Australia could enjoy an agriculture boom that would carry the economy into the next century as the mining boom recedes, industry heavyweight Donald McGauchie says.
But the Nufarm chairman and GrainCorp director believes the opportunity to feed China's booming middle class might already be lost.
Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Mr McGauchie - a former Telstra chairman - said demand for food in Asia was expected to double by 2050. Investment in the sector was urgently needed to meet this rise in demand.
"Australia is on the doorstep of what promises to be the greatest leap forward, in terms of prosperity, since the Industrial Revolution," he said. "We are at risk of missing that once-in-a-century opportunity due to a chronic lack of skills, people, capital, infrastructure and policies."
Mr McGauchie's comments come at a sensitive time for an industry divided over the impact of foreign investment in the sector after US grain company Archer Daniels Midland's $3 billion takeover of GrainCorp, which is facing opposition from some lobby groups in NSW.
Mr McGauchie would not comment on the takeover, but said the sector had long been dominated by foreign buyers.
"I think Australian investors will wake up one day and find that a lot of the opportunities passed them by because they didn't recognise them soon enough," he said.
Economists surveyed by BusinessDay last week said they believed the mining investment boom was now at its peak and that businesses would invest less in the new financial year than they did in 2012-13. The survey results contrast with a Treasury forecast that implies the peak is still ahead.
Mr McGauchie said the country could more than double the real value of agriculture exports by 2050, taking it from $35 billion to $73 billion with investment in "productivity, infrastructure, innovation and market access".
"As historic as the resources boom has been, it will level out," he said. "Right now, we should focus our attention on the opportunities that will follow the creation of Asia's mega-middle class."