AGRICULTURE’S prerogative to replace mining as Australia’s future boom export industry will be up for discussion this week in Canberra.
High profile mining billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest will speak on industry investment potential at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) Outlook conference, held on March 3-4.
Mr Forrest is expected to make a big announcement on plans for "waterproofing" Australia at the annual event before hundreds of industry heavyweights.
While the announcement details are being kept under wraps, it’s understood Mr Forrest will also use the forum to highlight the strategic value of his Australia-Sino Hundred Year Agricultural and Food Safety Partnership (ASA-100). The ASA-100 is a food branding concept developed by Mr Forrest to strengthen farm export opportunities, which are increasingly driven by growing consumer demand in China.
The strategic partnership was formally signed at Parliament House in Canberra last November to coincide with the historic China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).
That signing was also witnessed by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Chinese President Xi Jinping and ASA-100 members, including the National Farmers' Federation.
The ASA-100 comprises 50 agricultural industry representatives and government officials from Australia and China.
Mr Forrest established the group after visiting China and meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang who explained the critical importance of food security to his people.
“He said, ‘Andrew, forget corruption and foreign policy; my major concern is food supply and food safety to my people. What are you doing about it?’,” Mr Forrest said.
Mr Forrest will appear at ABARES on the opening day on Tuesday in a special session dedicated to agribusiness investment.
The discussion will be chaired by Agriculture Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes and will include CBH chief executive Dr Andrew Crane and Ernst & Young Oceania chief executive Tony Johnson.
Mr Forrest is also chair of the Minderoo Foundation and Fortescue Metals. A Minderoo spokesperson said the organisation was working with Australian universities to better understand how Australia's huge aquifers and underground water basins can be harnessed to increase agricultural production and drought protection.
"This will ensure the food safety of Australia as well as servicing the increased demand from Asia's growing middle class,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Forrest also plans to tell the ABARES conference that his ASA-100 concept and recent FTAs signed by the Coalition government represent the bones of Asian investment into agriculture.
But he also believes real meat needs to be added to the bones of those trade deals through stronger water security and water infrastructure investment from Asia; improvements in value adding in Australia; Australia branding improvements in Asian supermarkets; and export infrastructure like rail and ports.
Mr Forrest has also seized on significant opportunities to export beef into China and other Asian countries, boosted by the recent FTAs through his investment last year in Western Australia’s largest beef exporter, Harvey Beef.
After seeing decades of agricultural decline, the mining magnate wants to reverse that trend. Mr Forest said the ASA-100 isn’t an industry pressure group or political body – but brings together players from both countries with common goals to ensure Australia becomes an instantly recognisable brand for top quality, safe Australian food and agricultural products in Asia.
He said upon visiting China, he was heartbroken at being unable to find easily identifiable Australian food products, despite walking miles of shopping aisles and seeing food other products from all over the world.
Mr Forrest said Australia had serviced China’s iron ore shortage and was in a similar position with food security being an issue, given the population is moving out of poverty and into middle classes, upgrading their dietary habits in the process.
He also comes from a family history spanning about 140 years in farming and agriculture and worked as a jackaroo on a Tasmanian farms in his youth.
“That’s my passion, there’s not really a quid in it – I have about 1 per cent of my assets in ag - but it’s really where my heart lies,” he said.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce will deliver the opening address on day one of the ABARES conference. Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister Warren Truss will speak on day two, as will the Parliamentary Secretary to the Agriculture Minister, Richard Colbeck.
Other ASA-100 members include Fletcher International Exports, Murray Goulburn Co-operative, Teys Australia and Consolidated Pastoral Company.