Healthcare, minerals, energy, food: how adopting new tech could drive Australia’s economic recovery



CSIRO, Author provided

Katherine Wynn, CSIRO; James Deverell, CSIRO; Max Temminghoff, CSIRO, and Mingji Liu, CSIRO

Over the next few years, science and technology will have a vital role in supporting Australia’s economy as it strives to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

At Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, we’ve identified opportunities that can help businesses drive economic recovery.

We examined how the pandemic has created or intensified opportunities for economic growth across six sectors benefiting from science and technology. These are food and agribusiness, energy, health, mineral resources, digital and manufacturing.

Advanced healthcare

While some aspects of Australian healthcare are currently digitised, system-wide digital health integration could improve the quality of care and save money.

Doctors caring for patients with chronic diseases or complex conditions could digitally coordinate care routines. This could streamline patient care by avoiding consultation double-ups and providing a more holistic view of patient health.

We also see potential for more efficient healthcare delivery through medical diagnostic tests that are more portable and non-invasive. Such tests, supported by artificial intelligence and smart data storage approaches, would allow faster disease detection and monitoring.

There’s also opportunity for developing specialised components such as 3D-printed prosthetics, dental and bone implants.

Green energy

Despite a short-term plateau in energy consumption caused by COVID-19 globally, the demand for energy will continue to grow.

Through clean energy exports and energy initiatives aligned with decarbonisation goals, Australia can help meet global energy demands. Energy-efficient technologies offer immediate reduced energy costs, reduced carbon emissions and less demand on the energy grid. They also create local jobs.




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Innovating with food and agribusiness

The food and agribusiness sector is a prominent contributor to Australia’s economy and supports regional and rural prosperity.

Global population growth is driving an increased demand for protein. At the same time, consumers want more products that are sustainable and ethically sourced.

Australia could earn revenue from the local production and export of more sustainable proteins. This might include plant-based proteins such as pea and lupins, or aquaculture products such as farmed prawns and seaweed.

We could also offer more high-value health and well-being foods. Examples include fortified foods and products free from gluten, lactose and other allergens.

Automating minerals processes

Even before COVID-19 struck, the mineral resources sector was facing rising costs and declining ore grades. It’s also dealing with climate change impacts such as droughts, bushfires, floods, and social pressures to reduce environmental harm.

Several innovative solutions could help make the sector more productive and sustainable. For instance, increasing automation and remote mining (which Australia already excels in) could achieve improved safety for workers, more productivity and business continuity.




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Also, investing in advanced technologies that can generate higher quality data on mineral character and composition could improve yields and minimise environmental harm.

High-tech manufacturing

COVID-19 has escalated concerns around Australia’s supply chain fragility – take the toilet paper shortages earlier in the pandemic. Expanding local manufacturing efforts could create jobs and increase Australia’s earning potential.

This is especially true for mineral processing and manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, space technology and defence. Our local manufacturing will need to adapt quickly to changes in supply needs, ideally through the use of advanced designs and technology.

Digital solutions

In April and May this year, Australian businesses made huge strides in adopting consumer and business digital technologies. One study estimated five years’ worth of progress occurred in those eight weeks. Hundreds of thousands of businesses moved their work online.

Over the next two years, Australian businesses could become more efficient and adaptable by further monetising the data they already collect. For example, applying mobile sensors, robotics and machine learning techniques could help us make better resource decisions in agriculture.

Similarly, businesses could share more data throughout the supply chain, including with customers and competitors. For instance, increased data sharing among renewable energy providers and customers could improve the monitoring, forecasting and reliability of energy supply.

Making the right plans and investments now will determine Australia’s recovery and resilience in the future.The Conversation

Katherine Wynn, Lead Economist, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO; James Deverell, Director, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO; Max Temminghoff, Senior Consultant, CSIRO, and Mingji Liu, Senior Economic Consultant, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise of ultra-processed foods and why they’re really bad for our health


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Phillip Baker, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Deakin University, and Priscila Machado, Deakin University

Humans (and our ancestors) have been processing food for at least 1.8 million years. Roasting, drying, grinding and other techniques made food more nutritious, durable and tasty. This helped our ancestors to colonise diverse habitats, and then develop settlements and civilisations.

Many traditional foods used in cooking today are processed in some way, such as grains, cheeses, dried fish and fermented vegetables. Processing itself is not the problem.

Only much more recently has a different type of food processing emerged: one that is more extensive, and uses new chemical and physical techniques. This is called ultra-processing, and the resulting products ultra-processed foods.

To make these foods, cheap ingredients such as starches, vegetable oils and sugars, are combined with cosmetic additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers. Think sugary drinks, confectionery, mass-produced breads, snack foods, sweetened dairy products and frozen desserts.

Unfortunately, these foods are terrible for our health. And we’re eating more of them than ever before, partially because of aggressive marketing and lobbying by “Big Food”.

Ultra-processed foods are harming our health

So concludes our recent literature review. We found that more ultra-processed foods in the diet associates with higher risks of obesity, heart disease and stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancer, frailty, depression and death.

These harms can be caused by the foods’ poor nutritional profile, as many are high in added sugars, salt and trans-fats. Also, if you tend to eat more ultra-processed foods, it means you probably eat fewer fresh and less-processed foods.

Industrial processing itself can also be harmful. For example, certain food additives can disrupt our gut bacteria and trigger inflammation, while plasticisers in packaging can interfere with our hormonal system.

Certain features of ultra-processed foods also promote over-consumption. Product flavours, aromas and mouthfeel are designed to make these foods ultra-tasty, and perhaps even addictive.

