AUSTRALIA'S chances of becoming a profitable player in the burgeoning global food trade are being hobbled by - among other things - a cumbersome plethora of farm organisations, says agribusiness boss Tim Hart.
Far from being a significant help in making farmers more competitive and effective, Ridley Corporation's chief executive officer said the web of groups representing the ag sector lacked the strength, influence or nationally-focused strategies to assist with long-term profitability.
He is advocating a non-aligned, independent body, possibly similar to the Australian Football League's official governing authority, the AFL Commission, to swiftly make peak industry judgements and strategies for the good of the whole sector.
Australia has at least 93 different State and federal organisations representing farmers at the farmgate level, according to the Australian Farm Institute (AFI).
Additionally, numerous industry-related bodies such as research and development corporations, supported by farmer funding, also have advocacy roles.
Mr Hart said Australia's industry-by-industry and state-by-state agri-political lobby structure undermined farming's ability to effectively fix its high cost and export competition challenges, such as poor logistics and commodity-handling infrastructure and recent lopsided free trade agreement (FTA) outcomes for farm exports.
Too many groups had their own priorities and were unable to deal with big issues properly because of inadequate and shrinking resources.
Invariably they wasted energy and funds competing with each other and were ignored or "divided and conquered" by governments and big business because the whole sector lacked a single forceful, independently managed strategic agenda.
"We need to get rid of sectarian bodies and drive this discussion further so we're not representing one industry group at a time, but instead look at what will benefit the whole agriculture agenda," Mr Hart said.
Drawing parallels with the Aussie Rules code he said the national game's fate almost imploded before an independent governing commission replaced the Victorian Football League's process of having 12 club presidents around a board table deciding what was best for the game.
"Every club wanted its own priorities and ideas dictating VFL board decisions based on what was best for them, not necessarily the long-term future of the code Australia-wide," he told a recent competitive challenges forum hosted by Rabobank.
Similar examples, including the business-focused birth of the Food and Grocery Council of Australia were also identified at the Rabo leadership forum - 'can-do' management structures which now replaced various membership groups within their industry.
"It's a hard thing to do, but there's a lot of waste, confused messages and disappointment in agriculture at the moment," Mr Hart said.
"It was particularly obvious when you look at outcomes like the recent free trade deals with Korea and Japan."
Not for government to fix
AFI executive director Mick Keogh concurred, noting "in a sense it's because the representative structure in agriculture is not strong enough to insist on a key role in trade negotiations".
Mr Keogh said New Zealand agriculture's single voice and strength ensured it had representatives "at the table, swapping notes with the negotiators" during FTA talks with trading partners.
They could guide and respond immediately to developments.
Australia, however, tended to leave negotiation tasks to its government trade teams which later reported back on progress and outcomes of specific issues.
"In many respects all roads lead to Rome," he said suggesting stronger agriculture sector representation and strategic focus may well achieve more profits, efficiencies and cost savings across the supply chain.
"Better representation could simply result in a lot of agriculture's current industry problems disappearing.
"The Agriculture Minister (Barnaby Joyce) would like to hear a clearer voice representing agriculture, too, but it's up to the industry to make it happen.
"This isn't something which can be left for government to fix."