THE key players in the $311 billion food industry have joined forces to call for an end to excessive regulation, inflexible labour laws and outdated transport laws which they warn is threatening jobs and their ability to compete for growing global food demand.
In a rare display of unity, farmers, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers have conducted a wide-ranging review of dozens of regulatory hurdles they say are hurting the entire food supply chain, which accounts for more than 20 per cent of the economy.
The Paddock to Plate report calls on the government to address excessive and duplicate regulation covering everything from health and safety, land use, road transport, labour laws, retail opening hours and data collection.
"There is no doubt we need to address the competitive challenge domestically if we are going to realise the potential in export markets. Our market share is declining in some key Asian markets and yet the opportunity is absolutely there. We won't fully realise this potential unless we address the domestic competitiveness issues," Australian Food and Grocery Council chief executive Gary Dawson said.
Uniting traditional enemies
The review brings together traditional enemies such as suppliers, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths and farmers for the first time. It will add to growing pressure for labour market reform and changes to penalty rates and shop trading hours.
It calls for enhanced flexibility in awards and agreements in labour laws, and improved arrangements for overseas labour through seasonal workers and working holiday visa schemes.
The report found there was a shortage of 96,000 full-time workers and 10,000 part-time workers in the Australian agriculture industry in 2010. The workforce is also ageing. The median age of farmers in 2010-11 was 53 compared to 39 for all employees, and 23pc of farmers were aged 65 and over.
The rising cost of doing business is at the heart of the recommendations. Players in the sector say regulatory changes are needed to improve competitiveness. The report recommends the Productivity Commission conduct an inquiry into duplicate national, State and local legislation. Rather than targeting state governments, it puts the pressure on the federal government to set a national approach to legislation.
The duplicate regulations targeted in the report cover land use, food health and safety, waste management, road access, trading hours and excessive data collection.
The report estimates the total cost of complying with all farming regulations makes up 4.5pc of total expenses incurred by farming businesses.
Overly complex regulation was a key feature of the report which said in Queensland alone, farms face more than 55 acts and regulations taking up 9000 pages.
Regulations account for 14pc of net farm costs in Tasmania.
Transport is also a major element of the report which recommends abolishing the Road Safety Remuneration Scheme and more collaboration between states for regulation of heavy vehicles.
The NFF, Australian Food and Grocery Council, Australian Logistics Council and Australian National Retail Association have signed off on the report which came out of a retailer and supplier roundtable in August.
"It is historic in that it is the first attempt to take a whole of supply chain view across the food sector," Mr Dawson said.
"It is a reflection that for all the tension there are some common themes that everyone is struggling with.
"There is no doubt that agribusiness and food production is a sector worth backing but it is hamstrung to an extent by some of these impediments."
It is part of a wider push by business to address high costs, competition and productivity in the agriculture sector.
The Business Council of Australia has singled out agriculture as an area that had a natural advantage and should be encouraged, while the Harper competition review out last week also backed the deregulation of trading hours.
The Paddock to Plate report includes farm and fish food production, food and beverage processing, retail food sales and exports and imports.
The report said global food demands was expected to double by 2050, driving the need for higher food imports.