Estimates Aussie farmers feed 60 million – aren’t bad!

How significant Australia’s agriculture sector might be as a future source of food for hungry Asian consumers is a subject of some debate. Many media reports throw around the term ‘Asia’s food bowl’ without considering either the scale of Asian food consumption, or the scale or potential of Australian food production. Invoking the term ‘Asia’s food bowl’ creates the impression that Australia could be a major future supplier of food to the region, yet the sheer scale of the population suggests that Australia’s role in feeding Asia could be quite limited.

There is obviously a need to get a proper perspective on this issue, however, getting a definitive answer on exactly how many people Australian agriculture could feed is not a simple question.

Australia is a major agricultural exporting nation, and depending on the measures used, ranks comfortably in the top 10 nations in the world as a net exporter of agricultural products (exports minus imports). However, a significant proportion of Australia’s agricultural exports are non-food items – products such as wool, cotton, hides and skins, and animal feeds.

Even after separating out exports that are clearly non-food items, there are a range of other agricultural exports, including some grains, vegetable oils, animal fats and sugar that are commonly used in industrial processes or for animal feed, and hence probably cannot strictly be counted as food exports.

Leaving that issue aside, the challenge in gaining an understanding of the significance of Australia’s food exports lies in the fact that different agricultural products are consumed in different amounts by different people, depending on their dietary preferences.

One way of arriving at a rough approximation of the role that Australian agriculture could play is to use standard factors to convert all the volumes of different foods that are produced in Australia into calorific or energy equivalents. Armed with this information, and with statistics about the average daily calorie consumption of people in different nations, it is possible to arrive at some rough approximation of the number of people that Australian agriculture has the capacity to provide food for. This of course assumes people just want to consume calories, and are not fussy about the different types of foods they eat.

Utilising data compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Australia’s total annual food production for the 2011 year provided sufficient kilocalories to feed 111,453,662 persons, assuming that each of those persons consumed 3265 kilocalories per day, which is the average daily kilocalorie intake per capita for Australia.

However, the average daily kilocalorie intake per capita for Asia is 2678 kilocalories which is lower than the Australian figure. Based on this dietary intake (and first deducting the calories required by Australians), this would leave sufficient kilocalories to feed 108,207,882 persons in Asia.

There are, however, losses and wastage that occur as agricultural products are subject to processing and transported from farmgate to export destination, so it is probably more realistic to base calculations on the actual number of kilocalories of food exported from Australia, rather than the volume of farm production.

Based on calculations utilising export data, Australian food exports would provide sufficient kilocalories to meet the annual needs of 76,961,219 persons based on current average daily Asian dietary intake, or 63,124,759 if the average daily dietary intake of people in Asia increased to the level consumed by the average Australian. That, of course, assumes that no loss or wastage occurs from the time that the food is unloaded at the export destination port to the point of consumption.

A realistic assumption is that there is probably at least 20% of the food Australia exports wasted before it gets in the hands of end consumers, meaning that Australian food exports would provide sufficient calorific intake for 61,536,975 people, based on the current average daily calorific intake of people in Asia.

Interestingly, the figure of 60 million has been commonly used as an estimate of the number of people that Australian food exports could feed, based on the rough approximation that Australian agriculture currently produces sufficient food for approximately 23 million Australians (ignoring imports), and exports about two-thirds of total production. Turns out that the rough estimation is probably pretty close to the mark!

On that basis, each of Australia’s 120,000 farmers annually produces sufficient food for 707 people – not a bad effort, given the challenging environment in which farmers operate under here in comparison with overseas locations

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Images: Francisco Anzola, Lori Branham, Murrumbidgee Irrigation