Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia Needs Integrated Growth in Agriculture

By Kate Grenot

Strategic investment in technology, science and engineering innovation is required.

The world faces a confluence of pressures that will threaten global food security and agricultural production for the foreseeable future. These rest on population growth, changing dietary preferences, climate change and natural resource constraints.

While some Australians see global food security as a distant threat, many believe that Australia’s agrifood industries will face new opportunities in production, processing and marketing to meet growing international demand for safe, high-quality food and fibre products, especially in Asia. To create enduring advantage from these opportunities, Australian agriculture will need to boost its output, efficiency and ecological sustainability.

By embracing more of the available innovation tools in production, processing and marketing, Australian agricultural and food industries can respond effectively to the global challenges by offsetting and at times reducing the underlying pressures while taking advantage of new opportunities.

Vigorous and globally competitive Australian agriculture and food industries can thrive with investment in technology, science and engineering-driven innovation. Greater engagement across agrifood value chains will be essential, as will the ability of industries to respond rapidly to changing market needs, and ongoing participation in world-leading policy and research networks.

Priority areas for concerted action around technology, science and engineering-driven innovation include:

  • biotechnology, integrated with modern genetics, breeding, and other techniques to increase yield, reduce cost and risk associated with the use of industrial chemicals, and strengthen capacity to respond to opportunities in biorefinery;
  • information technology services to enable efficiency gains through increased use of real-time data and agri-informatics in biomass production and processing;
  • water use efficiency, including water conservation technologies and infrastructure, to allow for long-term climate predictions and achieve positive environmental impacts in rain and irrigation-based systems;
  • ecological sustainability to enhance ecosystems while pursuing productivity growth, with attention to greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation and nutrient pollution;
  • biosecurity to protect australia’s natural resources and to support ongoing developments in incursion prevention, response and recovery;
  • quality assurance to support the pursuit of premium positions for australian agrifood exports, including through responses to consumer preferences and the assurance of environmental management and food safety standards; and
  • waste reduction, especially to recover and recycle non-renewable and scarce resources such as nutrients and water, across value chains.

Increased investment in these priorities will enable Australia to continue to participate strongly in global developments in agriculture and food industries.

Future efforts should include greater attention to the relationship between technology, science and engineering capability and agricultural investment pathways. Stronger connections between the powerful drivers of research and finance could lead to new and more ambitious prospects for ecologically sustainable intensification, as well as innovative agrifood businesses that can reap rewards from the increasing global demand for food while building resilience for future challenges.

Such efforts should also strengthen our position in the Asia-Pacific region by building on Australia’s strong legacy in international agricultural research and long-standing participation in active world networks that advance the underpinning disciplines.

As a nation we are well-placed to do this. In 2011–12 the food value chain in Australia had a combined worth of $270 billion. This included $43 billion in farm and fish production, $91 billion in food and beverage processing, and $136 billion in retail food sales. Australia also exported $30 billion and imported $11 billion worth of food and beverages. In the same period the entire food industry, from farm production and manufacturing to retail food service, employed 1.6 million people, which is about 15% of Australia’s total employment.

The production, processing and export of safe and high-quality food and other agricultural products is crucial in Australia’s economy, in rural and regional areas and as a major contributor to the country’s wealth and high standards of living. Strategic investment in the technology, science and engineering priorities set out above will help us to maintain these attributes and our contribution to global food security in the future.

Dr Kate Grenot FTSE is chair of the ATSE Agricultural Productivity Working Group. She has a background in plant physiology and science policy and formerly chaired Australia’s Rural Research and Development Council.