By Jeff Kennett
It is a sad reflection of the complacency of political leaders past and present, and the representatives of the agricultural sector, that both New Zealand and Israel have a better reputation for the supply of quality food and horticultural products into our region than Australia.
This abject neglect is partly the result of structure of government here. Since Federation, the states have had control and responsibility for so many aspects of life, when in hindsight, an Australia-wide policy might have been so much more productive.
It is also a failure of vision. The shortness of the political cycle has never seen the promotion and pursuit of quality food production as a national priority.
Importantly, modern agriculture, with the aid of new technology and equipment, offers the prospect of thousands of new jobs.
As it stands today, Australia is not a major player when it comes to the supply of food-related products into our region – either traditional products or new products developed through an understanding of the changing consumption habits of rapidly urbanising communities in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and, of course, our old friend Japan.
Think for a moment of the billions of dollars we have poured into the motor vehicle industry to retain manufacturing of cars in this country.
Well, what is happening to that industry has been happening to the food industry for years. Production plants in other countries have production lines of much greater capacity than anything we have, whether for the manufacture of food or cars.
Those production lines produce products for communities of tens or hundreds of millions of people. The population market of Europe is 739.2 million, 953.6 million for the Americas and 4.14 billion for Asia.
In Australia, we still have produce primarily for local consumption – just 23 million people.
Is it no wonder some retailers can buy bread cheaper in Ireland, or fruit, or just about any other manufactured product from these huge production lines, pay the cost of transporting it in containers all the way by sea to Australia, sell it to us for less than it costs to produce here, and still make a profit?
As with mining, other countries want our base raw materials to convert into finished products using their own people at substantially less cost than adding value in this country.
It’s no surprise international firms and countries are buying our prime agricultural assets. They recognise better than we do the potential of substantially adding value to agricultural investments as demand for food grows throughout the world from an increasingly hungry community.
Food is different from cars, and even minerals. Every person in the world needs water and food in some shape or form and in some quantity to survive.
To me, investment in crops, in research among communities in other countries, into economical methods to produce quality products and the delivery of those products to markets in the form and quantity required by those markets, should be our highest industry policy.
In order for that to happen, though, such a focus must be accompanied by the development of a national water policy, which should be bipartisan and be focused on the next 100 years of Australian life. It should be a policy that all Australians understand and of which they have some ownership.
Only with such a promulgated policy – properly resourced, and with the co-operation of all governments – can an effective national agricultural policy be properly developed for long-term delivery and outcomes.
Let’s be quite honest. Our supermarkets could probably source overseas everything they currently sell, at cheaper prices than we manufacture here.
But do we want to be totally dependent for our food on overseas farmers and manufacturers? Surely that is too dangerous to contemplate.
The alternative is to head in the other direction. Start planning to build a food industry to feed 100 million people or 200 million.
If Australia does not think big and act big, we will shrink and eventually become totally dependent on producers in other countries.
We have the land mass, the variability of climate and the ingenuity and science to improve current products and create new ones. We are also closer to Asia than many of those producing for that region from Europe or the Americas.
What we don’t have is the vision, the policies and the political leadership to drive such an opportunity.
Better to start late than never.