A visiting food security expert says New Zealand has a "fabulous opportunity" to position itself as an agricultural knowledge exporter in the face of looming food crises.

Australian Julian Cribb, an award-winning journalist and author of The Coming Famine, is in New Zealand to warn that global food shortages and price spikes are closer than we think.

He said food protests were at the heart of the Arab Spring civilian uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

More upheavals such as a major drought in India or China could drive the price of bread to $20 or $30 a loaf, he said.

His book says that in the past 10 years food demand has increased drastically - especially from China, India and Brazil - while supply has lapsed due to land, water, oil, and technology shortages.

"Every time there's a shortfall, we are going to see sharp kicks in price, and a lot of instability. It's transmitted very rapidly from the globalised food system to the market, and people experience high prices and get angry. And we will see shocks every few years from now on."

Facing this grim scenario, Professor Cribb said New Zealand should capitalise on its "intellectual riches".

"I don't see it at the moment, [because] New Zealand sees itself as a commodity exporter and a tourist destination. But it could be New Zealand knowledge which fixes problems on, say, the North China Plain.

"Look at Microsoft, which makes so much selling knowledge. New Zealand could be the Silicon Valley of agricultural knowledge."

New Zealand farmers are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil or fertiliser price. The Government could offset this weakness by investing more heavily in research and development, Cribb said.

While New Zealanders are becoming familiar with the factors which make petrol prices spike, people are less aware of the global influences on the cost of food.

"Supermarkets give us an illusion of abundance," Professor Cribb said. "People in food surplus countries just assume the supermarkets will always be stocked.

"They know there is hunger in the Third World, but they often assume 'it can't happen to me'."

Cribb said supermarkets were complicit in food waste by encouraging people to buy more than they needed. But New Zealanders also needed to alter their diet to ensure food supplies were adequate into the future.

He recommended that people eat 50 per cent more fruit and vegetables, in order to get away from energy-intensive foods.

"If there's 10 billion of us all wanting hamburgers, then the world's in trouble. "People are amazed to learn that there are more than 23,000 edible plants on this planet, of which we regularly eat only about 200-300.

"We have not even begun the next great culinary adventure."

* Professor Julian Cribb is speaking at LATE at Auckland Museum tonight at 6.30.