Debate over Australian ‘food bowl for Asia’ claims

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 24th April 2013

Several prominent Australian business leaders and food industry players met last week in Melbourne at a Global Food Forum to discuss the potential for expansion of Australian agriculture and food production to address future food security issues in Asia.

Speakers at the Global Food Forum, which was hosted by The Australian newspaper in partnership with packaging company Visy, considered the predicted doubling of global food demand in the next two decades as an opportunity for Australia to increase its exports to Asia.

Asian potential

Referring to the ‘Green Revolution’ that increased global agricultural production by 150 per cent in the 1960s, Anthony Pratt, Executive Chairman for Visy, called for a ‘Second Green Revolution’ lead by Australia. He said that if the world’s population grows to the predicted 9 billion by 2050, it will be necessary to increase food production by a further 75 per cent.

Mr Pratt said that it was possible for Australia to quadruple its agricultural production volume and add value to become the “clean, green food bowl” of Asia.

Mr Pratt told the forum that to increase production, the Australian government would need to increase financial incentives for investment in the food production and manufacturing sectors, and provide greater research and development (R&D) support.

He also proposed that governments in Australia suspend of payroll tax for food manufacturers, change anti-dumping laws by shifting the burden of proof to the offending party, and relax competition policy to encourage food companies to consolidate and remain based in Australia.

Mr Pratt also said that Australia needed to encourage more young people to study agricultural science. Currently Australia produces 750 graduates a year against over 4,000 vacancies in the food industry.

Australian government promotes Asian growth opportunities

The Australian Government is due to release its final version of the National Food Plan, which will outline the Government’s long-term vision for Australia’s food system. The earlier draft has made much of the potential for increasing Australia’s exports to Asian markets. The Australian government has a broader strategy for investing in the Asian region, with its report, ‘Australian in the Asian Century White Paper’, outlining plans to build stronger diplomatic and trade relationships with countries in the region.

Each year, the Australian government also releases a report called ‘Australian Food Statistics’, which gives a detailed snapshot of the Australian food industry in the previous year. The report is based on data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).

Releasing the ‘Australian Food Statistics 2011-12’ report on 5 April 2013, Senator Joe Ludwig, Australia’s Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, said the Australian government is working to increase trade with countries in the Asian region.

“The Gillard Government is working to make the most of the opportunities before us, like those presented by the Asian Century, and secure our food sector a strong and sustainable future into the long term,” Mr Ludwig said.

Current Australian exports to Asia

According to data from the ‘Australian Food Statistics 2011-12’ report, in 2011-12, Australia exported $17,505 million of food to countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Japan is the biggest importer of Australian food products – even outside the Asian region. According to the report, in 2011-12, Australia exported $4,448 million of food to Japan, with the vast majority of that being grains and meat for processing.

The Republic of Korea, Indonesia and China (including Hong Kong) were the next largest importers of Australian food products. Exports to Korea were worth $2,338 million in 2011-12, exports to Indonesia were worth $2,272 million, and exports to China were worth $1,018 million. In all three countries, grains were the biggest money makers for Australian food exporters in 2011-12.

By comparison, Australia exported $2,285 million of food to the US in 2011-12, and $1,366 million of food to New Zealand.

Agricultural researchers more cautious about increased production

But some Australian agricultural researchers and commentators are more cautious about Australia’s ability to increase its food production.

Writing in The Australian newspaper recently, Lyndon Schneiders, National Campaign Director of the Wilderness Society, expressed doubts about claims that Northern Australia would become Asia’s ‘food bowl’.

“Northern Australia will never be the food bowl of the world, Asia or even Australia. The Federal Government’s Northern Land and Water Taskforce found that only 60,000 hectares was suitable for irrigated agriculture – less than the size of some individual farms in Australia,” Mr Schneiders wrote.

“The Australian people and our economy deserve better than pie-in-the-sky stuff. We need fiscally responsible development in our proven food bowls if we are going to take part in the Asian century,” Mr Schneiders said.

Writing on an Australian academic news website, The Conversation, Bill Bellotti, Vincent Fairfax Chair of Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development at the University of Western Sydney, was also doubtful. Mr Bellotti said that much of Australia’s arable land is already in use, and water availability is likely to be an increasing concern.

“It is easy to gain the misleading impression that we have vast idle land and water resources just waiting to be converted into agriculture. The truth is far from this,” Mr Bellotti said.

Mr Bellotti said that recent evidence suggested that agricultural productivity growth in Australia has been declining, and that decreasing investment in R&D is a major contributing factor.

“If Australia is to greatly expand its contribution to global food security, there will need to be a significant and sustained increase in agricultural R&D, and this will need to come from both government and the private sector,” Mr Bellotti said.

A strategic vision for the Australian food industry will be necessary, said Mr Bellotti, and should include a “public and informed discussion around the ethics of food, agriculture and the environment”.