Food bowl needs urban support

23 Apr, 2013 02:00 AM
right now agriculture and food policy aren't at the front end of the national argument

BIG beef business boss David Farley is worried the nation's urban majority has little interest in feeding our hungry near neighbours in Asia, or supporting agribusinesses trying to make Australia a food bowl for the region.

Mr Farley has good reasons to be concerned - especially if suburban Australians are as dismissive in their attitude to our potential as a food export powerhouse as Sydney-based economic commentator Ross Gittins.

According to Mr Gittins our family farming operations are generally too small and inefficient to rise to the challenge of profitably making Australia a food bowl for Asia.

Debating the topic with the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) managing director Mr Farley, Mr Gittins said farmers had "stuffed up our fragile farmland", degraded the soil and over-used chemicals.

Farming communities were too reluctant to embrace the realities of climate change, efficient economic management or water reform to be seriously capable of servicing, or profiting from, soaring global protein needs.

The economic columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers doubted Australia could play a significant role feeding Asia's ballooning population unless it gave farmers, farm researchers and exporters "a lot of taxpayer subsidies" to help them achieve the food bowl goal.

Such funding was "unlikely to be forthcoming", he said.

Political "pipe dreams" including the Alice Springs to Darwin rail link and farmland development projects in northern Australia had already wasted valuable taxes.

Those funds would have been far better spent promoting research and development investment and sound economic, technological and environmental advances to revive Australia's dwindling farm productivity, he said.

Mr Gittins' provocative views were shared in a forum organised by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW in which Mr Farley warned that developing Asia badly needed the protein Australia was capable of delivering to ensure its youth of coming decades had the nutrition levels to provide adequate brain development to take advantage of rapid technology change.

"The (World Food Program) dietitians say if they do not get the right diet early in life - including red meat - we'll be giving these populations an intellectual prison sentence," Mr Farley said.

Australia had just 27 years to get serious about transforming itself to meet the demands of countries like Indonesia before the world's population jumped almost 25 per cent to near nine billion.

Three-quarters of that population would be living in the Asia-Pacific and Africa, much of it on land in China, India, or the nearby Indonesian archipelago that would no longer have room to grow food.

But Australia's urban-based democracy needed to have "the will to be part of the Asian food solution", he said.

Our status as one of the world's top three countries exporting wheat, beef, rice, sugar and cotton could not be maintained without a national focus on lifting farm productivity.

Farmland had to be developed in northern Australia - the Barkly Tableland, Kimberley and Ord regions - and infrastructure such as grain accumulation facilities, roads, bridges rail lines and port facilities needed investment so our agricultural exports could "reach out and touch the world".

"We need urban Australia behind us if we are to make this journey... because right now agriculture and food policy aren't at the front end of the national argument.

"And if it is going to be on the agenda we need a pre-election commitment to have action in the first 100 days of the next government - these issues are too sensitive to be left for a mid-term debate."

Mr Gittins agreed food export avenues were opening to Australian farmers, and price rewards to exporters would go a lot higher, but the "free lunch" wouldn't last.

Although Asia was unlikely to supply its future food needs because it, too, was destroying much of its agricultural environment and climate change made its farm output more precarious, he said rising demand would drive prices up which in turn would encourage global production to catch up.

"I doubt if we can greatly increase our own production - there are too many obstacles to overcome and farmers show few signs of paying the price needed to overcome them," he said highlighting drought aid and limited Murray-Darling Basin reform as "preserving inefficiency".

Only those with economies of scale - corporate and sizeable family enterprises - would supply product efficiently enough to compete.

However, new opportunities were likely in the export of our farm technology and skills to the rest of the world.

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23/04/2013 3:46:52 AM

Listen you, I believe in ensuring that my Aussie mates are fed first! It appears you have a problem with this!
Richard the Realist.
23/04/2013 5:24:59 AM

Ross Gitten is a journalist,econocrat so to speak. The SMHerald allows him voice that should be kept in context. He is paid to comment, wether or not he has knowledge of what he is commenting on is irrelevant, when that comment turns to criticism (without knowledge) as in this article it is a reflection of his own shortcomings. Our farmers only need a fair go Ross, they do not need the massive subsidisation that occurs to keep your local urban environment semi-functional. Have a cup of imported coffee and cut down another tree for your newspaper while the farmer grows you a nice juicy steak.
23/04/2013 6:23:36 AM

Gittens has always held the view that capatalistic family farms should be dispersed in favour of publicly owned corporate farms. His total lack of knowledge and recognition of the good environmental stewardship and the willingness of farmers to work 24/7 for little recognition or reward is a telling factor of his ignorance. There are many instances of corporates only becoming involved in ag for the quick buck and capital gain opportunities and the disgraceful condition of the land they manage is testament to this, they will continue to come and go as the economic environment changes.
23/04/2013 6:59:46 AM

Typical of those that have an uninformed opinion simply because they have a vehicle to promote it as Ross has. if you are going to make comment then get the facts right, maybe visit a few farms and learn a bit about the industry before you make these illinformed comments. If Australian family farms were awarded a true value for their agricultural production then they could reinvest in their businesses which would drive productivity. This lack of financial reward for current production is what has slowed productivity. We have the ability to double our production.
23/04/2013 7:17:33 AM

Lets not forget that in the countries you are talking about, it is the poor who are going hungry. these nations have chosen cash crops e.g. tea etc over food for their poor. if the poor can;t afford whatever is grown locally, how can they afford food imported from aust?
23/04/2013 7:56:36 AM

Here is the crux of our problem. When an inner city, latta drinking journalist, whose only contact to agriculture is via green propaganda that only an idiot would read, can put such an irresponsible opinion in the paper. What a contradiction. He defames our farming practices, but thinks we could export our technology. His doubt exposes his obviously insulated life and lack of qualification to give any opinion. We MUST increase food production, using any opportunities to achieve it and the only hurdles should be natural not man made. What an opinionated punce.
23/04/2013 9:04:30 AM

Gittens is a tosser, no doubt. It's also true the urbanites don't give a rats about feeding anyone, anywhere. But opening up more land to over produce foodstuffs that are already over produced with current producers not covering production costs is just stupid. Parts of Asia might be hungry but they aren't hungry enough to pay our high cost of production prices. The north & its water will still be there, maybe when the world has run out of subsidised EU & US grain, butter, plonk, bacon & all the rest. When the world is serious about paying at least the cost of production.
23/04/2013 9:14:24 AM

Look, what a great conversation starter. We need positive action and the urban community dont see the need just now. Go Mr Farley.
23/04/2013 10:21:55 AM

Well said THE FARMER we can produce more food,but only if the world is ready to pay us a fair price for it.We can't continue producing at a loss.No government help-unless you are a car maker.
Bushie Bill
23/04/2013 2:06:04 PM

No-one has a gun to your heads, bozos. If you don't like the rewards you are receiving, become more efficient and effective business operators (that is what you are supposed to be) or find something else to do. You attack the messenger (and none of you can even spell his name correctly). No-one presents an intelligent cogent counter argument to Mr. Gittins (that is how it is spelt). Rather typical of aggro agri RARAs, who believe they are the chosen people that the world owes a living and who should not be required to argue rationally for a place in the world.
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