Ultra-processed foods also harm the environment. For example, food packaging generates much of the plastic waste that enters marine ecosystems.

And yet, we’re eating more and more of them

In our latest study, published in August, we found ultra-processed food sales are booming nearly everywhere in the world.

Sales are highest in rich countries like Australia, the United States and Canada. They are rising rapidly in middle-income countries like China, South Africa and Brazil, which are highly populated. The scale of dietary change and harms to health are therefore likely immense.

‘Big Food’ is driving consumption

We also asked: what explains the global rise in ultra-processed food sales? Growing incomes, more people living in cities, and working families seeking convenience are a few factors that contribute.

However, it’s also clear “Big Food” corporations are driving ultra-processed food consumption globally — think Coca-Cola, Nestlé and McDonald’s. Sales growth is lower in countries where such corporations have a limited presence.

A huge coca cola advertising billboard
Aggressive marketing campaigns by Big Food companies are contributing to growing consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Shutterstock

Globalisation has allowed these corporations to make huge investments in their overseas operations. The Coca-Cola System, for example, now includes 900 bottling plants worldwide, distributing 2 billion servings every day.

As Big Food globalises, their advertising and promotion becomes widespread. New digital technologies, such as gaming, are used to target children. By collecting large amounts of personal data online, companies can even target their advertising at us as individuals.

Supermarkets are now spreading throughout the developing world, provisioning ultra-processed foods at scale, and at low prices. Where supermarkets don’t exist, other distribution strategies are used. For example, Nestlé uses its “door-to-door” salesforce to reach thousands of poor households in Brazil’s urban slums.

Rising consumption also reflects Big Food’s political power to undermine public health policies. This includes lobbying policymakers, making political donations, funding favourable research, and partnerships with community organisations.




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Sweet power: the politics of sugar, sugary drinks and poor nutrition in Australia


Here’s how things can change

The evidence that ultra-processed foods are harming our health and the planet is clear. We must now consider using a variety of strategies to decrease consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations, for example by using taxation, marketing restrictions and removing these products from schools.

We cannot rely on industry-preferred responses such as product reformulation alone. After all, reformulated ultra-processed foods are usually still ultra-processed.

Further, simply telling individuals to “be more responsible” is unlikely to work, when Big Food spends billions every year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility.

Should dietary guidelines now strongly advise people to avoid ultra-processed foods? Brazil and other Latin American countries are already doing this.

And for us as individuals the advice is simple — avoid ultra-processed foods altogether.The Conversation

Phillip Baker, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, and Priscila Machado, Research Fellow, School of Exercise & Nutrition Science, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America has corn and Asia has rice. It’s time Australia had a native staple food



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Angela Pattison, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, University of Sydney

Most countries have a staple food: native, fast-growing and easy-to-store plants high in carbohydrates.

In Africa, it’s sorghum. In Asia, rice. In the Americas, corn and potato. Around the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Europe, it’s wheat and barley.

Australia is an exception – we do not have a staple food. But native grasslands provide ample opportunity to produce grains. In fact, Aboriginal people once used native grasses to make bread, and there is evidence they were the world’s first bakers.

We argue it’s time to resurrect Australia’s ancient breadmaking tradition. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.

Loaf of brown bread.
Bread with 10% button grass.
Author provided

Australia’s ancient grain

In an area known as the Panara, located in a ring around central Australia, Aboriginal people used sophisticated fire-based techniques to manage grasslands and harvest grain. They collected the grain in bulk several times a year, then stored it in the off-season.

The grains harvested were from native grasses – species well suited to growing in local conditions. They were ground, mixed with water then baked in hot coals, to produce a bread resembling damper.

So why doesn’t this collection and preparation of native grains still happen today? There’s no clear answer, however preparing seed for food was very time- and labour-intensive. Also, as Aboriginal groups were massacred or forcibly removed from Country, such practices, and associated knowledges, largely disappeared.

An indigenous person grinding native grain.
Indigenous grain grinding was common before European settlement.
Wikimedia

The benefits of staple food

A native, staple Australian crop would allow us to grow food suited to our environment.

The benefits of producing food from native grasslands are well known. Grasslands need limited, if any, fertiliser, no pesticides, and can tap into groundwater so they don’t need irrigation or land cultivation.

While native grasslands yield less seed than conventional cropping systems (more on this later), fewer resources are needed to produce it. What’s more, grasslands simultaneously provide essential environmental “services” including supporting plant and animal diversity, covering bare ground, and enabling water infiltration, recycling of nutrients and carbon sequestration.




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Australia’s total agricultural production is currently worth about A$60.8 billion a year, and we export about 65% of what we produce. A staple Australian food might not contribute directly to the value of our agricultural exports, at least in the short term. But it may reduce the cost of pest control by increasing habitat for beneficial predators. It also represents a low-risk venture that provides returns to growers who want to increase the native vegetation on their properties.

We are not advocating the wholesale adoption of native grasses as a staple food crop in Australia. But it would be prudent to investigate how native grasses grow and produce seed, to better understand how current farming practices might be improved.

Collection of labelled jars containing grasses.
Native grasses.
Author provided

Connection to Country

Returning to native grasslands would provide a way to understand Indigenous perspectives on looking after Country.

Indigenous land managers used burning techniques to grow and maintain local grass crops. Grasslands are culturally and spiritually significant to Indigenous Australians. Their protection and regeneration could create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.

A number of grasses were used by Aboriginal people, all of which might be a good staple food for Australia. The best approach would be to grow a range of species matched with local customs, soil types, rainfall and season.

Bread re-imagined

Growing, processing, and making bread from native grass will involve new technologies and challenge current methods.

