GrainCorp chief executive Alison Watkins has blasted the "emotional response" of critics of genetically modified crops, arguing that their use is essential if farm yields are to rise to feed a growing global population.
She was also highly critical of the latest political upheaval in Canberra that threatens to stall changes that are essential for the country's future.
"Stop short-term point-scoring and take up the cudgels of reform for our long-term future," Ms Watkins said at a business luncheon.
GrainCorp is the subject of a takeover bid from US major Archer Daniel Midland, with shareholders offered $13.20 a share. The offer was cleared this week by the competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, but it has yet to win approval from the Foreign Investment Review Board.
Ms Watkins said that with estimates that the global population will expand by 2.7 billion by 2050, which is equal to twice the size of China's population, or 40 times that of France, pressure is mounting for farmers to lift yields by 50 per cent to keep abreast of growth in global demand.
"Therefore yields have to double to around three tonnes a hectare, yet they've been flattening."
This increase would have to occur against the backdrop of climate change and declining soil quality, "which will make it more difficult to achieve this".
Genetically modified crops in countries comparable to Australia have been able to achieve a 10 per cent improvement in yield, as well as reducing herbicide use by a quarter, Ms Watkins said.
The emotional response to the issue of genetically modified crops had a "high opportunity cost for our farmers", she said, at a time when, for example, producing canola crops with fish oil benefits is now possible.
"We do need food companies to take a leadership role as well" in the debate supporting genetically modified grains, she said. "They're mostly very conservative."
All cotton is now genetically modified, she said, along with soy beans.
While critical of government handouts to industry, such as subsidies to the auto industry where, she said, Australia would never be able to compete, Ms Watkins called on the government to boost infrastructure spending, for example, on supply chain infrastructure, to ensure that Australia has a First World asset.