Efforts to curb Australia’s rising rate of obesity will not be helped by a forecasted dramatic rise in fresh food prices over the next decade.

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Prices could increase by as much as 45 per cent, say Professors Geoffrey Lawrence and Michael D’Occhio who are co-leaders of food security at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute.

The reasons were complex and global in reach, they said, and would place extra pressure on those many Australians who could already not afford a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“Many of them can’t now and we know that in terms of diet, people with lower incomes tend to be those who can buy junk foods,” Prof Lawrence said.

“A lot of low income people survive as a consequence of being able to buy what are nutritionally rich but often, over a time period, particularly bad, in terms of health, products.”

Prof Lawrence said it was estimated the efficiency of the global food supply would have to improve between 50 to 100 per cent to feed the world’s projected nine billion people by 2050.

Despite this the world was seeing declining availability of farming land because of soil degradation and water availability problems, along with a “plateauing in productivity” caused by a drop-off in research and development spending.

Hedge funds and investment banks were also moving into supply of food, Prof Lawrence said, and this “financialisation of agriculture” had promoted a negative shift in focus towards speculation.

“In combination, those factors are the ones that are going to conspire to cause food prices to be high at least over the next decade or so,” Prof Lawrence said.

Prof D’Occhio added rising energy costs, as well as the emerging biofuels sector that would see vehicles join those groups competing for the world’s agricultural output.

It all pointed to rising prices for basic nutritious foods, he said, and a further hurdle to addressing the nation’s existing and serious dietary problems.

“Whilst we might be food rich, Australia is very quickly becoming nutrition poor,” Prof D’Occhio said.

Australia was now seeing an “extraordinary increase” in early onset and obesity-related type 2 diabetes.

There were also concerns that a poor diet during pregnancy would have a major impact on the next generation of Australians, he said.

“There is a clear danger that people who are nutritionally deprived early in life do not reach the same sort of potential of contribution to society, they have reduced well-being and are more susceptible to environmental-induced health issues so diabetes, (high) blood pressure and so on.”

“Diet is extremely critical,” Prof D’Occhio said.

On the plus side, the professors said there was a growing recognition by supermarket chains the amount of “food waste” – fruit and vegetables not accepted for sale solely for aesthetic reasons – must be reduced.

They spoke to reporters during a briefing held by the Australian Science Media Centre on Monday.

A public forum to discuss agriculture and food security issues will be held at the University of Queensland’s Gatton Campus, from 1pm AEST, on Tuesday.