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Address on the occasion of the opening of the Nuffield Farming Scholars Association Innovative Farming Conference.

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5 OCTOBER 2006

z Mr Peter Nixon, Chairman, Nuffield Australia, and Mrs Nixon

z Mr David Brownhill, Deputy Chairman, and Mrs Brownhill

z Mr Matt Dempsey, Editor, Irish Farming Journal

z 14 Nuffield Scholarship winners

z Delegates

z Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for your warm welcome this morning - and what a great pleasure to be here at the opening of this conference at a time when there are many opportunities unfolding for research and innovative farming practice - let me come back to that shortly.

Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States of America, made this observation in the 18th century: “There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbours. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favour, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.”

Whilst we might not agree with Franklin’s view about commerce, we can say with certainty that farming is a ‘virtuous’ industry. And we can prove that on many counts. But in 2006 we cannot ignore the impact on farming of enormous external issues such as free trade, globalisation, biosecurity concerns, water availability and cost, and the marketing of our products.

Many of us will remember the days of far less complexity when globalisation was nebulous, not reality, when economic analysis was perhaps a little simpler. I recall a particular phrase from the 1960s which attempted to describe farming, noting that “the farmer is the only person in the economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”

Australia’s farms are not museums - they are an important source of economic growth and increasingly of innovation. And thus I agree with the view that farming sits squarely in the category of the‘new’ economy rather than the ‘old’.

This view was re-inforced with what I saw and heard when in May this year I spent ten days travelling from South Australia through Central Australia along the Birdsville Track to outback Queensland, then to Alice Springs and finally to the Tanami Desert in Western Australia.


I visited successful Indigenous eco-tourism projects, met horsemen mustering cattle on stock routes, visited remote stations, talked with farmers and pastoralists, trod through old homestead ruins in the desert, and inspected national parks. It was a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to the magnificent Australian bush, agricultural innovation and to encourage many more Australians, the majority of whom live near the coast, to cross the Great Dividing Range and venture inland.

That trip reinforced my earlier judgement that agriculture has a far greater influence on the Australian economy than many people may think - for example gross value of total Australia agricultural production in 2004-2005 was $35.6 billion - however that figure does not account for the value of the inputs that go into farming, nor the flow-on activities that farming supports. It is estimated than 1.6 million Australians are employed directly or indirectly by 133,000 farming enterprises.

We need agriculture to guarantee our nation’s growth and prosperity, and must do all we can to ensure Australians have a better understanding of farming and the people who live and work in rural Australia.

One of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century will be to feed, water and clothe nearly 10 billion people, and to do so in an environmentally responsible fashion. And how we do this amidst the uncertainties posed by climate change adds significantly to the challenge.

Within this context, water, salinity, the delivery of nutrients and biodiversity preservation are some of the biggest issues facing Australian agriculture - not forgetting the ongoing challenge of finding new markets or greater market share for our superb products. But more on that aspect shortly.

I am optimistic about the future of Australian agriculture aided as always through the application of technological innovation.

For example:

z research and development by CSIRO in Western Australia into the production of Omega-3

rich lamb, aims to produce a potentially important alternate source of fatty acids - on a par with the health benefits of oily fish; z satellite imagery, climate data and modelling are helping farmers make better predictions

about pasture growth rates - down to the level of individual paddocks on individual farms - satellite technology is also helping beef producers to better understand the grazing behaviour of their cattle; z tagging stem rust resistance genes in wheat with DNA markers is helping the development of

new varieties that are both biologically and economically superior; z researchers in a collaborative cluster between the Australian National University, Monash

University here in Melbourne, and CSIRO’s Food Futures National Research Flagship are developing the ‘Cybernose’, utilising sensor proteins from insects and nematodes in an electronic nose which could enhance Australia’s biosecurity by detecting and intercepting pests and diseases; z reducing the use of chemical sprays and conserving water by breeding highly vigorous wheat

varieties that maintain high yields while shading the soil surface to suppress weeds naturally and reducing water evaporation from the soil; z the “Yield Prophet” crop simulation service which is about to start its fourth year of operation,

involves farmers in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. This internet-based tool enables users to create unlimited crop growth scenarios at any time of the season to determine yield, protein and profitability. So far growers have used the technology to make fertiliser and irrigation decisions for wheat, barley and sorghum crops but it also has the potential for selecting crop type, varieties and sowing dates;


z CSIRO and the Grains Research and Development Corporation have recently launched the

first phase of their Crop Biofactories Initiative to explore the potential of plants to make compounds for industrial uses. Whilst plant compounds are already being used by industry to make products such as polyurethane panels for machinery, more plastics, paints and even nylons could be made from chemicals produced in plants - an environmentally friendly replacement for non-renewable and increasingly costly petrochemicals, and z poly piping and solar panels

And as to the great scourge of Australia - salinity - thousands of farming enterprises are helping eradicate the problem by:

z alternating woodlots with agriculture (phase farming) to control recharge by drying out the soil

profile; z planting perennial rather than annual grasses;

z practising alley and contour-farming; and through

z widespread tree planting.

