The Federal Government's National Food Plan envisages Australia as becoming the food bowl for Asia. However, CSIRO scientists say that far greater investment in research into water efficiency is needed if this is to become possible.
The British water expert, Professor Tony Allan, who created the concept of virtual water, said that ""Virtual water is the water needed to produce something – so if it's a tonne of wheat you need [that’s] 1,000 tonnes [of water]. For a tonne of beef, it’s 16,000 [tonnes of water]. So it takes some water to grow some things and an awful lot to grow others."
Australia is one of the largest net exporters of virtual water in the world and is reaching the limits of its water resources. In some places, such as the Murray-Darling Basin, farms' water entitlements are having to be cut by thousands of gigalitres.
Past research has led to greatly improved yields and water efficiency. For example, rice yields have been improved from 5 tonnes per hectare in the 1950s to about 10 tonnes per hectare today.
The CSIRO's Dr John Hornbuckle commented that "We've been very successful in terms of agriculture around water use. As we move into the future we'll need to continue to ramp up those activities within the next 10-15 years to meet the ongoing challenges which we find in the agricultural industries."