Let's stamp out the 'food bowl' myth

Australia has great potential to develop its food producing industries, but it is the value of what we can produce rather than the quantity which should be the focus.

The great non-debate of the 2010 election was whether or not we should become ‘Big Australia’ – a debate that was really about a shift from ‘Tiny Australia’ to ‘Modestly-sized Australia’.

There is a danger of a similar debate breaking out in the run-up to the September election, around whether or not we should be the ‘food bowl of Asia’.

To recap, this issue cropped up when a document was leaked to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper showing that the Coalition was discussing an ambitious plan to develop Northern Australia (In praise of Abbott’s great leap northward, February 7).

The Coalition was quick to hose down many of the suggestions in that document. It was, they said, only a discussion paper. It outlined plans to treble resources exports, grow energy exports including renewables, dramatically increase tourist numbers visiting the top end, move defence and university facilities north, and create a food bowl growing premium crops to double Australia’s food exports.

While the Coalition is yet to discuss any of these in detail, Tony Abbott has added the phrase “develop the north” to the list of promises he makes in front of any TV camera – “repeal the carbon and mining taxes, stop the boats ... develop the north”.

And the food side of this plan received a bit more of a fillip from packaging tycoon Anthony Pratt on Thursday at the Global Food Forum in Melbourne. Pratt called for Australia’s food exports to be ramped up to feed 200 million people rather than 50 million, and to use tax incentives and regulation reforms to unlock more of the nation’s agricultural and food processing potential.

As Pratt observed, “In recent years, we have lost significant capacity in regional abattoirs, fruit and vegetable processing, flour milling, and baked goods, to mention just a few. And these losses, including many iconic brand names, such as Heinz and SPC, have received relatively little attention.”

Value-added food exports will be an important part of Australia’s future economic strength, and as Robert Gottliebsen wrote earlier in the week, when the Australian dollar falls to more realistic levels (likely in 2014 or 2015) many new opportunities will open up – if, that is, we haven’t lost most of the industry in the meantime.

However, the issues of food security, the doubling (or more) of agricultural production and food processing, and our status as a ‘food bowl’ are clouded with misinformation.

As noted last week (Is Abbott’s food bowl vision a joke? April 11), Australian soils and rainfall patterns just can’t support hundreds of millions more hungry mouths. Professor Snow Barlow, convener of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at the University of Melbourne, told a Melbourne forum last week that we can produce food for around 60 to 80 million people at best.

Nonetheless, Pratt’s enthusiam for rebuilding our decimated food processing industry is good sense (especially for Pratt’s package empire, but that’s another story). Because while we cannot provide the food, in calorific terms, to feed many more people at present, there are massive business opportunities on the horizon for greater value-added food exports.

Put simply, we can’t quadruple the number of people eating Australian food, but we can quadruple the value of what they eat. For a nation struggling to find viable manufacturing of any kind, that’s good news.

But that's no reason to allow the ‘food bowl’ meme to dominate the federal election campaign. Australia’s geological and climatic characteristics already rule this out, and things aren’t getting better according to Professor Ian Goodwin of Macquarie University’s Department of Environment and Geography.

Goodwin studies the patterns of rainfall we already have, how they are changing, and how they will change further as anthropogenic climate change starts to bite.

There are a couple of changes that have been underway for a couple of decades – the drying out of a large part of south-west Western Australia, and another large part of southeastern Australia are, says Goodwin, “entirely consistent with a latitudinal shift in rainfall”.

What he means is that the rain fronts that made much of southern Australia arable, have been moving south for some time. High pressure systems that have also been passing at ever-more southerly latitudes, are increasingly stopping rain fronts getting over the parts of Australia already in cultivation.

Goodwin’s modelling is complex – he doesn’t make blanket assertions, but divides Australia into a number of regions. Some will get wetter, and some drier. And on top of the long-term trends he maps cyclical events such as the normal La Nina and ‘interdecadal La Nina’ events (see: The climate for a new economy, February 2011).

One thing that is relatively easy to say, however, is that northern Australia will get wetter than it already is – around the world the ‘tropics’ are expanding south.

However, the problem for the Coalition’s northern food bowl plan is how difficult that water is to use when it falls – and it mostly falls in a short window in summer. Goodwin explained to me why on one side of the Timor Sea, in Indonesia, the tropical rains are put to good use – in geological terms, much of Indonesia is relatively young and made up of rich volcanic soils.

Across the sea, in Australia’s top end, lie some of the worlds oldest geological soils – eroded and spent. That’s why, in Goodwin's view, we have done little with the northern regions beyond very low-intensity grazing.

Worse, he says, is that such an ancient landscape is flat as a pancake compared to the hilly islands of the Indonesian archipelgo. Successful irrigation schemes tend to rely on water trapped at higher levels and gravity fed across low-lying fertile regions. Getting water around in the top end is, by contrast, much more difficult.

There is much to be improved in Australia agriculture and the food processing that adds value to farm produce. Better infrastructure of the kinds being built under the recently released Basin Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin is a start. So too is the kind of research and development that Anthony Pratt has called for in the food processing industry to help grow exports.

But feeding an appreciably larger portion of Asia's swelling population is just not going to happen. 

The Coalition's plan for the north should be explained, and listened to, but terms like 'food super-power' or 'Asia's food bowl' need to be removed from the debate before it becomes as twisted and misleading as the 'Big Australia' debate of 2010.