Academy's national symposium on food futures yields fruitful discussion

March 28, 2024


How is the food on our plates changing? And how are Australian scientific capabilities evolving to meet the future needs of the nation?

These were two broad themes explored on 22 March 2024 when the Academy hosted its national symposium, ‘Food Futures: Nourishing a Nation’ at the Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre as part of the 2024 World Science Festival Brisbane.

The Academy convened experts across the agriculture, nutrition, and food innovation sectors for this event.

Professor Lyn Beazley AO FAA FTSE, the Academy secretary for education and public awareness, hosted the symposium.

She opened the event with an acknowledgement of the Country on which the symposium was held (Meanjin) and paid respects to the Turrbal and Yuggera Peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land. She underscored the importance of engaging in a truly national dialogue about the future of our food.

“Our farmers are producing one-fifth of their product for [Australians] and one-fourth is going overseas,” Professor Beazley said.

“This is our huge export industry, and one that represents Australia around the world.”

Queensland's Chief Scientist Professor Kerri Wilson congratulated the symposium convenors—Professors Christine Beveridge FAA and Stephen Simpson AC FAA FRS, and Dr John Kirkegaard FAA—for their guidance in bringing the symposium together. She also noted the collaboration between the Academy and the World Science Festival Brisbane in bringing the event to the public.

“Thirteen percent of our goods and services exports are agricultural products,” Professor Wilson said, emphasising the interdisciplinary nature of agriculture and food science.

(From left): Dr Rohan Nelson, Dr Di Mayberry, Professor Manfred Lenzen, Allison Kelly, Adam Fennessy PSM, and Professor Richard Eckard.

The opening keynote address by Professor David Raubenheimer, Professor of Nutritional Ecology at the Charles Perkins Centre and School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, focused on the relationship between the natural world and our food systems.

His team invented a new approach to nutrition called ‘nutritional geometry’. By manipulating the diets of creatures ranging from cockroaches to primates, they found that after being in a state of imbalance, they found the right combination of foods to rebalance their nutrition.

“What this tells us is that ... animals don't have a single appetite, but they have an appetite that makes them hungry for specific nutrients depending on what they need at a given time,” Professor Raubenheimer concluded.

He discussed the effects of ultra-processed foods while highlighting the broader socio-economic effects that contribute to a low-protein diet in society, given the affordability of ultra-processed foods.

His presentation also considered the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and our diets and concluded that diets rich in ultra-processed foods are associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions due to the energy use in their production.

“The key challenge we face is to manage those causal factors ... in such a way that we can produce diets in a food system where the benefits of what we eat in economic, health, and environmental terms are aligned,” Professor Raubenheimer concluded.


Academy Fellow Dr John Kirkegaard spoke about the future of Australia’s agriculture industry and highlighted that while it has shown flexibility and innovation to changing environments, challenges such as climate change, input costs and supply chains, policies, and changes to the environment and biodiversity are limiting yield.

Dr Kirkegaard said we must keep an open mind and use science to select the most effective systems in different places, when discussing the systems and theories underpinning farm practices.

“The importance of bringing the agriculture sector with you is that changes can be real and sustained,” he said.

“It’s critical that the policies we build around new farming systems actually align with what farmers can keep up with.”

Dr Kirkegaard also spoke of innovations that are leading to revolutionary agricultural practices, such as ‘green’ ammonia and Omega 3 Canola crop.

The discussion that followed was moderated by Professor Matthew Morell, Institute Director at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).

Panellists included: Dr Greg Rebetzke, Chief Research Geneticist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food; Professor Wendy Umberger, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research; and Professor Neena Mitter, Director of the Centre for Horticultural Science at QAAFI.

Professor Morell emphasised the importance of learning from Traditional Knowledges to enhance the Australian agricultural sector.

He also spoke of the ambitious targets set for the growth of the sector through science and innovation, lamenting that research and development (R&D) investment in Australia as a percentage of GDP has reduced.

Dr Rebetzke spoke of his research into novel wheat varieties that facilitate deep sowing and are more resilient to changes in climate, while Professor Umberger spoke of global food insecurity and its effects on other areas, such as health.

“We don't just need agricultural scientists working on food; we need scientists working on food systems from every discipline,” Professor Umberger stressed.

Professor Mitter spoke about crop protection and the use of pesticides.

“Pesticides have been detected within 60kms of the Great Barrier Reef,” she said, highlighting the need for innovations—such as RNA-based biopesticides—to address the issue.

Climate change resilience in agriculture and the impacts of science, technology and policy

Keynote presenter Adam Fennessy PSM, Secretary of the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry presented on science technology policy, and the macro-policy setting within Australia and globally.

“Australia is one of the most food secure countries in the world ... but we cannot take it for granted; we must continue to invest in it,” Mr Fennessy stressed.

