JCU studies how climate change will affect your diet

The great Australian favourite—red meat—may be under threat as climate change continues to hit food-growing areas.

And while scientists think kangaroo and seafood could become the new staple diet, poorer Australians will still likely be worse off.

JCU agricultural sciences
Kangaroos could be the new staple diet

James Cook University’s Dr Tobin Northfield was part of a multi-disciplinary team examining what would happen to Australia’s food supply if temperatures increase by 0.6 to 1.3°C by 2050, as predicted.

Dr Northfield said all food groups would be affected, as agricultural regions were hit with warmer, drier conditions, more frequent, intense droughts and other extreme events.

The team expects the northern boundary of Australia’s wheat growing area to contract as the heat increases.

“Wheat is a major component of the Australian diet,” said Dr Northfield. “And it’s highly sensitive to climate variations, with higher temperatures leading to lower yields.”

Fruit and vegetable production would be hit by an increased number of pests and a reduction in pollination.

“In some cases, vegetables may actually grow faster, but will be less nutritious and more expensive. Recent models suggest that by 2050, global consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables will have dropped by around four per cent,” said Dr Northfield.

Beef production may also be under threat, with the heat affecting both the quality and availability of cattle through stress, lower quality feed and more parasites.

Dr Northfield said dairy herds would not be spared, with milk production dropping everywhere except Tasmania by 2050.

The scientists said that for most Australians, and particularly those already struggling to stretch their budget, increased prices will lead to consumption of cheaper and lower quality foods, exacerbating health issues.

But there may also be an upside, with consumers switching to cheaper white meats or substituting kangaroo or fish for red meat.

“Kangaroo need less food and water and, incidentally, produce almost no methane. They are a sustainable product,” said Dr Northfield.

He said that while ocean acidification was an issue, aquaculture would not be hit as hard by climate change. “There will always be something in the ocean to eat, as long as we’re not picky,” he said.

Dr Northfield said people who are a little better off and able to substitute expensive red meat for something more nutritious may even find their diet becomes healthier.

He said the big lesson of the study, apart from the need to reduce carbon emissions, was that Australians were going to have to become a lot less fussy about their food.

“The average Australian household wastes one fifth of their food. In other words, a family of four generally buys and wastes enough food for an extra person. With better meal planning, and maybe being a little less rigid ‘with best if used by’ dates, that could be improved,” he said.

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