What of water conservation techniques? A couple of examples. I know that underground drip irrigation on raised beds is feeding maize crops in northern Victoria, and now uses 20 per cent less water than traditional watering methods.

Citrus orchards in Leeton, New South Wales are using lateral lines to carry water and nutrient solutions right to the trees through a drip process, thus making good soil as the growing medium, and indeed rainfall, virtually redundant in the production of high quality fruit. I wonder what the extrapolations are in arid and semi-arid areas for this splendid innovation?

Ladies and gentlemen.

What impact will Global Warming have on agriculture? Tim Flannery in his book “The Weather Makers” suggests that the 21st century would see a doubling of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere with the potential to heat our planet by around 30C.

An early indicator of those consequences might be for example the warming winds and rising tides that threaten the existence of Tuvalu; the Florida coastline that faces rising seas and stronger surges during storms; and the rising Adriatic Sea that is exacerbating the instability of Venice.

But what about Australia’s rural lands and communities? What will be the impact of hotter, drier conditions on the type of crops we can grow, where we can grow them, and ultimately on Australia’s demography with more people likely to move towards the coast. Whilst it may sound far-fetched, it has been suggested in several science circles that it’s not inconceivable to see some cattle producers needing to air-condition sheds to protect cattle from the heat of the day. What measures can be taken now to help inform farmers and rural communities about some of these potential impacts and influences of global warming?

Whilst the outlook is good in technological innovation and in the partnerships between farmers, industry, science and government, it seems that many people see globalisation as a more immediate issue - indeed the dampener on the level of business growth to which they aspire. For others, globalisation will power opportunities for market expansion.

What we do know is that globalisation involves massive flows of capital investment, expansion of information and technology capabilities, changing food preferences, the adoption of increasingly demanding international standards, moves toward greater market integration and perhaps concentration of ownership, and to some extent "dietary convergence’ (as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization calls it).


Creating new market opportunities and maintaining existing ones is vital for the continued growth and profitability of Australia’s agricultural and food industries - however the challenge is becoming greater.

For example trading partners are applying stricter interpretations of quarantine and imposing more restrictive protective measure on Australian imports. A growing WTO membership (now around 150 countries) makes negotiations more complex. And how does Australia handle arguing our case

against other countries’ assertion that our conservative approach to quarantine is merely a diversionary trade protection measure?

We know that major food retailers are increasingly operating outside their traditional national markets. This has created mass distribution systems, with distributors seeking lowest cost production from anywhere in the world that meets cost and quality criteria.

Whilst mass low cost production can be a problem for us, we are still able to compete globally because of our flexible and deregulated operating environment, and our culture of innovation right along the food chain, from production and processing through to distribution and retailing.

The future can be partly shaped by the priorities we set, including attitude and cultural change. As an aside, it is staggering to learn what Australians throw away each year. According to The Australia Institute’s 2005 report on wasteful consumption, Australians spend over $10.5 billion dollars annually on goods and services that are never or hardly ever used - this is more than the total spent by governments on Australian universities and roads. However in a nation which prides itself on the superior quality of its raw foods and food production techniques, it is extraordinary to hear estimates that more than $2.9 billion worth of foods was thrown away in 2004. Add this to the value of uneaten take-away foods, leftovers, unfinished drinks and frozen food, the figure rises to $5.3 billion. This equates to 13 times what Australian households donated to overseas aid agencies in 2003. It seems that as a country we have to become more intelligent and more conscious of our blessings.

Ladies and gentlemen. What of the future for Australian agriculture? Does there need to be greater market intelligence to understand consumer preferences, competitor strengths and weaknesses and to draw conclusions about the perception of Australian foods, and whether our products meet the expectations of the consumer?

As to recommendations, the Corish Report of Australian agriculture and food policy for the next generation (released in February this year) provides some direction. The report recommends a stronger emphasis on innovation in production and marketing, on research and development, and investment in infrastructure. And it recommends this be done for a whole-of-chain approach to better service consumer needs. On the economic side, the report recommends reducing burdens on businesses and increasing the self-reliance of business operators - in farming and production.

Ladies and gentlemen. In concluding, our farmers produce more than commodities. They celebrate the excellence of Australian experience and knowledge and our capacity to rise to any challenge. Mr Chairman, I commend you and your team at the Australian Nuffield Farm Scholars Association for pinpointing current issues and highlighting innovation in Australian and international farming and food industry practise. I feel certain the information and the networking opportunities of this conference will help steer a course through the complexities of our agricultural diversity and provide further valuable insight into how to better manage our own circumstances and resources in an increasingly complex global environment.

It is now my great pleasure to declare the Australian Innovative Farming Conference 2006 officially open.