THE agriculture sector breathed a cautious sigh of relief when Joe Hockey handed down the 2014 Federal Budget. The axe swung, but apparently not so hard that it badly damaged the tree.
Appearances can be deceptive, though. In the long term, the budget was another of the thousand cuts that State and federal governments are delivering to agricultural research, and thus to Australia’s future productivity and competitiveness in international markets.
On one hand, the Coalition giveth, allocating an extra $100 million over four years towards “cutting-edge technology and applied research” for agriculture.
On the other side, it taketh away. Key science agencies lost about $200 million in the Budget: $114 million from CSIRO, $80m from the Co-operative Research Centre Program, and $11m from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).
CSIRO and the CRC program are not dedicated solely to agriculture, but each has had an enormous impact on the sector. Just one project undertaken in one CRC, the development of Meat Standards Australia by the Beef CRC in the late 1990s, was by 2010 estimated to have returned $200 million to the beef industry after all costs were accounted for.
One hundred million dollars should be an impressive figure, but it is dwarfed by other even more impressive figures. It is 0.2 per cent of the value of gross farm output (about $48.7 billion in 2010-11); 0.8 per cent of the $12 billion allocated to buying new fighter jets; or 2.8 per cent of the $3.5 billion allocated in the 2014 Budget to infrastructure projects in Western Sydney.
It’s about how much farmers themselves each year contribute to research through research and development corporations - and recall that the Federal $100 m will be delivered over four years, meaning that delivery will be in the order of $25 m a year.
Twenty-five million dollars is less than 1 per cent of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2014 agricultural research budget, and about 0.7 per cent of the investment that US universities alone made in agricultural research in 2013.
This is an unjust comparison: the combined Australian agricultural research spend is a lot more than $25m a year, and the US has a far larger tax base and agricultural sector.
The point, though, is that $25m a year is small change in the competitive global environment that Australia has to play in. It’s unlikely to shift agriculture’s productivity needle far, at a time when the needle has to be way around in the red.
There is a growing strategic necessity to keep a growing global population fed against a background of dwindling resources. Maintaining the status quo isn’t good enough.
At some point, governments will realise the implications of underinvestment in agriculture and think about restoring the situation. It may already be too late, though.
The decades of scientific expertise that have been shed from research departments and agencies can’t be recovered in a budget, or even 10. Scientists, like elephants, have a long gestation period. They take years to train, and decades to come to grips with the dynamic interactions of agricultural ecology.
We can farm out our research to private enterprise, but private enterprise only asks the questions that lead to profit.
Australia needs a 21st Century version of the approach taken by mid-20th Century CSIRO, which widely explored the question of how to make Australian agriculture great.
That requires the funding for free-ranging scientific enquiry and basic research that is allowed to go up dry gullies in search of specks of scientific gold.
The alternative is to be beholden to corporations or other countries for research breakthroughs, a recipe that diminishes competitive advantage.
Costs are rising, productivity has plateaued, and a rising tide of technology is lifting historically underperforming countries to new levels of agricultural prowess. It is as evident as a Charolais bull in an Angus herd that more investment in ag-related science is needed.
If future budgets continue to promote infrastructure over science, then all we may succeed in doing is building highways to nowhere.