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Revolutionary thinking urged in wake of COVID-19 pandemic

University of Melbourne Professor Tim Reeves says many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been unforeseen.
Photo: Nicole Baxter

One of Australia’s most experienced agricultural scientists has called for a revolution in thinking if the global agri-food sector is to address food and nutritional security challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering webinar held in February, University of Melbourne Professor Tim Reeves said systems that underpinned society such as health, education and food have been challenged during the pandemic.

“Over two million lives have been lost and the tragedy mounts with every minute,” he said. “It has disrupted the livelihoods of millions of people, including many of the 500 million smallholder farmers who produce around 50 per cent of food produced globally.”

Professor Reeves said many of the impacts of the pandemic had been unforeseen. One example was the closure of schools. In many countries, he said, school meals are a crucial part of food and nutritional security for children, but also indirectly for families as well.

One study of smallholder farmers, market vendors and consumers in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa showed the COVID-19 pandemic had:

  • depleted food stocks;
  • increased unemployment;
  • lowered incomes;
  • increased food prices; and
  • increased trade restrictions.

Professor Reeves said disruptions had been felt right through the value chain from the provision of inputs to labour, production, transport, marketing and retailing. “However, the ramifications of the pandemic for food access and affordability will disproportionately affect the poor, hungry and malnourished people of the world,” he said.

In Bangladesh, for example, travel embargos had challenged the nation’s capacity to harvest its rice crop, which was expected to have a negative impact on the next cycle of production because of inadequate supplies of inputs, feeds, disease control measures and finance. The return of about 20 million garment workers, mostly women, to rural areas had also put more pressure on food supplies, he said.

“Declining food consumption is evident, and the income erosion … will cause further falls in food demand in low-income countries.”

While COVID-19 had caused more than two million deaths, Professor Reeves said the global population was still growing at about 160 people per minute. Accordingly, more people would require more food.

In Australia, farms needed to be more efficient, producing more from existing farmland using diverse production systems that were more input use-efficient, less reliant on energy-rich inputs, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions and adapted to climate change. “Sustainable intensification of farming systems is a scientifically sound pathway to achieving these changes,” he said.

New enablers included intensive growing of crops in vertically stacked layers, using machine learning and robotics.

Australia was highly dependent on temporary workers on farms, in processing, and in cafes and restaurants, where minimum wages predominate, he said. “[Agriculture is] a sector where we have insufficient investment in learning and career development … to make our agri-food system fit-for-purpose for sustainable and resilient food production,” he said. “Business as usual is going to be business in decline, and we clearly need to be better prepared for the next global pandemic or similar perturbation.”

In coming decades, Professor Reeves saw global food and nutritional security as humankind’s greatest challenge. He said much greater technological strengths needed to be built into farming systems by perhaps using innovations from other industries and disciplines such as the mining and the aeronautical industries. Materials technology could also play a part with, for example, inventions such as biopolymers to protect crops from frost or heat.

“We don’t currently have a way of real-time measurement of soil carbon and nitrogen levels in paddocks [but] something like this would help us to make better decisions on-farm.”

Supermarkets had a role to play in shaping food production in Australia. “If you have a price policy that makes farmers unprofitable, then you’re going to … [have] a potential disaster in terms of supply and therefore prices rocketing.” He said supermarkets also had a critical role to play in helping to educate the public that food comes from farms.

More information: Tim Reeves, 0439 452 377,

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