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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee - 15/05/2012 - Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness

CRIBB, Mr Julian Hillary James, Private capacity

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: You are becoming a weekly participant! I don't think we could be involved in the Senate without having you giving us the benefit of your advice on a weekly basis.

Mr Cribb : As long as I am not boring you. That is the main thing.

CHAIR: Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Cribb : I am a science communicator and writer.

CHAIR: I wonder if you would be good enough to make an opening statement, and then we will go to questions. For those senators who do not know your background, in your opening statement could you expand and just give the committee an understanding of where you come from in the agriculture sector.

Mr Cribb : My background is that I used to be a newspaper editor in agriculture—the editor of the National Farmer. I was agricultural correspondent for the Australian for many years as well. So I have been an agricultural journalist for 20 or 30 years and a close observer of what goes on in that sector. Over the coming 50 years, the world faces the growing risk of regional food insecurity, leading to episodes of conflict, government collapse, mass migration and very high food prices. International defence think tanks and many others have attested to this; I have provided this to the committee in a statement.

These episodes will be the result of a dangerous confluence of 10 drivers. On the demand side, rising human numbers and economic growth are expected to double food demand by the 2060s while growing scarcities of land, water, oil, fertiliser, technology, fish, finance and stable climates will adversely affect the supply side. Together these 10 factors are likely to make food production far less secure, more risky and uncertain than at any time in the last 30 years. You can look at the details or the background to these factors in my book The Coming Famine. While many people deem Australia to be food secure in the medium term, we cannot insulate ourselves against the consequences of food scarcity elsewhere. Wars, migrant and refugee tsunamis and soaring food prices caused by the globalised food chain could all affect us.

Then we have climate change: global temperatures are currently predicted to rise by two degrees by 2050—and that is locked in—and four to five degrees by 2100 on the present trend of carbon release. The latter poses extreme challenges for agriculture. Without widespread adaptation and change in the entire food system, it is expected to result in a 50 per cent reduction in global food supply at the very time the world is trying to double its food production.

The last time the world was in such critical situation was in the 1960s, when the warnings of the Club of Rome prompted the scientific green revolution, which caused world food production to increase by nearly 200 per cent. Based upon its very strong agricultural science and education base, Australia was both a leader in and a major contributor to the green revolution, here and globally. Since that time we have taken our eye off the ball. Funding of agricultural science—extension and education—has contracted at federal and state level in real terms, and Australia is no longer the world leader in the field that it used to be. We have all but abandoned one of the things that we were best at. To me, the only comparison I can make is to say that it is like closing down the Institute of Sport and abandoning our Olympic aspirations.

Contraction in both agricultural science and education continues despite growing global awareness, and that is driven by the UNFAO—the United Nations itself and other bodies and countries are warning about this insecure food situation. That said, there is enormous potential in this country to increase food, fibre and other production out of agriculture sustainably. We enjoy many of the resources which are becoming critically scarce elsewhere, including land, fresh and saltwater, as well as retaining a high level of technological skill in our ageing and diminishing population of food producers.

I will give you a few examples of the potential industries of the future. There is scope to develop a new $25 billion biodiesel industry from algae, which would render Australia completely self-sufficient in transport fuels at a time of global scarcity from an area no larger than a big sheep station—about 600,000 hectares. There is scope to develop a $5 billion sector in farmed fish and seafood, which would turn a 66 per cent deficit into a new export giant, larger than the other livestock industries put together. There is the opportunity for a new industry recycling currently wasted fresh water and nutrients in Australia's great cities for use in agriculture, peri-urban horticulture and urban agriculture. There is the opportunity to cultivate up to 6,100 edible Australian plants, of which we presently eat only four or five regularly, creating a new industry comparable to, but much larger than, the wine industry. There is the opportunity for us to diversify and create new industries around 19,000 other edible plants currently found worldwide but neglected in the human diet. There is the opportunity to redesign the Australian diet around novel foods and plants, to reduce the current death rate—of one in every two Australians—from diet related diseases and substantially curb rising healthcare costs. There is the opportunity to green Australia's cities by introducing high-tech as well as smallholder food production, leading to a substantial part of the food supply being produced in climate independent urban systems. There is the opportunity for us to be a ground floor investor and developer of biocultures, for production of edible food, stockfeed, fuel, plastics, pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals from industrial cultures of plant, fungal, animal and microbial cells, using recycled water and urban organic wastes. Finally, there is the opportunity to develop a knowledge industry worth $2 billion to $3 billion a year or more, exporting sustainable know-how and technology in food production, water and landscape management, and that would be about on a par with the $2 billion to $3 billion export industry in mining know-how which we currently have. It would also contribute materially to improving global food security, as we did in the green revolution by sharing our knowledge more widely.

