Alan Kohler: Australian agriculture businesses fighting to secure the future of food

Australia is still reaping the rewards of smart agriculture policy of the past.

Australia is still reaping the rewards of smart agriculture policy of the past.

The death last week of John Kerin at 85 took the man who had done more for agricultural innovation in Australia than anyone since HV McKay.

Kerin was Minister for Primary Industries and Energy in the Hawke government from 1983 to 1991, and while he didn’t actually invent a device like McKay’s Sunshine Harvester, or Richard Bowyer Smith’s stump-jump plough, his invention was an upgraded system for funding and structuring research and development in agriculture that has lasted to this day.

Most great inventions are built on what has gone before, and so it was with John Kerin’s reforms to agricultural research. It was the Menzies government in 1955 that first established levies on farmers to fund research. By 1967 there were five industry research funds: Wool, wheat, dairying, meat and tobacco. And by 1982, a year before Kerin became the minister, farmers in 13 commodities were providing funds for research, and today every agricultural commodity has a levy on producers to raise money for research.

What Kerin did was double the levies from 0.25 per cent 0.5 per cent of gross value of production, and provide matching funding from the government. Most importantly, he upended the system and refocused it on science, putting the right people in charge of the research councils who were not part of the rural politics.

Reflecting back on it in 2012, Kerin wrote: “Some boards were inappropriate for the challenges ahead, some were too settled, some tended to be autocratic, some were too captive to agri-political groups and very few producers actually knew what was going on.

“Under previous governments, the committees were unfocused, seldom seeking answers to fundamental questions. And it was possible they knew little or nothing about scientific research and the inherent principles and practices in that research.

“The situation I inherited, on becoming minister, was one of conservative, politically dominated, centralised research councils directing research into commodities having statutory marketing arrangements.”

Today Kerin’s research system, acknowledged as one of the best in the world, results in $800 million a year going into research and marketing for agriculture, of which $300 million comes from the federal government, matching dollar for dollar the money raised from farmer levies for research (the rest goes on marketing).

The most important characteristic of the system is that it’s accepted by farmers, and therefore the National Party and the Coalition, because they can see that the money is not being wasted, and that’s meant that it hasn’t been dismantled by subsequent Coalition governments.

In a way, research into improving crop yields and animal welfare and processing, and the efficiency of harvesting, is the most important of all research for humanity, because it’s how we get fed.

There have been many warnings over the decades about how population growth was going to result in mass starvation, starting with Thomas Malthus in 1798, Paul and Anne Ehrlich with their book The Population Bomb in 1968, and the Club of Rome in 1991.

Yet we have not starved, even though this is what happened to world population:

Photo: Our World In Data

It’s because yields and harvesting efficiency have improved more than population has grown (including the grim industrialisation of animal slaughter and processing).

Now there is new concern about food production falling short of population growth because of three things: Climate change, geopolitics (principally China’s cut in phosphate exports) and pandemic (swine and bird flu outbreaks, as well as COVID-19). And that’s why, in 2021, 15 of the research and development councils (RDCs) decided to pool part of their resources and form a new joint not-for-profit company, called Agricultural Innovation Australia.

The then Coalition agriculture minister David Littleproud announced the creation of AIA in October 2021, with $2.8 million seed funding from the government, saying, grandly: “the federal government is working towards supporting industries’ target of $100 billion by 2030 through 15 commodity research development corporations.

“We’ve created Agricultural Innovation Australia, a commercial entity that will help to ensure that we get back to the first principles of agricultural innovation. Value to the levy payer, value to the taxpayer, remove duplication and commercialisation, and we’re giving them the tools to do that.”

That $100 billion ambition for the size of Australia’s agriculture industries came from a 2019 document produced by the National Farmers Federation, called the “2030 Roadmap”, and the government didn’t create AIA – it was the Kerin RDCs that did that. But they were happy to let the minister take the credit.

Then-shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon with John Kerin in 2016. Photo: AAP

The CEO of AIA is Sam Brown, who spent 13 years running LiveCorp, the livestock export corporation. His budget is $2.3 million a year in subscriptions from the 15 individual RDCs – which include bodies like Australian Pork, Australian Eggs, Wine Australia and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

AIA raises extra money from the RDCs for specific projects, and so far Sam Brown and his team have launched two of them: Working with the Bureau of Meteorology to improve climate forecasting and building an engine for accurate carbon accounting.

But so much more work needs to be done that is also not specific to a particular industry. More fertiliser has to be found to replace Chinese output, and there is a constant battle with disease.

Most of all, it’s about climate change. So far agriculture is being quarantined from emissions reduction strategies because of the political clout of farmers, but that can’t go on forever.

Methane emissions from livestock represent about 28 per cent of Australia’s emissions – the same as the 213 large emitters in the Safeguard Mechanism, and also roughly the same as the electricity sector.

So far the companies in the Safeguard Mechanism and electricity are carrying the entire task of reducing Australia’s emissions.

But it’s unlikely that Australia, or any other country, is going to meet the targets necessary to keep global temperatures to liveable levels without including agriculture, so research into maintaining a viable farming sector when meat is replaced with plant-based alternatives will eventually need a big push.

Thanks to John Kerin, and the recent addition of AIA, the structure to do that is in place; it just needs to be dialled up.

Alan Kohler is founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news. He writes twice a week for The New Daily

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