A GLIMMER of hope has emerged for Australia's stagnant barley trade with China, after an Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre (AEGIC) webinar in Mandarin and English on malting barley was attended by key Chinese government officials.
It has been just over two years since China imposed restrictions on Australian barley, with the new Australian government reaching out to counterparts in Beijing requesting an end to China's long-running sanctions, based on the alleged grounds of Australian dumping of barley.
The webinar, held earlier this month, was the first technical engagement AEGIC had had with China on the topic of malting barley in a year.
Importantly, two Chinese government agencies - the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration and the State Administration of Grain and Reserves - tuned into the session, showing the country still has a strong interest in Aussie barley.
Introducing the webinar, Grains Australia Limited (GAL) general manager trade and market access John Ackerman said it was important Australia continued to engage with the Chinese malting, brewing and barley industries.
"The Australian barley market is currently the most competitive against global competitors, thanks to the very large crop produced in 2021/2022," Dr Ackerman said.
"This allows for more supply and availability of a higher ending stock, leading to the most economically priced barley available on the global market."
It was explained that Australia's recent barley production had been met with adverse conditions in other parts of the world and those factors had helped to push global prices higher.
One of those factors was the extreme drought in Canada.
International Grains Council data shows Australia's 2021/22 barley crop was up on the previous year, whereas Canada's was almost four million tonnes down.
Add onto that the conflict in the Black Sea and global grain prices have risen about 20 per cent, so while Australian barley values may be up, they're still below the global benchmark.
Since China imposed barley tariffs in May 2022, work has been underway to develop new markets for malting barley and grow emerging ones.
Today, Saudi Arabia is Australia's biggest barley customer, while Japan draws nearly all of its barley requirements from us.
Further markets have been developed in Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, Ethiopia and India.
With just below 14mt of barley produced in Australia in 2021/22, AEGIC barley markets manager Mary Raynes explained the quality of our grain was well suited to those markets and any others which might come back into the fray.
She said Australia's latest barley crop had fantastic hectolitre weight, grain protein and moisture content.
"According to data from CBH Group in WA, there was ideal hectolitre weight for Spartacus, Planet and Maximus and we're very fortunate in Australia that we have low grain moisture content, at anywhere between 9-12pc," Ms Raynes said.
"Furthermore, we know there is availability of higher grain protein on request and a lot of that was produced in the Eastern States."
With more than 95pc of barley crops planted in Australia being malting types, Ms Raynes was confident not just of Australia's supply, but also of the stability of the varieties being grown.
Spartacus is estimated to make up 33pc of the barley production area this season, down from 46pc last year and the globally accredited RGT Planet will account for 29pc.
Meanwhile Maximus, which is a newly accredited malt variety, has risen from about 3pc last year to 12pc this season.
In 2024, AEGIC estimates RGT Planet will account for more than 25pc of the national planting area as will Maximus, which is tipped to continue to increase in production.
Spartacus will decline, but new malting barley varieties will rise as production builds up.
"We're pleased to have stability of barley varieties which are planted nationally and we have large quantities of these varieties planted," Ms Raynes said.
"When looking at forward procurement of malting barley varieties we know our customers want to have reassurance that the variety will be available for the future."
In other positive news for Australia's malt barley customers, an AEGIC project to develop a novel multi malter (MM) which would significantly reduce the time taken by processors to adopt new malting varieties had shown encouraging initial results.
The MM incorporates the three main areas of the malting process - steeping, germination and kilning - with a particular focus on the first stage, including the ability to run up to six different steeping programs per batch, including any number of wet and air cycles during the process, with the steep water replaced after each immersion.
Results on selected varieties from the prototype MM were validated against a comparable unit operated by Joe White Maltings, which AEGIC barley and oats program manager Jack King said was the accepted industry standard micro malter.
"We took two varieties - Flinders and Spartacus - and ran that through the Joe White micro malter and our own AEGIC multi malter and compared the results," Mr King said.
"In Spartacus, the Joe White and the MM results were largely comparable and correlated, it was the same with the Flinders variety.
"That gave us confidence that the results we were getting from the multi malter were in line with what industry was already seeing from the micro malter."
Moving into the operational phase, AEGIC took three newly accredited varieties - Maximus CL, Leabrook and Alestar - and compared results between the Joe White unit and the MM.
While work in that space is ongoing, the early conclusions derived so far was optimum moisture levels differ between varieties and between samples.
Furthermore, not all varieties require gibberellic acid, which was known before in theory but had now been seen in practice when using the MM.
Mr King told the webinar the MM had applications beyond facilitating rapid adoption of new malting barley varieties.
"It could also be used to develop optimal malting regimes for difficult seeds - where there are seasons with high protein or wet harvests, the multi malter could be used as a tool to work out the best malting protocols to optimise the end malt quality," he said.
"We could also identify step change varieties which would assist breeders in identifying standout varieties that may have traits such as modification in three days instead of four.
"Finally, it could help with identifying sustainable practice by facilitating process efficiency such as allowing us to identify where varieties might prefer one wet phase in steeping instead of several, thereby saving water, inputs and resources for the malting industry."
While discussions are ongoing about where AEGIC takes the MM project, it is seen as a tool which could help provide market access and market information to diversify markets, including China in the hope that the trade does resume soon.
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