THE nation has been urged to accept greater foreign investment in farming and food processing - and the wider use of genetically modified crops - as part of a drive to become the new food bowl for Asia's 3.2 billion-strong affluent middle class.
In the first National Food Plan, released yesterday for consultation, the Gillard government outlined the need for the Australian farming and food sector to double its production in the next 40 years, boost its export competitiveness and become more innovative. Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said the 275-page green paper was not about picking export commodity winners or the end of the family farm. Instead, it was about farming smarter and being more productive in fields such as meat, wheat and sugar production where Australia enjoyed a natural advantage.
World demand for food is forecast to grow 77 per cent by 2050 as global population passes nine billion. In the Asia-Pacific region, the destination for 40 per cent of Australia's $27 billion food exports, food demand will double in the next 30 years.
Asia's appetite to drive our farming
Farmers positive about food security paper
National Food Plan
The plan outlines how Australia can make the most of the "dining boom" export opportunity, while ensuring food security and affordable food availability at home. But it also reveals Australia has abandoned a focus on food self-sufficiency - necessary, Senator Ludwig said, because Australia supported two-way free trade and could not grow every food locally - and is instead striving for a prime role in feeding the ballooning middle-class that will develop in Asian countries such as China, India and Indonesia over the next 20 years.
The National Food Plan resoundingly endorses greater foreign investment in farming and food processing as "critical" to driving Australia's approaching food boom, tipped to become as important to Australia as its mining prosperity.
It also urges the use of modern biotechnology advances in agriculture to boost productivity, including greater acceptance and planting of contentious genetically modified crops.
On his Rupanyup cropping farm in Victoria's Wimmera, Rodney Weidemann was delighted to hear the government's new support for GM crops.
He has been growing GM canola for the past five years and credits the new varieties with boosting yields by 25 per cent in good seasons and reducing his chemical use, compared with farming traditional, non-GM canola. "All this row about GM crops seems to be a bit of a storm in a teacup; as farmers today we have to use all the technologies we have available to us, whether it is biotechnology or GPS precision farming," he said. "If it is going to help us grow more food and if new GM varieties will help us control some of the severe elements in farming with crops that are drought and frost tolerant, it's really exciting; it would really help us be better producers and push farming forward a lot."
GM crops such as cotton and canola have been grown in Australia since 1996. But there remains widespread resistance to the introduction of genetically engineered wheat and other mainstream food products, and in South Australia and Tasmania all GM crops are banned.
Senator Ludwig said that while he was not a scientist, it was clear that genetically enhanced varieties of crops such as cotton, sorghum, sugar and canola offered the opportunity to significantly increase food production. "We are not about telling farmers what crops should be grown where or telling consumers what they can and can't eat, but where GM food is an issue we need to have a national conversation about," he said. "It will be producers who will reflect the market and move to the best use of their land; what the government will do through this food plan is to encourage them to be as innovative as possible, to adopt new technologies and ensure that the export demand is there if and when (greater) production capacity exists."
The Australian Greens yesterday welcomed the release of the National Food Plan green paper, which they had been demanding for two years. "The Greens strongly believe that any National Food Plan for Australia must prioritise two things - maximise food production for global markets and prioritise providing food security for all Australians," Greens leader Christine Milne said. "Maximising food production means keeping farmers on the land and taking on the supermarket duopoly and the issue of foreign ownership of land and water. "
Coalition agriculture and food security spokesman John Cobb said it was hard to get excited about a government announcement that was simply "talk about more talking" about agriculture and food security.
"The minister has indicated he wants to know whether the best way to boost Australia's agricultural productivity is by increasing rural R&D investment, which is a positive step from a government that wanted to slash its contribution to research and development by 50 per cent in last year's budget," Mr Cobb said. "Labor should invest in the Australian irrigation industry, instead of buying it out, and cancel the carbon tax which will wreak more havoc than the 10-year drought."
Senator Ludwig yesterday ruled out any new subsidies or handouts to farmers or food businesses to help them meet the doubled productivity and export objectives outlined in the national plan. He said that while farmers must be "nurtured", subsidies were not the answer.
Instead, Senator Ludwig said the government remained committed to free trade and market-based policies, with any government funds injected primarily into agricultural and food research and development initiatives, the adoption of new technology and ancillary infrastructure to assist industry value-adding. The food plan also proposes funding more trade officers in export markets and the continuing pursuit of regional free trade agreement