For example, native Mitchell grass, found across northern Australia, produces between a half and one tonne of grain per hectare – less than a quarter the yield of wheat.

This productivity can be increased by identifying and cultivating the plants producing more seed than their neighbours. These individuals have the best chance of producing the next generation of high-yield plants.




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The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Processing of native grains presents another challenge. The current grain-processing system receives bulk deliveries of wheat with known milling requirements at a set time of year. The timing, size and milling requirements of native grain deliveries would be far less predictable.

To be efficient, modern machine-processing of grain requires that the seed is clean, uniform in size and is not mixed with other types of seeds.

Bread on supermarket shelves
Modern bread making processes differ from that used to make bread from native grain.
Paul Miller/AAP

While the commercial process of making flour is relatively inflexible, in contrast, an experienced baker can work with many types of flour and adjust the dough as they go. This is how Aboriginal people baked loaves from native seed for thousands of years. Creating unique products from native grain will require flexible baking methods, including making them by hand.

In recent years, “ancient grains” such as quinoa, chia and spelt have grown in popularity among food consumers. These crops grow on their own and have been genetically improved for quality, so are relatively consistent when sold as seed, flour or in a baked product.

But Australia’s native grain products may contain multiple species that are grown and harvested together. So at the point of sale, consumers would have to accept that every loaf or biscuit or cake may have a different taste, and contain several types of grain.

Who earns the dough?

When developing native grain as an Australian staple food, we must also be careful not to exploit the knowledge of native grain production at the expense of the traditional caretakers of the knowledge and species. This would be repeating the mistakes of the past.

Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.




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The Conversation


Angela Pattison, Research scientist at Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plates, cups and takeaway containers shape what (and how) we eat



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Abby Mellick Lopes, University of Technology Sydney and Karen Weiss, Western Sydney University

Home cooks have been trying out their skills during isolation. But the way food tastes depends on more than your ability to follow a recipe.

Our surroundings, the people we share food with and the design of our tableware – our cups, bowls and plates, cutlery and containers – affect the way we experience food.




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For example, eating from a heavier bowl can make you feel food is more filling and tastes better than eating from a lighter one.

Contrast this with fast food, which is most commonly served in lightweight disposable containers, which encourages fast eating, underestimating how much food you’re eating, and has even been linked to becoming impatient.

These are just some examples of the vital, but largely unconscious, relationship between the design of our tableware – including size, shape, weight and colour – and how we eat.

In design, this relationship is referred to as an object’s “affordances”. Affordances guide interactions between objects and people.

As Australian sociologist Jenny Davis writes, affordances:

…push, pull, enable, and constrain. Affordances are how objects shape behaviour for socially situated subjects.

Designed objects don’t make us do things.

The colour of your crockery

When you visit a restaurant, the chances are your dinner will be served on a plain white plate.

But French chef Sebastien Lepinoy has staff paint the plates to match the daily menu and “entice the appetite”.

Research seems to back him up. Coloured plates can enhance flavours to actually change the dining experience.

The colour of your mug can influence the taste of your coffee.
Shutterstock

In one study, salted popcorn eaten from a coloured bowl tasted sweeter than popcorn eaten from a white bowl. In another, a café latte served in a coloured mug tasted sweeter than one in a white mug.

This association between colour and taste seems to apply to people from Germany to China.

A review of multiple studies conducted in many countries over 30 years finds people consistently associated particular colours with specific tastes.

Red, orange or pink is most often associated with sweetness, black with bitterness, yellow or green with sourness, and white and blue with saltiness.




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The size of your plate

The influence of plate size on meal portions depends on the dining experience and whether you are serving yourself. In a buffet, for example, people armed with a small plate may eat more because they can go back for multiple helpings.

Nonetheless, average plate and portion sizes have increased over the years. Back in her day, grandma used to serve meals on plates 25cm in diameter. Now, the average dinner plate is 28cm, and many restaurant dinner plates have expanded to 30cm.

Our waistlines have also expanded. Research confirms we tend to eat more calories when our plates are larger, because a larger capacity plate affords a greater portion size.

Plastic is too often ignored

The pace of our busy lives has led many people to rely on those handy takeaways in disposable plastic food containers just ready to pop into the microwave. And it’s tempting to use plastic cutlery and cups at barbecues, picnics and kids’ birthday parties.

In contrast to heavy, fragile ceramic tableware, plastic tableware is designed to be ignored. It is so lightweight, ubiquitous and cheap we don’t notice it and pay little mind to its disposal.

Plastics change the way we eat and drink.
Shutterstock

Plastics have also changed how we eat and drink. An aversion to the strong smell of plastic containers that once might have caused people to wrap their sandwiches before placing them in Tupperware seems to have disappeared. We drink hot coffee though plastic lids.

Australian economic sociologist Gay Hawkins and her colleagues argue lightweight, plastic water bottles have created entirely new habits, such as “constant sipping” on the go. New products are then designed to fit and reinforce this habit.

Aesthetics matter

Healthy eating is not only characterised by what we eat but how we eat.

For instance, eating mindfully – more thoughtfully and slowly by focusing on the experience of eating – can help you feel full faster and make a difference to how we eat.

And the Japanese cuisine Kaiseki values this mindful, slower approach to eating. It consists of small portions of beautifully arranged food presented in a grouping of small, attractive, individual plates and bowls.

This encourages the diner to eat more slowly and mindfully while appreciating not only the food but the variety and setting of the tableware.

Japanese people’s slower eating practices even apply to “fast food”.

One study found Japanese people were more likely to eat in groups, to stay at fast food restaurants for longer and to share fast food, compared with their North American counterparts.

