paper – Near- to long-term measures to stabilize global wheat supplies and food security

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