This provides you with an overview of the exceptional potential for sustainable food, feed and fuel industries which Australia can grow to meet our own and world demand for safe, healthy, nutritious and delicious foods in the future. However, none of these developments is possible without greatly increased national and state effort in agricultural education and training and in R&D. The effect of clearly identifying such magnificent opportunities will achieve the same as it did in the 1960s: it will attract and inspire a generation of brilliant, determined and altruistic young Australians into food production and related fields; it will supply the raw material for a redoubling in demand for education and training in this field and especially in the futuristic high-tech aspects of aquaculture, urban agriculture, biocultures and novel diets and cuisine. However, the sine qua non is education. Without a substantial regeneration of the presently degraded agricultural and food education and training system, none of this is going to happen, and the nation will lose the prospect of major sustainable industries for a future long after the mines close and the oil and gas wells run dry. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That gives us a moment or two to digest all that, get beyond it and get on to the next topic! No, it doesn't! Senator Gallacher.

Senator GALLACHER: You have put forward some things as great opportunities for green energy. We know that coal is the cheapest form of electricity, and then we go to wind and solar and all the other technologies, but the actual broad based introduction of any of these things will only be driven by the economics of it. With your scenario, rising prices will drive these changes or these opportunities which you set out. Is anybody ahead of the curve? Do you think anybody is looking at the technologies that will make these things economic and efficient means of production?

Mr Cribb : Barack Obama is investing US$500 million in biodiesel from algae to keep the US Navy at sea and the US Air Force airborne. Boeing is investing in it. Richard Branson of Virgin is investing it. Many countries around the world, including Brazil, Israel and China, are investing in it. The point is we are 70 to 80 per cent dependent on imported oil. If there were an Arab spring in Saudi Arabia and it happened next week, this country would be off the road by the end of the month. We are not prepared for scarcity of fuel oil. Basically this is the only way we can secure ourselves against that kind of uncertainty for the long term. I think most people understand the need to invest in future transport fuels, so I think the algae argument is much easier to understand than some of the other ones, for investment purposes.

Senator GALLACHER: If you look at America being self-sufficient and actually an exporter of oil this year—

Mr Cribb : But America nevertheless is investing in renewable energy to a high degree, because it can see in the long run that oil wells eventually run dry.

Senator GALLACHER: If you were to tell me that the Harvard pension fund is investing in these technologies then I would be right there with them, because they have had not only a tremendously successful return rate on their pension but also the capacity to see into the future and invest in areas well ahead of the curve, so to speak.

Mr Cribb : I do not know where that particular fund puts its money, but I do know that many people around the world are investing in this area now.

Senator GALLACHER: What do you say about countries such as Qatar having a food security policy and perhaps investing in countries such as Australia to secure their production of the necessary things that they cannot produce at home? Do you see that as being a phenomenon that might increase?

Mr Cribb : Yes, I do. But I would like us to be in there first, offering to secure their food supply for them. I think we do a fair bit of sitting on our backsides and waiting for people to invest here when in fact we could be going out like the New Zealand company Fonterra, which is buying up farms in China and teaching them to do dairy farming. I think we could be much more forward in our efforts to help them secure their own food supplies. But, of course, that all depends on having a highly educated workforce and having strong R&D.

Senator GALLACHER: I think, if you are looking at highly educated workforces, the country that comes to mind that produces the most graduates—English-speaking, rule-of-law—is India. Some might argue that they will have the Asian century at their feet if you are looking at intellectual capacity.

Mr Cribb : That might be true in areas such as IT and chemistry and things like that, but I am not sure whether it still applies to agriculture. I think there was a question mark over food security in India in the medium-to-longer term.

Senator GALLACHER: I find your position very challenging, and I am glad there is more opportunity in it than threat.

Senator SIEWERT: I wanted to go to, 'Where do we start from here?' This is towards the end of our second day of this inquiry and we all really understand the problems we are facing in terms of lack of awareness around agriculture, lack of students going into agriculture, lack of investment in R&D and lack of investment in education. Where would you suggest that we start in terms of investing in agriculture, R&D, education, communication?

Mr Cribb : What I have tried to do here is to provide you with the rationale for increased investment in agriculture and related fields. I believe that, if we say to ourselves, 'We ought to invest more in agriculture,' we need to answer the question, 'Why?' The answer is that Australia can not only sustain its own food and fuel and other needs but also help the world to do that, and we need to get back some of the thinking that we had under Sir John Crawford and under the green revolution back in the 50s and 60s and 70s. We seem to have lost that will to lead.