Affordance theory is only now starting to account for cultural diversity in the ways in which designed objects shape practices and experiences.

The studies we have reviewed show tableware influences how we eat. Size, shape, weight, colour and aesthetics all play a part in our experience of eating.

This has wide implications for how we design for healthier eating – whether that’s to encourage eating well when we are out and about, or so we can better appreciate a tastier, healthier and more convivial meal at home.The Conversation

Abby Mellick Lopes, Associate Professor, Design Studies, Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney and Karen Weiss, PhD Candidate, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’ve had a taste of disrupted food supplies – here are 5 ways we can avoid a repeat



The Bread Famine and the Pawnbroker, Brothers Lesueur (18th century)

Kimberley Reis, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Griffith University

When our reliance on supermarkets is seriously disrupted – for example, by spikes in demand due to panic buying or the flooding of distribution centres – we are left with few alternatives. Supermarkets are central to our everyday lives, but they have also become symbols of our vulnerability in times of disruption.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused us to rethink many things we took for granted. This includes the plentiful supply of a great variety of food at relatively stable prices in our supermarkets.




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Grow your own: making Australian cities more food-secure


Until recently, if we thought about food security at all, it was more likely to conjure images of malnutrition in countries of the global south rather than empty supermarket shelves.

However, food insecurity exists in Australia. It can be experienced as hunger and also as feelings of anxiety about future food shortages.

The rise of supermarkets and global supply chains

Supermarkets were a 1930s success story that began during the Great Depression. The world’s first supermarket, King Kullen, opened with the enduring principle of “Pile it high, sell it low!” King Kullen became the standard model of supermarket operations with globally interconnected supply chains.

While this model epitomised the trend of globalisation, during the second world war more local food production was encouraged in the form of “victory gardens”. These made a significant contribution to food security during the war years. It was a demonstration of what can be achieved in times of crisis.

An Australian government ‘Grow your own’ campaign billboard from 1943.
NAA C2829/2



Read more:
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‘What if’ questions help us build resilience

Contingency planning is about being clear on your Plan B or Plan C if Plan A hits trouble. It’s about asking the “what if” questions. As a planning tool, this enables systems to build resilience to disruption by identifying other pathways to achieve desired outcomes.

The difference between now and the 1930s is that today we are vastly more connected at a global scale. Within our food-supply chains, we can use the knowledge that comes from this greater connectivity to ask different “what if” questions.

For example, what if a pandemic and a severe weather event overlapped, disrupting critical transport infrastructure? How could we adapt?

Or what if several Australian states experienced serious disruptions to food supply at the same time? How could we ensure timely resupply?

Recent experiences of empty supermarket shelves remind us of the importance of such questions.

Greater self-sufficiency is sensible and practical. Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience makes clear that we should understand the risks we live with – in this case, our deep-seated and often unquestioned dependency on long food-supply chains.




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The strategy also calls for authorities to help empower citizens to share responsibility where they can in building their own resilience to hardship. This taps into a primal urge, as we have seen in the recent spike in demand for seedlings and vegetable plants at nurseries as people take to home gardening, digging not so much for victory as for survival during a shutdown.

Strategies to prepare for the next crisis

These questions highlight the need to think about ways to complement and enhance existing arrangements for supplying food. Our research identifies several immediate opportunities to promote shorter food-supply chains and devise contingency food plans:

1. We can buy more locally produced food staples, support local producers at a farmers’ market, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, or take advantage of online platforms that make a range of locally grown food more readily available.

2. Local businesses can embed contingency arrangements to ensure access to locally produced food within their business continuity plans, building greater capacity to keep business and local economies operating in difficult times.

3. Supermarkets can advocate for and support shorter food-supply chains by sourcing food products locally where possible and championing “buy local” campaigns.

4. An active undertaking to identify and map the regional food bowls of each city and township will support contingency plans.

5. Local councils can help make it possible to grow much more of the food we need, even in relatively dense towns and cities. This can range from potted herbs on apartment balconies, through to broccoli in suburban backyards to intensive farming operations in big industrial estate sheds or rooftops. Municipal parks that feature little more than lawn can devote some space to community gardens, while more rigorous land-use planning regimes can protect market gardening near urban centres.




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Farming the suburbs – why can’t we grow food wherever we want?


Societies have faced significant food and health crises over the centuries. Now, though, we have almost real-time data on food production, stocks and supply chains. Would it not be sensible to strengthen local food systems that can complement our supermarkets and global networks?

If we don’t do this, the only lesson we will have learned from the coronavirus crisis is to start hoarding baked beans, toilet paper and hand sanitiser as soon as we first hear of a looming disaster.The Conversation

Kimberley Reis, Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Built Environment, and Director, Engagement (Industry), Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Professor of Urban Management & Planning and Director, Cities Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t panic: Australia has truly excellent food security



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Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Peter Gooday, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

COVID-19 has taken Australia and the world by surprise. Coming after severe droughts in eastern Australia, concerns have been raised about Australian food security.

The concerns are understandable, but they are misplaced.

Despite temporary shortages of some food items in supermarkets caused by an unexpected surge in demand, Australia does not have a food security problem.

An Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences study released today outlines why Australia is one of the most food-secure countries in the world.

Supermarket shelves reflect a surge in demand

Uncertainties around the impacts of COVID-19 have triggered a rapid increase in purchasing by consumers seeking to stockpile a range of items, resulting in disruption to stocks of some basic food items.

This disruption is temporary and not an indication of food shortages.

Rather, it is a result of logistics taking time to adapt to an unexpected surge in purchasing.

