Recent natural disasters have led to the phrase – ‘food security’ – being used with increasing frequency. With floods devastating our banana plantations up north; drought conditions affecting wheat crops in West Australia; and earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, there is no doubt that food security is something to think about today.
But what exactly does food security mean? Essentially, it is about having enough food that is good for you. Yet it is more than a measure of the amount of food that is or isn’t available. Food security is also measure by the quality of nutrition and prevailing social and economic factors.
Food security is in fact a population health concept which requires constant monitoring and attention. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) refers to food security in terms of all people at all times having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods. These foods must meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
On a national and global scale, food security covers food production and trade. The effects of floods, bushfires, hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts are all considered when assessing the quantity of food being produced and available.
It is also assessed on a scale of nourishment. Even when there is plenty of food, the nutritional quality of this food is an important determinant of food security. It is possible for individuals to not meet all their nutrient requirements in conditions where poor food choices are made in the midst of plenty. For example, the problem of obesity is also a problem of food security because it reflects an imbalance in meeting nutritional requirements.
From a social perspective, food is an integral part of cultural conditions. Having access to foods that people recognise as staples and are able to prepare in safe and nutritious ways is another important dimension of food security. This is what ‘meeting food preferences’ refers to. The provision of food must be considered in context where traditions and usual eating patterns are reflected in the nutritious foods that are provided.
Australia has a great deal of expertise in food security. In particular, it has special expertise in agriculture that can be applied to food production where there is climate variability. Economically we have influence – Australia produces enough food for 60 million people, triple our population, and food trade is an important part of our economy. We also have extensive expertise in how food affects health, and professions such as the Dietitians Association of Australia to support the community in making healthy food choices. We have great opportunities for combining these areas of agricultural and diet expertise to produce food that promotes health for the population and with a coordinated effort from government and institutions can contribute substantially to food security in our region.
Food security can also begin at home, for example, with the community valuing food much more. This can be done by celebrating and being creative with healthy food, choosing better food for meals and snacks, learning more about good food at school, eating just enough to maintain a healthy weight, and considering the environment in our resources management of food.
An excellent, and timely, resource that our institutions, business and the community can draw on to better understand and plan for food security is the recently released Australia and Food Security in a Changing World report, released by the Prime Ministers Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) expert working group through the Chief Scientist for Australia (
As we face a number of challenges to our food security through natural disasters, social change and economic influences, it is time to embrace a coordinated approach to ensure we have enough food that is good for all of us well into the future.
Professor Linda Tapsell is the Director of the Nutrition theme at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, a joint initiative of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health Network and the University of Wollongong. She is also Director of the UOW Smart Foods Centre. She was a member of the Expert Working Group that produced the PMSEIC report.