The industries I have identified were carefully chosen to inspire the next generation, because we have to face the fact that the average message coming out of agriculture today says to kids, 'Don't go here.' It says to investors, 'Don't invest here, because farmers lose money.' The economic and social signals from agriculture today are negative ones. We have to reverse that perception, otherwise we will not get those brilliant young Australians back into this field.

At the moment there are lots of unemployed young Australians who used to work for banks and various other investment houses and stockbrokers and what have you. Let's get the brains back into agriculture. Agriculture and related activities are going to enrich us for 1,000 years to come. You cannot say that of iron ore, because we know we only have seven years of first grade haematite left in this country. We know that the North West Shelf gas is going to run out in 20 or 30 years. So we know that those things are finite: we cannot depend on them in the long haul. But we can depend upon renewable and sustainable industries, which are the basis of agriculture.

Senator SIEWERT: So one of the keys is getting out and communicating. You are right: the image of agriculture at the moment is that it is disconnected from the city, that it is an old industry—I think that the average age of a farmer has gone up to 58.

CHAIR: Sixty-one.

Senator SIEWERT: So it has just gone up again, to 61. You are not getting that renewal. So the first step I would suggest is communicating not only what you have just been saying, as to why we need to be doing it, but also what the opportunities are.

Mr Cribb : Absolutely. We need to depict agriculture and food production as industries of the future not industries of yesterday. And they are, because there is no issue more vital to the future of civilisation than sustaining the food supply. If we do not do that, governments will come down, left, right and centre. There will be conflicts. There will be huge movements of refugees, in the tens or hundreds of millions. So, if we are to avoid that kind of situation, all of us throughout the world need, the human race needs, to invest more in sustainable food production, and Australia in particular because we have been so good at that in the past.

Senator SIEWERT: Why did we stop investing? My background is in agricultural science. When I was with the agriculture department in Western Australia we used to boast that we had the best extension service in the whole of Australia, and I see Senator Back nodding his head, being a proud Western Australian as well. We used to boast that we had the best agriculture department in the country. I do not know where we rank now, but we do not have extension officers anymore. We do not have that sense of vitality around agriculture. When and why did governments, both state and federal, stop investing in agriculture the way they used to?

Mr Cribb : Well, I was a rural journalist in Western Australia in 1973 to 1976, and I used to visit the agriculture department often, and when I went back there about six months ago I got a terrible shock because it had not changed one bit.

Senator SIEWERT: It looked the same, I bet, didn't it?

Mr Cribb : It had not even had a coat of paint in most places since I had previously visited it nearly 40 years ago. It was horrific to me that a state that has built its wealth upon agriculture, as Western Australia has, should so neglect such a primary source of prosperity and diversity and creativity. Western Australian farmers are fantastically vital people and I do not think that they are getting the support they need, and that would apply to most other states. All states have cut their investment in agricultural science. Where does it come from? I think that governments in Australia and elsewhere around the world have been bamboozled into believing that if they leave all the science to the Monsantos and the Syngentas and people like that, to the private sector, they will fix the problem. I am here to tell you they will not, because they will fix only the problem that addresses the needs of their shareholders. They will not fix public-good issues like sustainable farming. They will do no science that is of a public-good character. So that is going to be a huge lack in the world's knowledge base when it comes to sustaining the food supply in the long run, unless there is public investment in public-good science for agriculture. We are going to be in fairly considerable trouble. Farmers are going to drive into a big technology pothole over the next 25 years.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I wanted to just follow up again on a Western Australian issue, and this is on the CRC working on future farming. You mentioned the algal issue, which also came up a couple of years ago when we had the inquiry into peak oil where people were talking about that starting to show promise. The other area is biofuels from tree crops rather than food crops. I am wondering if you have had a look at that, particularly in the context of landscape restoration.

Mr Cribb : If you do the arithmetic, worldwide we cannot really afford to grow fuel on farms because we are losing farmland at the rate of one per cent a year. We have already lost 24 per cent of the world's farmland. We are going to lose another 50 per cent in the next 50 years if we do not do something about it. So, if we keep on losing farmland, nobody is going to be able to afford to grow fuel on land that can produce food. If you were to grow all the fuel that farmers need worldwide for their tractors on-farm, it would reduce the world food supply by 10 per cent. If you were to grow all the fuel that is needed to truck the food from the farm to the supermarket and chill it then it would reduce the world food supply in total by 30 per cent. So growing fuel on farms might be a little regional solution in some cases for a time, but it is not a long-term solution. That is why I advocate algae because you can grow algae on all those salt lakes in the outer wheat belt which are never going to crop. You can grow algae in the oceans which you are never going to crop. You can grow algae in coastal regions which you are never going to crop. So it is not going to compete in any way with farmland or even with wilderness.