We are highly food-secure

Food security refers to the physical availability of food, and to whether people have the resources and opportunity to get reliable economic access to it.

Australia ranks among the most food secure nations in the world, and is in the top 10 countries for food affordability and availability.

Australians are wealthy by global standards and can choose from diverse and high-quality foods from all over the world at affordable prices.

Most Australians can afford to purchase healthy food that meets their nutritional needs, and as a result, Australia has the world’s equal-lowest level of undernourishment.

We import only 11% of our food

Most food and beverages consumed in Australia are produced in Australia.

But not everything that Australians like to eat is produced here. So we import about 11% of the food and beverages we consume by value.

The imports are mainly processed products (including coffee beans, frozen vegetables, seafood products, and beverages), along with small amounts of out-of-season fresh food.


Imported products account for 11% of expenditure on food and beverages

Imports of processed and fresh (primary) food and beverages, as a share of total food and beverage consumption (including tobacco and alcohol) by value, three year average 2016-17 to 2018-19. Does not include takeaway and restaurant meals.
ABS 5368.0, 5204.0

It is possible that disruptions to food imports from COVID-19 (or something else) could result in temporary shortages of some products, restricting consumer choice in the same way as cyclones have restricted access to Australian bananas.

It would be unlikely to have a material impact on food security – in terms of ensuring a sufficient supply of healthy and nutritious food, even if higher prices for or limited availability of specific products disappoints or inconveniences some consumers.

Australia produces more food than it consumes

Australia typically exports about 70% of agricultural production.

The level of exports varies across sectors. Some of our largest industries, such as beef and wheat, are heavily export-focused. Others, like horticulture, pork and poultry, sell most of their products in Australia, with an emphasis on supplying fresh produce.


Most Australian agricultural production is export oriented

Share of agricultural production exported by sector, 3 year average, 2015-16 to 2017-18.
Source: ABARES 2020

Australia’s large exports, even in severe drought years, act as a shock absorber for domestic supply.

They allow domestic consumption to remain stable while exports vary, absorbing the ups and downs associated with Australia’s variable climate and seasonal conditions.


Domestic food consumption is stable, while agricultural exports vary

Domestic consumption and export estimates for wheat, beef, rice, fruit and nuts, 2006-07 to 2020-21. Fruit and nuts covers table grapes, apples, pears, oranges, mandarins, peaches, mangoes, bananas, almonds and macadamias. f = forecast.
Source: ABARES 2020

The outlook for rain is good

After a hot and dry 2019 and widespread drought conditions in NSW and Queensland, above-average recent rains and positive forecasts provide the basis for the best start to Australia’s agricultural production season in years.

While current prospects for winter crops are good, more rain is required for these to be realised.

The Bureau is forecasting that grain production is likely to return to close to average levels, with a significant chance of higher production given the good start to the winter cropping season.


Wetter than average conditions are likely across agricultural areas from May to July 2020

Map shows chance of exceeding median rainfall for the period May to July 2020, showing above average rainfall is likely or very likely across all inland areas of Australia, including the wheat sheep zone.
Source: BOM, April 9, 2020

For livestock producers, better seasonal conditions provide the opportunity to rebuild herds and flocks following a relatively long period of destocking.

Our access to food is secure

Australia is one of the most food-secure countries in the world, with ample supplies of safe, healthy food. The vast majority of it is produced here in Australia, and domestic production more than meets our needs, even in drought years.

While we import about 11% of our food and beverages, disruptions to these imports would not threaten the food security of most Australians.

The Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences is forecasting a return to close to average levels of grain production, with a significant chance of higher production, given the good start to the winter cropping season.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


The analysis released today explores related issues in more depth, including the contribution of irrigated agriculture to Australian food security, levels of global grain stocks, and the contributions of international trade and Australian exports to food security in other countries.

Australia’s agricultural producers do rely on global supply chains and imported inputs. Shortages or disruptions to these inputs have not yet been significant or widespread, but could reduce productivity and profitability.

While action is already in train to address key issues, it will be important for business and government to continue actively monitoring and managing these risks.The Conversation

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Peter Gooday, Acting Executive Director Agriculture, Water, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘How will we eat’? India’s coronavirus lockdown threatens millions with severe hardship



HARISH TYAGI/EPA

Craig Jeffrey, University of Melbourne; Febe De Geest, University of Melbourne, and Jane Dyson, University of Melbourne

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown for India’s 1.3 billion people. With just four hours’ notice, the government instructed everyone to remain in their homes, banned public events, closed schools and colleges and shut commercial and industrial outlets across the country.

The World Health Organisation has praised Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The lockdown may also be crucial in preventing the spread of the virus.

But the recent move to prevent community transmission is having an enormous impact on those most in need in India – the hundreds of millions who live in poverty.

The Uttar Pradesh government has arranged for 1,000 buses for migrant labourers as hundreds of them started walking to their villages on foot.
Stringer/EPA

Food aid from government ‘feels like a joke’

Over 90% of India’s 500 million non-agricultural workers are employed in the informal economy, for example, as construction workers, food vendors, rickshaw drivers or in sales. After the lockdown was announced, many people found their industries or operations had closed, or new rules about travel and social distancing prevented them from working.

One such individual, Anand, belongs to an adivasi, or tribal, migrant community living in a slum colony in the outskirts of Nagpur, a city in Maharashtra, central India. We met Anand (all names in the story are pseudonyms) in the context of research we have been undertaking on social transformation in contemporary India.




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Since the start of the lockdown, Anand has not been allowed to work in his usual job, cutting trees. Like most others in the informal economy, he relies on his daily wages and has no employment rights, paid leave, insurance or savings.

