NOT all research projects provide definitive bottom line conclusions - but the investigation process can still deliver new or valuable insights, as the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s latest work has shown.
The RIRDC report, Assessing the competitiveness of Australian agriculture was written by the Australian Farm Institute and released last week.
The report investigated the potential development of a national agricultural competitiveness index to evaluate Australia’s performance against other leading farm nations like the US, Brazil and Canada.
RIRDC managing director Craig Burns said the research involved an investigation of the current understanding both in Australia and internationally of factors that contribute to the competitiveness of a national agriculture sector.
Mr Burns said specifically, the research involved an investigation of the potential for development of a competitiveness indicator or index as a tool to inform decision-making about ways to enhance agricultural competitiveness.
He said the research found that interest in the development of indicators of competitiveness had been growing internationally, especially as a means of comparing the relative competitiveness of different nations.
However, the research also found that correlations between indicators of competitiveness and national economic performance are not strong, he said.
“One major limitation to better understanding relative national agricultural competitiveness was found to be a lack of robust, internationally-comparable agriculture sector statistical data, evidenced by some major flaws identified in international data used in this research,” he said.
The report recommended that the Australian government, relevant national and international agencies and the Australian agricultural industries take steps to improve the quality and comprehensiveness of Australian agricultural statistics.
Speaking to Fairfax Media, AFI executive director Mick Keogh said the research highlighted that trying to look for simplistic numbers or single indicators to show how competitive Australian agriculture was, relative to the rest of the world “is not a sensible or reliable way to go”.
“You need to rely on a much broader range of factors and understand what they are in order to get a better picture of what’s happening,” he said.
However, Mr Keogh was adamant the new RIRDC report would still provide valuable information to farmers or policy-makers, especially about Australia’s “flat-lining” rate of productivity.
“The thing that just strikes you quite immediately is the productivity numbers,” he said.
“The US is increasing productivity, producing more with the same inputs and we’ve been flat-lining since about 1997.
“We haven’t really been able to maintain and improve productivity numbers since then.
“I think that probably tells us that we’re losing competitiveness and we need to be pretty careful about that.
“Finding new technologies and finding ways to lift that competitiveness is just as important as it has ever been and I think there’s a bit of a message for us.”
Mr Keogh said a range of factors had caused Australian agriculture’s productivity to flat-line, including broader economic factors.
“You can’t disassociate it from profitability,” he said.
“The mining boom lifted the Australian exchange rate and basically disadvantaged the farm sector and that really did a lot to reduce the profitability of the farm sector.
“That also meant investment rates dropped off for areas like new machinery, new capital expenditure, new fencing etc.
“But there’s no doubt Genetically Modified crops, genetics, genomics and digital technologies are going to be very significant to lifting productivity.”
Mr Burns said data in the new RIRDC report would suggest Australian farmers are competitive - but areas like R&D investment, whether government or private investment, needed to be maintained “to make sure we don’t fall behind”.