Is Abbott's food bowl vision a joke?

Explanations from a number of leading scientists show why business and politicians must re-evaluate prospects for Australia's agribusiness sector.

It is sometimes incredible to witness the disconnect between the widely held views of the scientific community and business/political leaders. At a forum on global food security held in Melbourne yesterday, the chasm between the two groups was on full display.

Australian agribusiness, though highly praised by members of an expert panel hosted by La Trobe University, was put in global perspective.

The agricultural scientists making up a panel discussion chaired by World Vision chief executive Tim Costello, concurred that Australia is not, and will never be, the 'food bowl of Asia'.

Dr Philip Keane, a scientist leading a major research project into crop resistance to pest and disease problems in Sulawesi, Indonesia, labelled that notion "a joke".

Professor Snow Barlow, convener of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at the University of Melbourne, backed that stark appraisal. Australia can, he said, produce food for about 60-80 million people depending on the mix of crops and livestock.

That's not the only sacred cow the panel wanted to, ahem, slaughter.

With the current global population set to grow from the current 7 billion to upwards of 9 billion by 2050, the world will starve without widespread use of that super-market-trolley nasty, genetically modified foods.

That to many (this writer included) is a loathsome idea – that we'd have to put fish genes into tomatoes just to survive seems unnatural in the extreme. But then we're already there, said Dr Elizabeth Finkel, a former biochemist and research scientist, turned blogger and science journalist.

Tens of millions of people would still be in extreme poverty today, she argued, without the genetically modified dwarf wheat variaties that have largely replaced tall, waving fields of wheat around the world. Short stemmed wheats put more of the growing energy into the grain, and less into the stem, hence the higher yields.

The 'Rht' gene bred into wheat using conventional methods was a key part of the 'green revolution' between 1960 and 1990 that lifted a large part of the developing world out of malnutrition and poverty. Researchers are now using the 'unnatural' process of swapping genes between species to try replicate that success in other major food crops.

Crops such as GM cotton and canola are in widespread production in the developing world, but while an empoverished Indian farmer might see disease or insect resistant cotton as a no-brainer, there is huge controversy about where 'playing god' will lead the biosphere in the long term.

The third myth cut down by the panel was that favourite of some political quarters, that the "jury is out on climate change". All three panelists are years, if not decades, into the science of adaptation to climate change.

Snow Barlow made the point that, as a very rough rule of thumb, arable land in Asia can move south as temperatures rise, However, he joked, there's not much arable land to be had in Bass Strait. Australia's unusual lack of water, even in good times, will get worse as global temperatures rise.

So there you have it. We won't be the food bowl of Asia. GM foods are here to stay. And adapting to climate change is going to be very, very difficult.

Gloomy bunch, eh?

However there was one big positive put forward by the panel for Australia's agricultural future.

Australia already has some of the most advanced farming techniques in the world, underpinned by many breakthroughs made by the CSIRO and others. So while Australia will not be 'the food bowl of Asia', it has massive opportunities to export current expertise, and to press ahead with new innovation.

In Barlow's world this is known as 'extension' – getting scientific knowledge out of the test paddocks, hothouses and labs and into Australian agribusiness, or into the paddies and plantations of neighbouring nations.

However, Barlow noted that federal funding for university research in these areas has, for a long time, been eroding the extension funding. That's dangerous because it's not just funding that erodes – land erosion and degredation in Australia and abroad is an insidious threat.

When the forecast two billion more mouths appear at the table, there'll be less arable land from which to feed them.

Some weeks ago, a Coalition policy document was leaked to the media outlining what an Abbott government might do to develop northern Australia (In praise of Abbott's great leap northward, February 7.

It included the optimistic goal of "developing a food bowl including premium produce which could double Australia's agricultural output".

A doubling ain't going to happen, but there is untapped potential in the north, according to Barlow. He sees one of the big problems as being a lack of infrastructure – there's virtually nothing there, over great tracts of northern Australia.

While insect and other disease problems are huge (wiping out the early cotton industry irrigated from the Ord River scheme in the 1960s, for instance), and soil quality is generally low, infrastructure is as large a problem – Barlow told me new port and transport facilities would need to be added to open up substantial new agribusiness opportunities.

The panel also noted that poor soils can be an opportunity as well as a discouragement – improving soils with organic matter is one way to sequester carbon. Indeed, soil carbon sequestration is a major plank in the Coalition's Direct Action carbon abatement plans (though few, if any, experts back the idea that it would be a cheap way to reduce our carbon footprint).

Getting a better handle on Australia's role in Asia's 21st century food security environment is a good first step. Refocusing government and private sector investment in exporting agricultural technologies and expertise is the next.

And, for a Coalition lead by 'Dr No', Tony Abbott, the idea of developing agriculture in the north should be given some oxygen. One can't criticise the Coalition for a lack of vision, and then stomp all over any green shoots that appear.

Disclosure: the author lectures part-time at La Trobe University.