With no regular access to clean water or even soap, Anand is concerned about COVID-19. He his even more worried about hunger.

I’m so afraid. How long will this last for? If we can’t go to work, how will we get money? And if we don’t have money, how will we eat?

Last week, the federal government announced direct cash transfers to poorer households, mainly through existing government schemes, and provided the elderly, widows and disabled people pension payments for three months in advance.

Two days later, Modi established a Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES fund) to solicit donations from companies and individuals to help those in need.

Several state governments, including Maharashtra, are engaged in similar measures, offering cash transfers and free food to the poor.




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But the amounts of money and food provided through government initiatives are insufficient and sometimes delivered slowly. Many migrants are also not formally registered to receive support through existing schemes. Instead, they have to rely on NGOs or find some way to “make do” themselves.

Anand has been relying in recent days on a local NGO, which delivers a small bag of food to feed his family of six. Commenting on the tiny parcels that arrive, he said: “It feels like a joke.”

Rural communities worries about returning migrants

There are millions in similar situations across India. Yogesh is a rickshaw driver living on the outskirts of Meerut, a city in Uttar Pradesh, not far from New Delhi. He told us that when his work dries up, “even my shit stops.”

The Uttar Pradesh government has promised one-off cash transfers to its residents, but these amount to just 1,000 rupees, or roughly A$21.50, which is hardly enough to feed a family for five days.

Anand and Yogesh still had some form of shelter, but since the lockdown a large number of India’s enormous migrant worker population – many of whom receive housing through their employer – have become homeless.




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In Delhi, night shelters are grossly overcrowded and thousands of people are stranded at bus and train stations. Many have begun walking home, often journeys of hundreds of kilometres, only to be forced to return to the cities.

Workers spray disinfectant inside a building compound in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.
FAROOQ KHAN/EPA

These struggles are not confined to urban areas. Vandita, who we also know well through our research, lives in a remote village in the Himalayas. As a subsistence farmer, she has some stores of food and even some savings. But the lockdown scares her.

Last year’s crop stores are running dangerously low, and the spring harvest in the mountains is still some months away. Social distancing measures restrict effective agricultural work, particularly the cooperative labour groups so essential to survival in these harsh environments and for the social lives of rural women.

Disrupted supply chains is also making it increasingly difficult to find food to buy at the markets.

The sense of fear and uncertainty is already affecting people’s mental health. Vandita speaks about growing rates of depression as isolation measures disrupt the collective work and cohesion on which the social and economic life of the village depends.

If migrant labourers return from the cities, Vandita predicts her village will be “in crisis”. Like other villagers, she lacks access to decent health care. Reaching the nearest major hospital would be a journey of several days. If there was an outbreak of coronavirus in the village, it would have rapid and tragic consequences.

India has so far avoided the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though there has been a spike of cases in recent days. The short-term security of people like Anand, Yohesh and Vandita will depend on the capacity of government to expand its distribution of support.

For many of India’s poor, time is running out.The Conversation

Craig Jeffrey, Director and CEO of the Australia India Institute; Professor of Development Geography, University of Melbourne; Febe De Geest, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne, and Jane Dyson, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We know how long coronavirus survives on surfaces. Here’s what it means for handling money, food and more



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Ian M. Mackay, The University of Queensland and Katherine Arden, The University of Queensland

Like the other 200 or so respiratory viruses we know of, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the new coronavirus, infects the cells of our airways.

It causes a range of signs and symptoms, or none at all. It can spread easily from person-to-person, and can be coughed into the air and onto surfaces.

Viruses only replicate inside a living cell – outside the cell, they’re on a path to either infect us, or their own destruction. How long a virus survives outside a cell varies.

Researchers found SARS-CoV-2 remains infectious in airborne droplets for at least three hours. This doesn’t mean infected humans produce enough virus in a cough to infect another person, but they might.


Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

We think the virus also spreads by touch. Hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, stainless steel, benchtops, and likely glass can support infectious virus, expelled in droplets, for up to 72 hours. But the virus rapidly degrades during this time. On fibrous and absorbent surfaces such as cardboard, paper, fabric and hessian, it becomes inactive more quickly.

How can we reduce risk from surfaces and objects?

Frequently touched surfaces are all around us. Benches, handrails, door handles – they are in our homes, on our way to work, school, play, shop, and every other destination. There’s a risk of contaminating these surfaces if we touch them with virus-laden fingers, and a risk we’ll contract the virus from such surfaces.

Think of your hands as the enemy. Wash them well, and much more often than usual. Between hand-washing, avoid constantly touching the mucous membranes that lead to your airways. Basically, try not to rub your eyes, pick your nose, or touch your lips and mouth.




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Taking precautions through small actions

We’re already seeing engineering initiatives to help combat the virus’s spread. In Sydney, pedestrian crossings have been automated so people can avoid touching the buttons.

To slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, assume everything outside your home is potentially contaminated, and act accordingly. So don’t touch your face, sanitise frequently while you are out, and wash your hands and clean your phone once home.

While it’s best to stay home, keep these tips in mind if you must leave the house.

• Going shopping

Grocery shopping requires touching surfaces and items, including trolleys and baskets. Sometimes sanitiser or antibacterial wipes are available for hands and handles at the store entrance – but they’re often not, so bring your own (if you can get some). It probably doesn’t matter what type of bag you use, but have a plan for how to avoid bringing the virus into your home.

• Making payments

Cards and cash could transfer the virus to your hands. That said, card payment is probably lower risk because you retain the card and don’t have to touch other people. But wherever possible, contact-free bank transfers would pose the least risk.

