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Australian trade beats aid in boosting global food security

Should Australia aim to become Asia’s “food bowl”? How can we help farmers earn more for what they produce? And how can Australia best contribute to global food security? Those are some of the crucial…

Wheat fields in central New South Wales. Sam Ilić/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Should Australia aim to become Asia’s “food bowl”? How can we help farmers earn more for what they produce? And how can Australia best contribute to global food security?

Those are some of the crucial questions now being considered in the federal government’s long-term agriculture policy, which is expected to be released towards the end of this year.

I believe our future lies in playing to our strengths. The Australian agricultural business model should not be to produce cheap food for the world’s poor, but rather expensive food for rich, largely Asian, consumers.

That doesn’t mean neglecting our responsibilities to help poorer nations or to support global food security. However, this is best done through trade - such as providing technical advice and assistance - to help improve food self-sufficiency in developing countries.

The new dining boom

Food-price shocks in 2007–08 greatly increased global consumer interest in agriculture and the challenges of food security. It has also reiginited interest in boosting agricultural development in northern Australia.

As growth in Australia’s mining sector slows, agriculture is increasingly being seen as an economic replacement, reflected in the slogan ‘dining boom not mining boom’. However, even with global food demand increasing, Australia’s response needs careful consideration and focus.

Continuing growth in world population is overshadowed by the impact of growing affluence, resulting in greater per person consumption of food and demand for more expensive foods.

For a relatively high-cost food producer such as Australia - with high labour costs and a high value currency, but a global reputation for producing clean, safe food - those are trends we can harness to our strategic advantage.

Finding our niche

Global markets are large enough to take all of our relatively small agricultural production as high-value product. So at home, our farmers need to concentrate on production of niche, high-value agricultural products.

For example, wheat is the largest crop in Australia, grown mainly in Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. Most of that wheat is sold overseas, including to Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sudan.

Yet even with those significant exports, Australia produces only about 3% of world wheat.

Udon noodles lu_lu/Flickr

Significantly, we have a good track record of extracting a higher value for our wheat through niche marketing.

Examples include the supply of wheat from Western Australia to produce Udon noodles in Japan. Australia has produced almost all of the wheat used for this product by having a wheat variety with special characteristics delivering a high-quality noodle.

Brewing better coffee - for us and the world

Agricultural research and development - such as the work done at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation - needs to go beyond just trying to increase on-farm productivity, and instead find new ways to add value to agricultural products right along the production chain to the final consumer.

Product differentiation is essential. We need to produce niche products with recognised high value, rather than bulk, undifferentiated commodities that will only attract the prevailing price in world markets.

Coffee beans amanda28192/Flickr

Coffee is a perfect example. By analysing the genetic and chemical basis of coffee quality, researchers can help develop new high-quality, distinctly Australian coffee products for international markets.

Coffee is an important cash crop for many small landholders in developing countries. Those developing nations are likely to remain the most efficient in producing large quantities of coffee for mass markets. However, with the help of Australian experts, they may still be able to find ways to increase their productivity - in doing so, helping to boost self-sufficiency in developing countries.

In contrast, Australia’s coffee production needs to concentrate not on high volume, but on novel high-value products for high-value markets. If targeted with the right products, those overseas markets could take all of Australia’s coffee production.

* This article is based on an address Professor Henry will deliver to the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economists Society’s annual conference on February 7.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I don't trust this current government to be responsible for the integrity of Australia's agriculture industry. They will sell us out to the highest bidder in no time.

    I'm not sure what their vision for Australia is, but it doesn't seem to include farmers and other primary producers.

    We have the world at our feet, but the politicians have theirs stuck in clay rather than top soil.

    1. Peter Hansford

      Director at Regional Cleantech Solutions

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The vision for agriculture and food should be to deliver a safe and secure food supply for Australia and Asian markets that will enable employment and exports and attract investment

      Some key Issues are

      Land management – an integrated approach which balances the needs of the various stakeholders but ensures a gradual improvement in the productive capacity and availability of high quality agricultural land for food production

      Water – investment in delivery and recycling infrastructure and…

      Read more
    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Peter Hansford

      Thanks the current government capable of taking the ball and running with it?

      And are we right to feel somewhat disenchanted with the way this gov is handling our future - in this case agriculture?

    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Hansford

      If you are talking about traditional outdoor farming then you are setting yourself up for failure, please see Australian Academy of Science book "negotiating our future living scenarios for australia to 2050"

      Draught + flood + storm + shifting seasons = Advanced indoor agriculture

    4. Bart Brighenti


      In reply to Peter Hansford

      PH just need to add
      Risk of no profit then no investment
      also biosecurity risks, as we relax (cut costs) our boarder security on imports and greater travel we are are great risk of exotic diseases, it is the natural protection being a secluded island with formerly strong biosecurity laws that ensured we were able to produce with less chemical use and reduce costs, if we had incursions of certain diseases it would end those industries just purely on the increased costs.

  2. Billy Field

    logged in via Facebook

    I think tons of potential but we need to conserve & channel water more intelligently and get ALL costs down.
    Not building more dams is insane....we could build 100 dams on both sides of Great Dividing Range and it STILL have ZERO real ecological impact...this is a huge political canard in my view.

