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Blueprint maps out future for Australian agriculture

The National Farmers Federation has launched a comprehensive blueprint for Australian agriculture, setting priorities for the sector out as far as 2050.

The Blueprint for Australian Agriculture was 18 months in the making and is the product of consultations and conversations with farmers, agribusinesses, government and community groups; 3,700 people made submissions to the process through forums, meetings and surveys.

Its aim is to identify issues that are common across the whole agri-sector, lay out strategies to deal with those, as well as a vision for what success in those areas would look like.

Seven themes are identified: innovation, research, development and extension; competitiveness; trade and market access; people; agriculture in society; natural resources, and; transformational issues.

None of those are new or surprising challenges for agriculture in Australia, but in launching the Blueprint in Canberra before the Federal Agriculture Minister, and agribusiness and farmer representatives, the NFF’s chief executive, Matt Linnegar said the Blueprint is the first time the hole sector has come together to talk about what the issues are and how they might be addressed.

And he says it’s about finding a way to bring an often-fractured sector together.

“How each organisation, each sector, each commodity, each part of the industry responds to this will be totally up to them,” Mr Linnegar told ABC Rural.

“If the one thing that this achieves is that on critical issues for the sector, to have the ability to act together and call for the same change as a united voice, then that’s success.”

The launch of the Blueprint is just the beginning of the next phase of the process, with a series of forums already planned to talk about putting some of these strategies into action both immediately, and over the coming decades.

The first forum is scheduled for May, and the NFF says that 170 organisations have already signed up to take part.

Seven themes for agriculture and agribusiness

The Blueprint highlights the importance of research and development, extension (converting research into practice) and innovation for the ag sector, as well as the challenges in maintaining Australia’s strong reputation for ag research in a context of stagnant, or even shrinking public investment.

Currently, 2.5 per cent of the Federal Government’s total research and development budget is spent in the agricultural sphere.

Mr Linnegar says if the agri-sector wants a larger share of what is a shrinking pie, agriculture will have to make a strong business case for why it deserves funding over other industries and sectors.

The Blueprint says the aim is for increased public and private investment in research, better access to that research for people on the ground, and identifies “embracing proven biotechnologies” as a part of a successful future.

The issues affecting the competitiveness of the agricultural sector, within Australia and in the global market place, are singled out in the Blueprint for an overhaul.

It’s a broad theme that calls for government and the sector itself to address issues around the cost of doing business, regulation, access to capital, critical infrastructure improvements, international terms of trade, and a high Australian dollar which the Prime Minister has already warned is most likely here to stay.

Among a raft of strategies for addressing these issues, the Blueprint calls for an Australian Infrastructure Taskforce to be established, a Terms of Trade index for farmers, and for agriculture to be considered within the national interest test for foreign investment.

The Blueprint envisions a future with an Australian agri-sector that is “more highly competitive in global markets”, with better access to capital within Australia and abroad, a stable supply chain, and broad access to advanced telecommunications and the new opportunities that would bring.

Australian farmers say that if they can just get access to markets then they can compete.

The Blueprint specifically calls for improved access to “high-value global markets” out to 2020 and beyond, both through securing existing markets and opening up new ones.

The trade and market access theme highlights the ongoing protections that many OECD countries still have in place to support their own agricultural industries, and wants to see those addressed.

It also makes a call to arms to finalise important multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, naming China and India in particular, with those agreements securing fair terms for Australian agricultural products. It makes the case for strategies which increase representation and advocacy for Australian agriculture, and for innovative thinking to access lucrative markets overseas.

In launching the Blueprint, Mr Linnegar says the issues raised more than any others throughout 18 months of consultation, were those regarding people: the difficulty in securing labour, and in attracting people to come and work in the agricultural sector.

Enrolments in agriculture and related university degrees have been in steady decline over the past decade, and the high-paying jobs offered in the mining industry have made it increasingly difficult for agriculture to compete.

The Blueprint maps out a series of strategies to turn all that around, including a new National Workforce Development Plan for ag, expanding the overseas worker program as well as making a stronger pitch to potential Australian workers too, pushing for more flexible labour laws, getting agriculture included in the national school curriculum, and proactively promoting agricultural careers as offering opportunities for highly-skilled people.

While the perception of agriculture in the community is seen as one of the issue to overcome in attracting more people to the sector, the Blueprint also highlights the external perception of agriculture as a theme in its own right.

In examining the position of agriculture within society, the Blueprint calls for agriculture to be proactive in engaging with metropolitan Australians: to find out what they think about agriculture, what their values are regarding food production, and to proactively attempt to build better and more constructive relationships with community and activist groups, including those who are currently campaigning again elements of the ag sector.

The Blueprint names animal welfare, environmental sustainability, genetically modified organisms, social responsibility, health and food safety and food affordability, as the areas where public perceptions are likely to have the most powerful affect on the industries involved.

The eventual aim of this proactive approach, the Blueprint says, would be “better understanding and closer links” between agriculture and the broader Australian community.

Mr Linnegar says that while successive surveys find that the community consistently names farmers as one of the most trustworthy professions, the same cannot currently be said for a number of farming practices. He says agriculture must take the lead in changing those perceptions, and to do that, it must speak with a united and consistent voice.

Natural resources are names as a priority area where the ag sector is facing a changing and challenging set of circumstances: access to natural resources, a “complex and controversial” debate about appropriate water use, climate change and biosecurity risks, and a growing community expectation that farmers “actively care for the environment” are all highlighted as areas that need consideration.

The Blueprint says the role of farmers as environmental stewards could be better promoted, and that farmers who do that should be rewarded.

It also calls for the ag industries to improve their sustainability credentials and to better prepare for the challenges of extreme weather and climate change.

The Blueprint lays out a strategy to make agriculture a higher priority when it comes to being given access to land and water, and envisions a future where agriculture has improved its environment, has been recognised for that (including financially), and has balanced environmental, economic and social needs.

Finally, the Blueprint emphasises the need for the ag sector to be flexible enough to deal to adapt to, and thrive, in the face of so-called ‘transformational issues’: issues that, expected or not, crop up in the future which could fundamentally change the landscape for agricultural production, manufacturing, marketing and so on.

Climate change is highlighted here. Mr Linnegar says that while there are disparate views of that debate across the ag sector, the Blueprint outlines some strategies that he believes anyone could agree on.

“Whatever your thoughts are on climate change, we are going to continue to have the sort of extreme events that we’ve seen over the past few years,” he says.

“One part [of dealing with that] is about better preparedness, and another part is about what happens when an event happens.

“There’s been plenty of talk about our insurance industry: what kind of products are out there [and] does there need to be some kind of change or alternation to the nature of those products if we’re going to see more of these sorts of extreme events?

“So there’s a couple of things there and I think that no matter what your views are, it’d be hard to argue that better preparedness, better forecasting, and dealing with these extreme events in a way that’s not going to debilitate people, I struggle to believe that people wouldn’t share that view at least.”

Source: Anna Vidot, ABC Rural http://www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2013/s3691312.htm