• Handling and eating fresh and canned food

SARS-CoV-2 is inactivated at temperatures well below those required in the process of canning food, so canned food is free of it. For freshly packaged food, risk depends on whether the person doing the packing was sick or not. If you are concerned, stick with food that can be cooked, peeled or washed in mild soapy water, and thoroughly rinsed.




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While evidence is weak, we know soap and water should inactivate SARS-CoV-2 on food – but this will work better on foods with a shinier, harder outer surface, compared to foods that have been cut or have softer surfaces, such as strawberries and raspberries. If you decide to wash any food with soap, make sure all the soap is removed.

• At the park

Avoid equipment that is likely used a lot, including play equipment and water fountains. It would be safer to kick a ball around or play on the grass, rather than use swings. Sandpits hold horrors other than SARS-CoV-2.

• Takeaway and deliveries

When getting takeaway food, or for businesses offering it, avoid plastic containers and use more fibrous materials such as cardboard, paper and fabric for packaging. Researchers found no infectious SARS-CoV-2 on cardboard after 24 hours.

Also, avoid proximity to servers and delivery people, and opt for contactless delivery whenever you can.

• Public transport, escalators, elevators and bathrooms

Frequently touched hard, shiny surfaces such as lift buttons and handle bars in trams are a big risk, more so than fabric seats, or taking the stairs. Even the most high-tech overseas surface cleaning efforts are intermittent, so you’ll need to take responsibility for yourself. Also, after using public bathrooms, wash your hands well.

Calm and calculated

It’s important to be calm, realistic and not focus on single events or actions once you step outside. You can’t account for everything.

Think more about the risk of the entire task rather than the many small risks encountered during the process. A silver lining in taking such precautions is that you’ll also reduce your risk of catching the flu this season.

It’s also important to keep your home clean. You can use diluted bleach, detergents or alcohol solutions on surfaces. Queensland Health has more information.




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For items that are hard to clean, sunshine may be valuable. Leave your shoes outside, soles up, in the sun. Coronaviruses begin degrading quickly in temperatures higher than 56 degrees Celsius, and in direct UV light.

Ultimately, the best ways to avoid SARS-CoV-2 infection are primitive ones – sanitise your hands and stay away from others. Physical distancing remains the most effective measure to slow the progression of this pandemic.The Conversation

Ian M. Mackay, Adjunct assistant professor, The University of Queensland and Katherine Arden, Virologist, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frozen, canned or fermented: when you can’t shop often for fresh vegetables, what are the best alternatives?



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Jesse Beasley, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, University of Melbourne

If you’re trying to reduce your trips to the shops as you practise social distancing and contribute to “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus spread, you might be wondering what it means for your vegetable crisper.

Fresh vegetables need replacing often and, thanks to panic buying, there’s no guarantee you’ll find your favourite fresh foods in your local supermarket.

The good news is there are some really nutritious alternatives to fresh vegetables, and the old adage that “fresh is best” isn’t always true.

How to ‘flatten the curve’. Video by the Australian Academy of Science.

Even before coronavirus, vegetables were getting pricier

Fresh vegetable prices have been increasing on average 2% per year over the past decade.

In Australia, vegetable prices are expected to increase 20-50% over the coming months due to drought and the recent bushfires.

Cauliflower, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, and root vegetables such as potatoes and pumpkins are expected to be hardest hit.

We should therefore all be thinking of ways to maximise the shelf life of our fresh veggies. In addition, it’s important not to forget the value of frozen, canned and fermented alternatives.




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Don’t skip the veggies, even in a pandemic

Australian dietary guidelines recommend daily consumption of different types and colours of vegetables. However, these guidelines don’t say in what form these veggies should be eaten.

Fresh vegetables are at their most nutritious (and often cheapest) when they are recently harvested and in season, which is not always the case on supermarket shelves.

Long transport times and poor storage conditions can also reduce the nutritional quality of fresh vegetables.

The upshot is that frozen and fermented vegetables can provide the same nutrition as fresh alternatives, especially as they’re often harvested in season and snap-frozen or fermented soon after picking.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember vegetables are not only nutritious – they can also reduce the risk of cancer and improve your gut microbiome.

Frozen and fermented vegetables can provide the same nutrition as fresh alternatives.
Shutterstock

Fresh vs frozen vegetables

The shelf life of fresh vegetables is generally short (3-14 days) even when refrigerated. Freezing, on the other hand, can preserve the nutritional quality of vegetables and increase their shelf life to up to 12 months.

In some cases, frozen vegetables have a higher nutritional quality than fresh vegetables, particularly if there is a short time between harvesting and freezing.

Nevertheless, some nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin C are vulnerable to the freezing process. One study found higher levels of vitamin C in fresh capsicum, carrot, parsley and spinach relative to frozen alternatives.

Variation in the freezing process, storage conditions and temperature can also change the quality of vegetables.

For example, ice crystals that form during freezing can damage the internal cell structure of potatoes and negatively affect their texture.

If you want to freeze vegetables yourself, select those that are fresh, undamaged and in season and blanch them quickly before freezing. This helps retain colour, flavour and nutritional quality.

Some vegetables such as tomato, capsicum and corn do not need to be blanched before freezing.

Blanching and freezing fresh veggies is a great way to improve shelf life.
Shutterstock

Canned and fermented vegetables

Canning and/or fermentation can extend the shelf life of vegetables to between one and five years.

Canned vegetables generally have a similar nutritional profile to fresh vegetables, particularly when it comes to minerals and fibre. However, certain steps in the process (such as peeling) may lead to some nutritional loss.