Senator McKENZIE: I want to touch briefly on the comment you just made about prioritising spend. This is a political problem—governments choosing where to put their resource allocation and their focus. Over time, how do you see we have changed the prioritisation of regional industry from a government perspective, at both state and federal levels? Can you point to any reasons why that may be?

Mr Cribb : I worked in the federal parliamentary press gallery in Canberra for 20 years, so I watched the shift from both a political perspective and an industry one. Agriculture simply became less and less sexy. Also, we were so good at agriculture and we were so good at agricultural science that everyone said, 'Oh, problem solved. We don't have to invest any more in agriculture. We've fixed the food problem and we can afford to walk away from it.' We did not walk away from it overnight; we did it over 25 years, inch by inch. As I say, every state and federal government in Australia has done it. Also, I think the glamour of oil, coal, iron ore and the other big resource industries has outshone.

Naturally politicians will decide to put resources behind industries that look like winners. I am saying we have a winner in agriculture and food production for the long haul here. We need to start seeing it as a winner and not seeing it as an also-ran or even a loser. That is why I have emphasised with you today the bright, new possibilities. I would encourage us to frame our entire thinking, both as a nation and as planners of agricultural education, around these potential industries, which other countries around the world are taking perfectly seriously but which we seem to be in a bit of a daze over.

Senator McKENZIE: I hear what you are saying. My question goes to the reality of what makes any government focus on any particular thing. If I could paraphrase my understanding of what you are saying, it is not a lack of focus by any government on agriculture. They have all been keen on regional issues and agriculture. It is a complacency—is that what you are saying?

Mr Cribb : I think it is an imperfect understanding of what Australia is really good at. Yes, we have been complacent, not just governments. Everybody has been a bit complacent about agriculture, including agriculture itself. We have tended to watch the world go by. We are the lucky country, we have done fairly well economically over the last 30 or 40 years without having to try so very hard. It is time we woke up. The next 60 or 70 years are going to be reasonably grim, particularly from a food perspective. We cannot just let all our food industries go offshore the way we are doing at the moment.

There will be political priorities that a rise in food production but they are not here yet. I can understand that politicians do not see the urgency of it but I think we need to start talking up that urgency because this is a very critical issue. There is no more serious issue. An insecure food supply brings down governments and has done throughout human history. It causes terrible perturbations to world trade and peace and stability. We could be such leaders in this area. I think it is just up to us to convince ourselves that we have these opportunities. The Israelis are convinced of it, the Brazilians are convinced that and even the Chinese are convinced of it, so what is stopping us?

Senator McKENZIE: You do not to convince anyone on this inquiry. As an expert in science communication, what do you see is the most effective way to raise the profile of agriculture and agribusiness in the wider community?

Mr Cribb : I have a hunch that oil will do it, because everyone understands the need to invest in oil. That is an industry that can get off the ground quite quickly. There is good research up at James Cook University into that. As I say, Barack Obama is on the case. There is lots happening worldwide. I think that is an important new industry. It is important for Australia's economic security and our physical security as well as for agricultural development. Out of that you can get a whole lot of knowledge which you can then apply to food production, feed production, aquaculture and other industries. We can reprocess the waste from our cities through algae farms and produce fuel, plastics and so on. So I think that that could be the flagship, if you like, that leads the fleet. It is the most eye-catching development. It is like the North West Shelf. Think of it as the North West Shelf of agriculture.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I step in there and just ask: how is the funding going on getting some of those projects up and running now on the algal side? When we did the Senate inquiry on peak oil a couple of years ago, it was a bit tenuous and it did not look like they were going to get the funding they needed.

Mr Cribb : My understanding is that it is still tenuous.

Senator SIEWERT: That is what I thought.

CHAIR: Following on from Senator Siewert, there has been discussion and representation to this committee as to whether or not agriculture or agribusiness needs a peak body. There is an acceptance that there are peak bodies associated with the production side but not through the supply chain beyond the farm gate and that the industry is speaking with far too disparate a voice and therefore not being listened to by governments. From your long experience in the world of journalism et cetera, can you give us a view as to whether you think there is a place for a role for a peak body, in a sense, representing those—

Mr Cribb : When I came to Canberra in 1976 there were eight national farming organisations in the capital, all advising government and all getting ignored equally. I used my national farming newspaper, the National Farmer, as a lash to get these guys together, to make it very difficult politically for them to back out of forming the National Farmers Federation. Unfortunately, I do not think the National Farmers Federation has the oomph or the clout that it once enjoyed.

