FEDERAL Trade Minister Craig Emerson has urged Australian producers to focus on a once in a generation opportunity to market premium food products into the Asian region.
Speaking at the ABARES conference in Canberra on Tuesday, Dr Emerson outlined the genesis of the government’s Asian Century White paper, which seeks to make Australia Asia’s future food bowl.
He said previous Labor governments implemented major policy reforms that transformed Australia from an inward looking economy selling locally manufactured goods to itself, into one that removed trade barriers and tariffs to help connect with other economies in the region.
Dr Emerson said former Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating took bold steps like floating the Australian dollar to make the national economy more competitive and open to world trade.
Those reforms have now lifted the economy’s performance and generated economic growth to position it to now capitalise on the Asian Century.
Dr Emerson said the White Paper set out 25 policy objectives and pathways to improve Australia’s capacity to capture economic growth opportunities in Asia, with agricultural exports one of its key planks.
The former trade and economic adviser to Mr Hawke said China’s middle class population was expanding rapidly, with that growth reflected in other major economies in the Asian region, where there’s expected to be three billion middle class consumers by 2030.
Dr Emerson said we should dispense with the view that Asia as a whole was a poor region of the world.
He said our region would be “where the action is, where the three billion middle class consumers are and therefore where the opportunity is for Australia”.
“It means for agricultural production we have a once in a generation opportunity to have market driven regional development in Australia,” he said.
“We have an opportunity here to provide the high quality produce that is going to be increasingly demanded by the middle classes of Asia.
“When we think of what they are demanding and what we have, you can see a perfect mix here.
“Because Australia, along with New Zealand, have developed a reputation as a clean green producer of premium agricultural products and it is exactly those agricultural products, either in raw form of processed form that are in increasing demand in the region.”
As short term evidence of that growing demand for Australia’s clean green produce, Dr Emerson pointed to countries that had reduced trade barriers to increase supply.
He said in recent months market access had been created for Australian kangaroo meat in Russia and Australian processed lamb in India, where five star restaurants were demanding small quantities but the supply was now quota free.
Tasmanian cherries are being exported to China along with increased dairy products due to tariff reductions on baby infant formula.
Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig also announced recently that market access had been opened for Australian horticulture exports to the Philippines, which had previously been low but would now serve to feed a population of nearly 100 million people.
Dr Emerson said traditional export products like wheat and wool remained in demand in our export markets.
“It can be argued we’re already an agricultural super-power – we’re the world’s largest wool exporter, the world’s second largest beef exporter and the world’s fourth largest wheat exporter,” he said.
Dr Emerson said Australian agriculture needed to go down the path towards exporting high value, premium products that commanded a market premium to “clear the hurdle” currently imposed on industry, by the ongoing high Australian dollar.
He said the premium product push would require a co-ordinated and collaborative marketing and promotion effort.
He urged the 400 ABARES delegates to work collaboratively with government departments like Austrade and Australian embassies and consular offices in trading countries.
Dr Emerson closed his speech by taking a political swipe at the federal Coalition, accusing it of sending negative signals to potential foreign investors.
He said it was “absolutely stupid” to imagine that the government’s plans, like making Australia a future Asian food bowl to sell premium products into Asia, could be achieved without foreign investment.
In particular, he was critical of Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for saying investment from state-owned foreign entities may not be approved under their regime.
Dr Emerson said it was important to have a robust debate on foreign investment and that Chinese investment here was only the next generation, following on from past investment in Australian farming from the British, Americans and Japanese.
“Any (foreign) investment must pass the national interest test,” he said.
“But it would be a betrayal of Australia’s national interest if any political parties put up the shutters to foreign investment in Australian agriculture and the great opportunities that that provides for our farmers, for our small towns, for our regional centres or the working men and women of Australia and our country.”