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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1845

Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (10:12): It is a pleasure to be here. I rise to speak on the three bills before the House, the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment Bill 2013 and Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Amendment Bill 2013. It was good to listen to the previous speaker, the member for Parkes, talking about agriculture.

The rise of technology and scientific advancement in agriculture is inexorable. It has been the tool that has enabled Australian farmers to compete on a worldwide basis when many times there are impediments in front us—climate and cost of production—that would swamp a lesser country. We have been able to continue stepping up to the plate and, largely, because we have been the best at what we do in the world—if not the best, very close to it.

This bill refers to the 15 research development corporations and it expands their ability to increase opportunities and advancement of the industries they serve. In effect, it allows organisations that have as their primary role the technological advancement of their industries to use the synergies of those relationships to promote and grow the markets for their products.

I initially had some concerns that a move like this would dilute the research development corporations' ability to keep focus on pushing the scientific boundaries. Once the corporations become involved in marketing, I was somewhat concerned that that is where their resources might go; however, I have been advised that the firewalls put in place on the government and grower funds raised through industry levies are such that this type of leakage cannot happen, and in that case I support the legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, I come from a farming background. My biggest interaction with a research development corporation in the past has been with the GRDC, the Grains Research & Development Corporation. At one stage I sat on a GRDC link group, and I spent 10 years on the Minnipa Agricultural Centre committee, now the Eyre Peninsula Agricultural Research Foundation, a grower-driven and grower-influenced organisation that works with the Minnipa Agricultural Centre. I spent the last two years before I entered parliament as the chairman of that organisation.

Minnipa is one of the last significant dryland demonstration farming properties owned by a state government left in Australia. It is a SARDI, South Australian Research and Development Institute, facility which regularly accesses GRDC project grants to fund its research work. The GRDC—like other RDCs—is funded largely by grower levies and, in the case of the GRDC, levies are just on one per cent, 0.99 per cent, of the sale value of the grain, which comes to around about $2.50 per tonne on average, or about $80 million a year. This, in turn, is being matched by the Commonwealth government. The current revenue forecast is based on a wheat production of 25.7 million tonnes and a production of nine million tonnes for 2012-13, with the revenue estimate to be $172.5 million and the operating expenditure to be almost $181 million. As part of the coalition's election pledge to agricultural Australia, we will be raising the government contribution from a dollar-for-dollar to a $1.25-per-dollar contribution. This significant increase in funding will make a real difference in the research community.

I am often asked, 'What can we do with agriculture?' We have farmers under pressure and stress from many sides—skyrocketing input costs; fertiliser, machinery, labour, fuel and chemicals, all added to international competition—and sometimes, it is a little hard for farmers to be positive. But we should be. We should be very positive about the future of agriculture in Australia. The demand for food and fibre is going to explode, and our clean green industry will be at the forefront of supplying this demand—that is, if we give the industry the tools to be so.

The answer is quite simple: what we need to do for our farmers to continue to compete is to continue to raise our productivity. And we may well ask, how? How do we increase productivity? Many farmers ask this question. But history says that we will. And history also says that the answers will come from superior technology. The answers won't come from working harder; they will come from working smarter.

My family took land up at Buckleboo, which is on the northern edge of the cropping regions of the eastern Eyre Peninsula, in 1926, and at its peak the property provided income for the best part of five families. Roughly the same area now would support possibly one-and-a-bit labour units. However, total production has risen by at least a factor of 10 in that time—over the 80 years, almost 90 years. The production coming off that unit of land has risen about tenfold. This is a great outcome for agriculture, and it is an even better story for Australia because it is these efficiencies that underwrite the standard of living in greater Australia—for all Australians.

While farmers work hard, in simple effort terms, these dramatic increases in productivity have not come from working harder, they have come—as I said before—from working smarter—that is, simply, the delivery of new technology and new science.

It is worthwhile reflecting on who the beneficiaries of these dramatic productivity increases are. It is certainly not the country communities, which continue to suffer serious decline. In fact, the success of our productivity increase has worked to undermine the future of our country communities, because Australian farmers will grow more products every year using fewer people. It is certainly not the farmers in particular who are the beneficiaries.

We know the decline in farming numbers continues, so it cannot be the farmers that are really benefiting from this productivity. It seems to me that the biggest winners are the population at large—or even, I could say, our Australian cities—because efficient agriculture drives people to the city seeking employment. It frees them up to produce in other industries for the national benefit. It is the sign of a civilised and advancing community that fewer people are employed providing the basics of life and more people are employed providing the luxuries of life, the services of life. So that productivity increase in rural Australia is what drives the very high standard of living the population of Australia in general enjoys, but these are some of the very things that challenge the liveability of our local communities.

