AGRICULTURE Minister Barnaby Joyce's declaiming of Australia as an “Asian food bowl” as “ridiculous” was a clear admission that all the talk of a food bowl from senior government ministers has been just that: talk.
But I was quick to offer Barnaby my support. How could I not? I’ve been saying the same thing for 12 months!
As I told The Australian-sponsored Global Food Forum in March, “Asian food bowl” is a phrase I don’t use because it suggests Australia can be a primary and substantial provider of food to our Asian neighbours. This can never be.
Australia currently produces enough food to feed a little more than 60 million people – about 23 million Australians and some 40 million others around the world. If we were to triple our food output by volume, we could feed around 160 million. Yet there are more than 4 billion people living in Asia alone.
Instead of “food bowl”, I’ve promoted the term “dining boom”. Tripling our exports, either by volume or value might not feed the bulk of Asia, but it would be a “boom” here in Australia by anyone’s language.
There is no doubt that the growing middle classes of Asia present Australia with an amazing opportunity. Capitalising on that opportunity should be amongst the highest of priorities for Australian governments. Our success or otherwise will in no small part determine our future economic prosperity – mining boom to dining boom.
But it has to be about value above volume. Volume will be important but Australia has limited (and in some cases depleting) land, water and soil resources. In the long run innovation may allow us to produce more with less. But in the foreseeable future volume will be constrained.
This is an issue ignored by the Abbott government. The sector most affected by climate change is agriculture. Yet while Tony Abbott concedes climate change is a problem (unlike Barnaby Joyce, who is a denier), he has no plan to address its impact on agriculture.
Indeed the long awaited Agriculture White Paper - which by the time of release will have produced 18 months of policy inertia - will not (according to its terms of reference) address natural resource sustainability or climate change issues.
In the short-to medium-term, output will also be held back by infrastructure short-falls. Indeed the ANZ Bank-Port Jackson Partners report entitled Greener Pastures has suggested we need around $500 billion of infrastructure investment by 2050 to fully capitalise on the dining boom. This is a big issue, we need big capital injections in our ports, rail and on-farm infrastructure. For example in wheat, the competitive advantage provided by Australia’s proximity to key to Asian markets is being off-set by old and inefficient up-country rail networks.
Governments will never alone have the funds to adequately redress these infrastructure short-falls. Big multinational players looking to establish global, year-round supply chains should be welcomed. This is why Treasurer Joe Hockey’s decision on the ADM play for GrainCorp was so disappointing – it sends all the wrong messages in a very competitive global capital market.
But I return to value: Australia’s limited capital, people, land and water resources must focus on those commodities that create the best returns for the farmer and the nation. So too must our research and development effort. The White Paper will be a failure if it doesn’t address what will be hard questions on this front.
That point was borne out in the recent Business Council of Australia report: Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages. There, McKinsey and Co argued that our future economic success will be tied to “growing those sectors of our economy that can win on a global scale and make the greatest contribution to lifting our national wealth”.
Labor paved the way for a comprehensive plan and strategy for Australian agriculture with the National Food Plan, the Asia Century White Paper and the Feeding the Future report – the third a blueprint to raise rural productivity and to increase Australia's role in supplying global food markets.
All these plans in part, looked at Asian tastes, branding, marketing and technology transfer opportunities. Tragically, they now gather dust while we await the Government’s White paper. Eighteen months lost is 18 too many. Meanwhile, our competitors in New Zealand, South America and elsewhere have been on the march!