“Climate change brings risk to the entire food production and supply chain ... Even with progress on mitigation, some climate impacts are already locked in, so adaptation efforts need to continue.”

Professor Richard Eckard FTSE, Director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne, highlighted the COP21 Paris Agreement as being the driver for the agriculture industry to reduce emissions.

He stressed the importance of designing and implementing a sound policy framework for stakeholders to move towards carbon emissions reduction goals.

“Carbon credits ... were meant to be the last course of action, not the first course of action,” he warned.

As part of the Net Zero Australia Plan and the person responsible for reconciling the agricultural pathway to Net Zero, he stressed there is “no way to buy your way out of trouble—you actually have to reduce emissions.”

Dr Rohan Nelson, the Director of Food System Horizons at the University of Queensland and CSIRO, elaborated on the learnings of agriculture and climate change policy in Australia.

“We've built a world-class agriculture system ... it is the envy of many other countries around the world,” he said.

While mentioning the successes, including the increase in agricultural output and return on investment on agriculture R&D, Dr Nelson also highlighted social and environmental challenges facing the sector.

“Think about a pilot flying an airplane. You want the pilot to look at the compass, altimeter, and air speed. Imagine if they're only looking at one of those instruments? That's how we've been flying the agri-foods system in Australia,” Dr Nelson said.

He implored the audience to think about the futures we want and how to get there, and the importance of novel forms of public leadership to drive action on food systems innovation.

The discussion that followed included: Alison Kelly, Farm Emissions Specialist at Agriculture Victoria; Professor Manfred Lenzen, Professor of Sustainability Research at the University of Sydney; Dr Di Mayberry, Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food; and moderator Professor Richard Eckard.

Ms Kelly spoke about her role in engaging with the farming sector about their emissions targets and strategies.

Her research suggests there is a narrowing of expectations in the potential for reducing emissions without affecting profitability, while acknowledging they are still in their early days of the project.

Dr Di Mayberry covered the complexities and challenges faced by the livestock systems industry in Australia.

“We've come a long way since 2005 but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try to continue to reduce emissions from the industry,” she said.

“There's no single solution that's perfect for everyone ... We need to balance adaptation and mitigation with societal expectations around how people want their food produced.”

Professor Lenzen presented a systemic view of food systems in Australia and globally.

“In my field, there's more and more evidence and consensus that technology-driven approaches to getting us to two degrees [or lower] won't save us, and that's simply because we've waited too long,” Professor Lenzen said.

He concluded that systemic social disruption will affect food systems and the international society should prepare for this.


Rebalancing the Australian food environment with science and technology and improved nutrition literacy

Associate Professor Severine Navarro, Group Head of the Centre for Childhood Nutrition Research at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute spoke of her research on immune tolerance and how food is influencing this, particularly in the early period of human development.

“The microbiome-immune cross-talk is responsible for many chronic inflammatory conditions,” she said, concluding that immune tolerance is influenced by the food we eat and that food science should be included in the discussions at a policymaking level.

Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, Director at the Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, spoke about the diversification of diets and its impact.

“Two billion people in the world don't have access to a healthy diet, but developed countries like Australia are also not immune to this,” she said.

“Australia is blessed because we are a very biodiverse country ... and this is where the Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous connection comes in. They have so much information ... Indigenous populations know how to grow and how to care for their land and now it is desired by the mainstream consumer.”

The next panel discussed the linkages between diet and health. It included: Dr Gilly Hendrie, Research Scientist and Leader of the Public Health and Wellbeing Group at CSIRO; Associate Professor Andrew Holmes, Theme Leader (Education) Molecules, Cells and Organisms at Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney; and moderator Professor Stephen Simpson AC FAA FRS, Academic Director at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney.

Professor Simpson opened the discussion by noting, “It is projected that within a decade or two, the health budget may outstrip GDP for the country, and it all comes back to diet.”

He argued that Australians are having single-nutrient discussions in a diverse nutrition environment.

Dr Hendrie said that 67% of Australian adults are overweight or obese, and data suggests our diets are getting worse.

“People who prepare food together, eat together,” Dr Hendrie said, mentioning that multigenerational teachings are sacrificed in a modern society that prioritises convenience and speed.

“There’s a lot lost as we move towards this more convenient food environment,” she said.

Associate Professor Holmes described the day you’re born as your “inoculation day”, referencing the importance of our microbiome.

He noted that while the microbiome is a fairly stable structure within species, it is modifiable by diet.

“There isn't a human microbiome—each of us have a microbiome and it's unique and responds to various pressures in different ways,” he said.


Professor Beazley called the symposium to an end by thanking our event partners, the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre and University of Adelaide, and program partner and host of the World Science Festival Brisbane, the Queensland Museum.

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science