Food bowl needs urban support

Food bowl needs urban support


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AACo boss David Farley.

AACo boss David Farley.

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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.

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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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