The money earned for Australia by exporting an ever-increasing tonnage of our agricultural bounty in turn flows down through the economy and provides jobs and affluence for millions of Australians. That is why the government support for the research organisations is not support for a single industry but has an enormous multiplier effect that benefits everyone.

While the picture I have painted about regional communities looks a little gloomy for Australia, let me tell you that the alternative—that is, not to have an aggressive, well targeted and well funded research capacity—is to invite disaster. Australian agriculture has always traded on its relative efficiency in the world—and nothing has changed. For agricultural industries to survive and thrive in a high-cost environment, we must be the best, or nearly the best, in the world. The rest of the world is improving rapidly and we will need to keep up an intense effort.

I continue to focus my remarks mainly on the grains industry because, quite simply, that is the industry I know the best. I spoke earlier about the productivity gains on my own property, and it is worth looking at the physical changes on the ground that have enabled this advance. I commenced farming in the seventies. I am thinking of the former minister for trade; yes, I was living in the seventies, and I do remember Skyhooks, but I will not be singing a song about it! We used to crop over one-third of the property and use long-term mechanical fallow to prepare the soil—we thought we were preparing the soil, but we were probably doing it a great amount of damage—and reduce weed intrusion. The advent of widespread fertilisers in the fifties and sixties had greatly boosted production and, by the early seventies, the advent of a wider range of in-crop chemicals enabled us to somewhat bring forward the planting dates and deal with the emerging issue of a broader range of weeds.

Then came perhaps the biggest revolution in broadacre farming—and we may not have realised how great it was at the time: the advent of the glyphosate molecule, commonly referred to as Roundup. It has totally changed farming as we know it all over the world. It has led to zero-till farming systems, which has virtually eliminated the massive soil erosion which had plagued our farming system since the 1930s—Australia was drifting away. I once had it put to me by a significant agriculturalist from Chile, who was visiting Australia at the request of the South Australian No-Till Farmers Association, that the bloke who invented the glyphosate molecule should be given the Nobel Peace Prize because people all over the world now had a far greater source of food as a result of that technical innovation; it is almost beyond description what that single chemical has done to agriculture worldwide.

It is interesting because there are many around who condemn the big chemical companies but, of course, advances at that level cannot be made without the millions of dollars needed for research to push this new technology through. This basic research was not done by Australia and it was not funded by our growers, though under the sophisticated patent systems which we adhere to in Australia we were able to contribute to the development of that chemical and consequentially the next generation of chemicals. Whole new tillage systems were invented around the advent of glyphosate and similar chemicals, which were driven by new science leading to a better understanding of soil borne diseases and the detrimental effects on production. This in turn has led to completely new cropping rotations and the ability to suspend what we in South Australia used to call 'ley farming', or resting, where farmers crop a paddock for one or two years and then leave it out for one or two years, and plant crops much more often; in fact, on a lot of properties we can plant 100 per cent of the property every year.

So in about 25 years we have gone from cropping a third to a half of our properties to actually cropping 100 per cent of our properties. It is like doubling the size of your farm. Much of the research has been funded by the registered development corporations or their predecessors, the taxpayers and of course the growers. But, boy, Australia has reaped the benefits. Complex fertiliser mixes have pushed the envelope further and the advent of precision agriculture, utilising centimetre accurate GPs-guided systems, has pushed it even further. There is no more overlap and wastage, with the ability to now plant between last year's crops, reducing disease, with variable rate sowing, matching fertiliser and chemical usage for soil type and productive capacity. In parallel, while all these advances have accumulated, there has been a continued and dramatic improvement in varieties of crops. A mate once said to me: 'You never want to underestimate the scientific value in that one little seed, the technological power of the advancement of plant breeding.'

Now we are on the cusp of a new revolution, with the tentative rollout in Australia—certainly tentative in South Australia—of genetically modified crops, which hold the promise of providing significant health benefits for all consumers, reducing our reliance on chemicals, improving yields and the ability to better manage crop rotation. It has been a revolution and it will continue.

In the past, every farmer thought we had reached the limit, but we have always found the next step. We can only do that if we continue to push the envelope. I took delivery of a new Massey 542 harvester in about 1979. It had a 21-foot front on it and the whole district visited my paddock to have a look at this monster. 'How would you ever see the ends at the front?' Now, they are more than twice that width, at 45 feet, yet we seem to have no problem and, importantly, there seems to be no limit.

The other half of the equation is marketing, finding our international edge and keeping the downward cost pressure on the path to market and finding the premium for our product and, under this amending legislation, using the research and development corporations and their technical and scientific expertise to help construct the story. These bills will allow that to happen. It will deliver on our election commitments and it will help drive Australian farming to the next level.