Anyway, I see this as a much bigger industry. I mentioned to you issues like diet and food production. We should not just talk about agriculture; we should talk about the total food chain. Yes, there is a need for a peak body representing this entire industry that is involved in food production. Whether you produce food on a farm or whether you produce it out of a bioculture in a big steel vat in the city, or whether you are designing a new diet to stop people getting diabetes or something like that, I think we need to see this whole sector as one element and not break it up into too many small pieces. So, yes, I would agree with your concept that we need a national body to lobby for us, to put the case strongly, to crack the whip and to come out with the inspiring messages.

CHAIR: My next question then follows on logically. We have also discussed here this whole urban disconnect with the production of foodstuffs, which the urban community seem to have no knowledge of or interest in, whereas they have a very keen interest now in the consumption and the preparation of food. You only have to look at television programs and magazines et cetera. Are you of the view that, for an urban community now—forget the rural community, which understands agriculture—the word 'agriculture' is a turn-off? Is it creating an image of droughts and floods and farmers making no money and people walking off the land? Should we in fact be referring in the urban communications space to 'food and fibres'? I say 'fibres' to differentiate from fibre to the node in the IT context. Seriously, should we be recommending that we get rid of the word 'agriculture' to the urban community and talk about 'food and fibres' as the production end of the consumption chain?

Mr Cribb : Absolutely we should, because agriculture is an old-fashioned idea. Agriculture will only be producing about half our food by the end of this century. The other half will be produced in factories in the city, driven by very low prices paid by supermarkets. That is almost inevitable. So the farm will no longer be the fulcrum of food production in 100 years time. I would not even put in 'fibre', 'fuel' or any of the other exciting things that you can produce, because it just makes the name too long; let's just call it the food sector. The point is food relates to everybody. Everybody consumes it, it touches the lives of every individual and it has political significance far beyond the significance of agriculture. So I would simply call it 'the food sector' and leave it at that.

CHAIR: I am going to borrow now from the opening statement you made the other day to our inquiry into foreign investment. It is statement No. 22. I will read it out:

More immediate is the concern that corporatisation and globalisation of the food chain will result in the shrinking and closure of many small Australian farming, fishing, horticultural and related industries as a result of the sourcing of cheaper products from developing countries by major supermarkets and food processors. This will make Australia's food supply increasingly import-dependent and hence increase our exposure to global shocks.

Would you care to expand on that statement for this committee?

Mr Cribb : Yes. I am sure the senators are all aware of that situation. What has changed is that, in the last 15 years, 20 big companies have come to dominate half of the food traded worldwide. Fifteen years ago, there were millions of sellers and millions of buyers in the world market. Today the world market is divided into two parts—one part that is dominated by those 20 large corporations, and the other part that is just as before. But they are the guys who call the shots on what you pay for a tonne of wheat, a tonne of corn, a brussels sprout or anything like that. I am talking about the Nestle Corporation; the big supermarket chains Carrefour and Walmart; and the big grain traders, Continental, Cargill, Bunge and those sorts of people: they are dominating the price element.

On the other side of the equation, of course, farmers are being hammered by large corporations who are controlling the price of their inputs: their fertiliser, their fuel, their machinery and so on. So the farmers are just jammed in the middle, and for 99 per cent of the world's farmers this is a very unprofitable place to be. Even when market prices are high, farmers lose money. And that is the cause of the lack of investment and the reason the kids are leaving the land and farmers are getting older. It is all being driven by this absolutely remorseless and highly unintelligent economic equation. This economic equation tells you only what food is worth now; it does not take account of what is going to happen in the future, what is coming down. So is a very short sighted policy. Unfortunately, I do not see how you can undo this, because these are gigantic corporations, many of them larger than entire countries.

However, you can support farmers to become more efficient and sustainable by giving them knowledge—knowledge through the education system and knowledge through science and technology. If you supply them with that, then more of your farmers will remain on their feet, and young people will be encouraged to come back because it is fun using all those new technologies. So agriculture will develop a much more futuristic and brighter face if we accentuate the knowledge side. If we invest in knowledge in food production, this country cannot go wrong.

CHAIR: There appear to be no more questions. Again, I thank you very much for what is obviously a very challenging comment to the committee and for the interest that you show in the various Senate committee inquiries. Thank you.

Mr Cribb : My pleasure. Thank you.