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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3393


Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (13:19): It is particularly apt that we should be examining the future of agriculture during the Australian Year of the Farmer. It is estimated that by the year 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth. The recent ABARES outlook conference was informed that demand for agricultural products in that time will rise by around about 70 per cent, and the real value of food will rise by 1.3 per cent per annum—almost 80 per cent over that period. By 2050, it is expected that the value of agricultural exports will grow by 140 percent. That is the real value. It is clear that, far from the assumptions of the past, agriculture is not and cannot be a sunset industry. This is in complete contrast to the last 100 years, with the real value of agricultural production continually falling in real terms. In that period, farmers have survived and in many cases flourished by increasing productivity, not just yields. The increase in area farmed has been substantial, but the biggest gains in agriculture have been in productivity per person. Some of these efficiencies have been provided by technology and mechanical advancement, others by the vastly increased cropping intensity provided by superior agronomic practice and others again by technologies contained within the seed and the genetic makeup of the plants and the animals we grow. All of these advancements have been underwritten by good science.

Well may we ask, what is the problem? Why is there a problem in agriculture if the future looks so bright? The problem is that the enormous advances of the last 50 years have always been as a result of the investment of the generation before. For instance, even today the best science in agriculture is being driven by the generation which is about to retire. It is the result of investment and recruitment of the 1970s and 1980s. The extremely tough times in agriculture in the last 20 to 30 years have diverted high school graduates away from agriculture. The repeated crises in the industry have led to lower wages than in competing industries and prospective students have voted with their feet. But here we are now, in 2012, on the verge of agriculture regaining much of its importance in the world. Our agricultural schools are struggling to fill courses and closing campuses. Entrance marks continue to fall. These are very bad outcomes not just for the industry specifically but also for the nation's economy. As I said earlier, agricultural products are quickly joining the list of world resources in short supply. Such shortages have driven the vast expansion in the resources sector generally in the last 20 years.

Governments have invested significantly in addressing the shortage of skills in the resources sector. It is perceived that Australia will not be able to fully exploit its opportunities unless we have a skilled workforce to meet demand. It is exactly the same position in agriculture. Australia will not be able to fully exploit its opportunities unless we have a skilled workforce to meet the demand. Yet, in the same time that governments around Australia have been reducing their commitment to agriculture, state governments have withdrawn funds for agricultural research and extension and closed a number of research farms and this federal government has slashed spending going to agriculture, including to land and water. The result drives a negative view of agriculture and a reluctance among young people to choose a career in the industry. Yet we know that the research breakthroughs of the 2020s, '30s and '40s will come from those who join the industry now. That is why it is time for governments collectively to lift their heads and look at what industries can realistically perform well in the middle of this current century. They will not be the areas where the real returns are predicted to keep falling. Our cost of production in Australia will inevitably see such industries fall victim to the emerging and well educated classes from the developing nations of the world. Agriculture, by comparison, will play to our natural advantage and it is imperative that governments take the blinkers off the last 20 years and understand that it is far from being a sunset industry—it is in fact a re-emerging industry—and for Australia's good management they must come on board and support agriculture.