    Perhaps also tell these kids on the dole ( & partially able bodied "disability" ones) they get say $450 pw for guaranteed "dole work" on building dams or a "dole reduction" to $200 pw....& they will learn valuable skills too...
    Also too much ADD ON costs to wages & farming DUE TO BAD LAWS go to the "non-working" tenants....banking, insurance, silly compliance,

    The cockies NEED to make after tax profits to move forward and seems everyone gets a slice of their crop but them AND if they have a bad crop THEY go broke not "the banking "shareholders"...,

  3. Bart Brighenti


    Do people really think farmers are so stupid that they have no idea what is profitable and decide to do the same thing every year.
    Everyone rolls out the old Asian food boom, I guess if you keep saying this for over 30yrs it may eventually come true.
    The Problem with niche market theory is that they dont assume many other countries are also looking to fill these small segments, again with the ability to do it cheaper as they have lower wages , less regulation and lower currency…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Bart Brighenti

      Hi Bart

      I have the greatest respect for farmers - in the past 50 years farmers have faced a revolution in farming methods, and they have been exemplary in adapting and improving methods.

      The vagueries and complexities of weather systems cannot be controlled in any sense, and farmers are at the mercy of global weather.

      We need farmers,(not corporate farmers), but the farming families that provide us with food etc. From my POV we cannot do enough to encourage and assist farming families to keep slogging it out and keep on producing.

      Sure there may be markets in Asis and elsewhere, but firstly we need to feed ourselves, not the world.

  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    I would think that many farmers would just love to get a reasonable price for their produce based on their costs and hours of work.
    Dairy cattle being one area in which farmers have been at the mercy of major supermarkets and imports.
    It does not stop there either for you only have to look at how much food is increasingly imported to Australia, both fresh and processed whilst food processing businesses are being closed and in the case of fruit orchards, many are being bulldozed.
    To talk of niche…

    Read more
  5. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Sure we can, just build a whole bunch of solar thermal plants and go to town on it Sahara Forest Project Style

    if you mean traditional outdoor farming then no, we are going to be wrecked by extreme weather

  6. Sandor von Kontz


    The best way for food security, and the solution is the ssame as for energy sustainability, stop the waste. We are already producing enough food in the world for everyone but waste a lot of it and distribute the rest pretty unfairly.

    As far as the niche market goes. I do not understand why we do not spend a lot of money in advertising the best meat there is and only we have got it Kangaroo.

  7. Mike Pope

    logged in via email

    The article assumes that Australia’s climate will remain sufficiently stable to ensure that agricultural productivity will be unaffected, maintain output of quality food commodities and remain a reliable supplier. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Climate change is already taking its toll on food production. Ask livestock producers. Extreme climate events – particularly heat, drought and flooding rain – are likely to increase in intensity and frequency – are likely to…

    Read more
    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mike Pope

      Completely agree, I'm sick of farmers stating how resilient and flexible they are - they need to face the facts and start the move to indoor growing instead of trying to be tough men living a fantasy

      Sahara Forest Project - was actually based on a CSIRO project in South Australia

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Bart Brighenti

      I don't have to build it, Sahara Forest Project is already built - as was the prototype in S.A

      I'm not sure you understand the meaning of the word fantasy

    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      According to Wikkipedia, Sundrop Farms is already using the SFP methods to grow tomatoes in the desert of South Australia.

  8. Ashlee Betteridge

    Research Officer at Development Policy Centre, ANU

    The headline on this article is very misleading. Nowhere does the piece talk about foreign aid, nor about why trade is better than foreign aid at boosting food security in poor and developing countries. Yet the headline trumpets this as some kind of factoid.Trade is important, and yes, better in the long run, but aid has a part to play in removing the barriers to trade for many poor countries and improving production.

    Unless you are referring to trade beating aid in relation to the calls for aid…

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  9. David Rennie

    IT Contractor

    Australian agriculture is a high risk business. This is particularly true on the traditional family farm where the familys' ability to provide for their own living expenses and the development of the next crop can be wiped out for several years by droughts, or for single seasons by fire and flood. If in a good year, bumper crops in the same industry can drive down prices.
    In a world where an adequate supply of food is still a problem we need to look at providing a better economic management system…

    Read more
  10. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    A thought provoking article on a topic that is never far from my discussion with others'.

    Key Points:

    In a time of Climate Change induced drying of the environment (note: in the absence of El Niño) for much of Eastern Australia, the challenge to produce is steepening daily. Even in the short fifty years I have observed in the one place it is remarkable and even the most sceptical of my peers are accepting the likelihood of diminished returns with the facts of Climate Modelling.

    This has…

    Read more
    1. Michael Hay


      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Neville, Farmers, like any other producer of goods which are to be used by some buyer or customer, need to have a back-up for their production. Some producers are able to preserve their product, be it by freezing, chilling or canning. The bulk of broad -farmers' products are not to be preserved under our present regime, so the answer to the vagaries of production and pricing may be to devise a sustainable method of preserving the product.
      My particular solution is dessication. Most of the 'wet…

      Read more
  11. Garry Baker


    Asia’s “food bowl”?

    Sure, China alone has 1300 m people, then there is India with a similar population - Whereas Australia has a maximum food growing capacity for 60m .. And it could fall to as low as 40m, given prolonged drought conditions. A first order consideration - WATER

    The unassailable fact is, about 6% of our land mass is suitable for food production - Yet huge tracts of that land are now owned by foreign entities (in many cases Governments), and that land, along with the raft of foreign owned downstream food processors, will never be a final consideration in Australia's capacity to make money out of food

    So where is this 'Asia Food Bowl' capacity going to come from

    The thing is, Australia has already been hived off for whatever food it may be able to supply in the decades to come. Leaving us with a few Delicatessen items - Maybe

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Garry Baker

      But let's aim to feed ourselves on our own produce.

      Is that too much to ask.....?

      Might come in handy one day soon.