Just remember that once opened, canned vegetables should be stored in a separate container and consumed within three days.

Fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut not only taste delicious, they have a range of health benefits and are packed with beneficial probiotics.

During fermentation, microorganisms convert the carbohydrates in veggies into alcohol and/or acids that act as natural preservatives (extending shelf life) and can improve the digestibility of starch and protein.

Fermented vegetables are also full of antioxidants and adding extra ingredients like ginger, chilli and garlic can make them an even more nutritious choice.

To reap the full benefits, ferment veggies yourself or choose refrigerated fermented vegetables at the shops (unrefrigerated versions are pasteurised and can have lower probiotic benefits).

Keep calm and eat veggies

Vegetables are a great source of essential nutrients and Australians should aim to eat a wide variety of them each day.

By including fresh, frozen, canned and fermented vegetables in our diet, we not only give our bodies a boost, but help to take pressure off Australian growers to produce high quality and seasonal vegetables all year round.

The vast majority of Australians don’t eat enough vegetables, and these nutritious and tasty alternatives could be the key to improving our overall health – at a time when we need it most.The Conversation

Jesse Beasley, PhD Student in BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, Senior Lecturer Food Chemistry, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, PhD Candidate, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, Associate Professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 ways nutrition could help your immune system fight off the coronavirus



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Clare Collins, University of Newcastle

The coronavirus presents many uncertainties, and none of us can completely eliminate our risk of getting COVID-19. But one thing we can do is eat as healthily as possible.

If we do catch COVID-19, our immune system is responsible for fighting it. Research shows improving nutrition helps support optimal immune function.

Micronutrients essential to fight infection include vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, and the minerals iron, selenium, and zinc.

Here’s what we know about how these nutrients support our immune system and the foods we can eat to get them.




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1. Vitamin A

Vitamin A maintains the structure of the cells in the skin, respiratory tract and gut. This forms a barrier and is your body’s first line of defence. If fighting infection was like a football game, vitamin A would be your forward line.

We also need vitamin A to help make antibodies which neutralise the pathogens that cause infection. This is like assigning more of your team to target an opposition player who has the ball, to prevent them scoring.

Vitamin A is found in oily fish, egg yolks, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes.

Further, vegetables contain beta-carotene, which your body can convert into vitamin A. Beta-carotene is found in leafy green vegetables and yellow and orange vegetables like pumpkin and carrots.

2. B vitamins

B vitamins, particularly B6, B9 and B12, contribute to your body’s first response once it has recognised a pathogen.

They do this by influencing the production and activity of “natural killer” cells. Natural killer cells work by causing infected cells to “implode”, a process called apoptosis.

At a football match, this role would be like security guards intercepting wayward spectators trying to run onto the field and disrupt play.

Fish is a good source of vitamin B6.
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B6 is found in cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, chicken and meat.

B9 (folate) is abundant in green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and is added to commercial bread-making flour.

B12 (cyanocobalamin) is found in animal products, including eggs, meat and dairy, and also in fortified soy milk (check the nutrition information panel).

3. Vitamins C and E

When your body is fighting an infection, it experiences what’s called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress leads to the production of free radicals which can pierce cell walls, causing the contents to leak into tissues and exacerbating inflammation.

Vitamin C and vitamin E help protect cells from oxidative stress.




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Vitamin C also helps clean up this cellular mess by producing specialised cells to mount an immune response, including neutrophils, lymphocytes and phagocytes.

So the role of vitamin C here is a bit like cleaning up the football ground after the game.

Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, lemons, limes, berries, kiwifruit, broccoli, tomatoes and capsicum.

Vitamin E is found in nuts, green leafy vegetables and vegetables oils.

4. Vitamin D

Some immune cells need vitamin D to help destroy pathogens that cause infection.

Although sun exposure allows the body to produce vitamin D, food sources including eggs, fish and some milks and margarine brands may be fortified with Vitamin D (meaning extra has been added).

Most people need just a few minutes outdoors most days.

People with vitamin D deficiency may need supplements. A review of 25 studies found vitamin D supplements can help protect against acute respiratory infections, particularly among people who are deficient.

5. Iron, zinc, selenium

We need iron, zinc and selenium for immune cell growth, among other functions.

Iron helps kill pathogens by increasing the number of free radicals that can destroy them. It also regulates enzyme reactions essential for immune cells to recognise and target pathogens.

Whole grain foods contain a variety of important nutrients.
Shutterstock

Zinc helps maintain the integrity of the skin and mucous membranes. Zinc and selenium also act as an antioxidant, helping mop up some of the damage caused by oxidative stress.

Iron is found in meat, chicken and fish. Vegetarian sources include legumes, whole grains and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Zinc is found in oysters and other seafood, meat, chicken, dried beans and nuts.

Nuts (especially Brazil nuts), meat, cereals and mushrooms are good food sources of selenium.




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Putting it all together

It’s true some supermarkets are out of certain products at the moment. But as much as possible, focus on eating a variety of foods within each of the basic food groups to boost your intake of vitamins and minerals.

While vitamin and mineral supplements are not recommended for the general population, there are some exceptions.

Pregnant women, some people with chronic health conditions, and people with conditions that mean they can’t eat properly or are on very restrictive diets, may need specific supplements. Talk to your doctor, Accredited Practising Dietitian or pharmacist.




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And beyond diet, there are other measures you can take to stay as healthy as possible in the face of coronavirus.

Stop smoking to improve your lung’s ability to fight infection, perform moderate intensity exercise like brisk walking, get enough sleep, practise social distancing and wash your hands with soap regularly.The Conversation

Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.