Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Agriculture and Water Resources Committee; Report
On behalf of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources, I present the committee's report, incorporating a dissenting report, entitled Growing Australia: inquiry into growing Australian agriculture to $100 billion by 2030, together with the minutes of proceedings.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—Australian farmers are the most productive, innovative and resilient agriculture producers on the planet. They've had to be, with one of the harshest climates, with poor soil types and with the distance from export markets. Our agricultural sector is producing first-class food and fibre for the world. In 2019 its gross value to the Australian economy was $60 billion, and its future is positive. Opportunities abound with the expansion of trade access to markets in North and South-East Asia through the signing of a plethora of free trade agreements and with the prospect of improved access to the 450 million high-value consumers in the European Union and Great Britain on the horizon. To build on these opportunities, the committee is recommending that the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment allocate additional resources to the market access negotiations with trading partners.
Continual productivity improvements are critical to the Australian agriculture sector retaining its international competitiveness—Australian farmers delivering increased profits through the adaptation of international technologies, the use of new GM techniques and chemical formulations, and through homegrown R&D in the fields of plant breeding, agronomy and animal health. The committee has made recommendations to leverage this innovation through the promotion of new technologies and by setting consistent data standards for agtech.
The evidence also suggests that access to capital to fund adoption and expansion to achieve scale will be critical to the growth of the sector. Agricultural land prices have remained strong during the recent east coast drought, underpinning the confidence of both banks and investors. It is important to note, however, that the Australian superannuation industry, which manages over $3 trillion, invests only around 0.2 per cent of those funds in agriculture.
But there are many challenges facing the sector. The committee took evidence that maintaining Australia's strict biosecurity protocols to protect our producers from pests and disease is of primary importance to our farmers. Evidence was also given that well-funded and professionally run activist organisations continue to cause uncertainty and heartache for the farming community, particularly for livestock producers. The irrational opposition to GM plant technology has largely failed, with almost universal access across Australia to the technology. But that opposition delayed the uptake for up to 15 years in some states. The development of the glyphosate molecule revolutionised agriculture by enabling minimum-till cropping, delivering enormous environmental benefits and lifting billions of people out of food poverty. Unfortunately, this technology is now under threat. It is vital that Australian farmers continue to have access to the latest chemicals that not only increase production and reduce costs but often reduce environmental impacts, compared to existing methods.
Climate variability has always been a challenge for Australian farmers. Evidence gathered suggests that governments can assist in the management of this variability by continuing to offer financial tools such as income averaging and farm management deposits, and by providing disaster relief where applicable. To ensure these tools continue to offer farm businesses the best possible protection, the committee has recommended that the Productivity Commission undertake a review of the approaches to risk mitigation used in agriculture.
One of the strengths of the agricultural sector is its people, and it is vital that the industry continue to attract young people. Currently, the demand for agriculture graduates outstrips supply, despite the positive job prospects and above-average starting salaries available to graduates. The committee has therefore recommended a campaign to promote the diverse, skilled career opportunities available in agriculture. Additionally, the committee has recommended the creation of a professional development process to provide a structured, recognised pathway for skill development.
The evidence to the inquiry can give no doubt that, with the appropriate policy settings, Australian farmers will expand production and deliver $100 billion to the national economy in a sustained manner by 2030 and beyond.
On behalf of the committee, I recognise the secretariat for their outstanding work on this important report, which took over 12 months to compile. Of course, it was disrupted by the pandemic. I thank so very much committee secretary Jenny Adams; inquiry secretary Tim Brennan—Tim, all the best for your move to the Parliamentary Library; I know you will serve the parliament with distinction in the future—senior researcher Louise Milligan, who we wish all the best with the medical issues she's having at the moment; researcher Angus Gould; and office manager Sarah Brasser. I commend this report to the House.
by leave—As Deputy Chair of the House Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this report—Growing Australia: inquiry into growing Australian agriculture to $100 billion by 2030. The committee worked very well together throughout this inquiry. There was a great deal of goodwill and cooperation. I thank the chair, Mr Rick Wilson, for the constructive and consultative way in which he led this inquiry. I thank my committee colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their hard work and dedication last year, which was a challenging year. I thank Mr Gosling, who is behind me, for his hard work. We all approached this task with the best of intentions and in the right spirit. I have no doubt that all members had the common aim of seeing Australian agriculture get to $100 billion by 2030, but we have different views on how that might be achieved—hence the Labor members' production of a dissenting report.
I thank too the secretariat for their hard work, good humour and diligence throughout the inquiry and for their preparation of the draft committee report from what was a great deal of evidence. We took evidence from many witnesses and received plenty of comprehensive submissions. Like the chair, I acknowledge the presence in the chamber today of the secretary and the inquiry secretary. I thank them both for their hard work. I see that we've driven Mr Brennan off to the Parliamentary Library. Apologies for that! I'm sure you will do well. Sifting through all those submissions to develop a report that encapsulated the key points would have been no easy task, particularly given the challenges that 2020 presented.
Most of all I thank our witnesses and everyone who put in the effort to make a submission. They contributed to an important but unheralded process of the parliament. Committees and reports don't often make headlines, but they do contribute to the development of national policy.
As is the nature of these things, the committee report reflects the priorities of government members on the committee. Labor members on the committee agree with most of the recommendations as well as the broad thrust of the report, but we have some key areas of disagreement that form the basis of the dissenting report. Labor members support outright recommendations 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12 and 13; we support recommendations 6 and 8 with qualifications; and we oppose recommendations 2 and 9. Further, Labor members propose and support an additional 38 recommendations. They make for good reading.
In rereading the transcripts and submissions in preparation for the dissenting report I was struck by the fact that the key to achieving the goal of $100 billion is not necessarily to grow lots more things but to get better outcomes from what we grow already. For example, the evidence shows that one-quarter of everything we grow is wasted and that water inefficiency is far too high. If we get on top of those, that's billions of dollars saved. If we maximise the use of technology, we could add another $20 billion to our numbers. Then there is value-adding. And that's all before we even get to the development of exciting new agricultural initiatives—alternative proteins, seaweed, aquaculture, hemp and medicinal cannabis, to name a few.
The chief concern Labor members of the committee had with the report is the disregard paid to the threat that climate change poses to Australian agriculture. 'Climate change mitigation and adaption' is the heading above a small section buried on page 168 of the report. There was a total absence of any recommendations on how agriculture might respond to climate change, despite the strength of evidence provided to the committee on its importance. Climate change was not granted its own chapter. The term does not feature in the title of the chapter in which it is covered—'Land, Water, and Environment'—and it is not mentioned in the chapter's introduction. This apparent reluctance by the government members to acknowledge the importance of climate change to the future of Australian agriculture flies in the face of evidence provided to the committee, which is detailed deep in the bowels of the report and which included climate change being described by the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association as 'possibly the biggest hurdle to reaching the target' of $100 billion by 2030. The fact is that climate change affects regional and farming communities more directly and more savagely than it affects the inner-city communities with which it is politically associated. It is regional communities that bear the brunt of fire, flood, drought and other extreme conditions. Climate change is an issue for Blunnies more than it is for Birkenstocks.
Just because the Labor members prepared a dissenting report, the view should not be formed that there was a vast chasm between the government and the opposition members, nor that we have wildly different points of view on the broader direction that agricultural policy should take. Stakeholders can take a lot of comfort from the fact that the government and Labor members agree on more than we disagree on and that broad policy stability is assured regardless of which major party forms government. It goes without saying that Labor will simply do the job that much better, particularly with a Tasmanian now in charge of the shadow portfolio of agriculture. I commend the report to the House.