Australia serves up plan to feed Asia

Opposition coalition aims to turn Northern Australia’s “rivers of gold” into Asia’s food bowl.

Macadamia exports could boost Australia's agriculture industry [Nyssa Skilton/Al Jazeera]
Macadamia exports could boost Australia's agriculture industry [Nyssa Skilton/Al Jazeera]

There’s contentment on Andrew Starkey’s face as he walks between the neat rows of macadamia trees.

Harvesting finished last week and the bushy plants are laden with new buds.

“We’re quiet achievers,” says the farmer and chairman of the Australian Macadamia Society. He continues, “Australia is the largest producer of macadamias in the world. We produce far more than what the Australian consumers would want, and we can’t produce enough macadamias for the global consumption.”

Over the past two decades, Starkey and other Australian macadamia growers have set their sights on the burgeoning food market in Asia. They now sell about $AU90m ($80.5m) worth of macadamias to the region each year, representing 70 percent of their export market.

Demand, particularly from Asia’s expanding middle classes, is growing in the food production business. The United Nations reports that global food demand is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2050. Almost half of this increased demand is expected to come from China.

Farmers like Starkey could play a key role in how we continue to feed ourselves, and where Australia sits at the table.

Food insecurity

Australia’s federal government has launched an ambitious plan this year, which aims to make the nation the food bowl of Asia. The National Food Plan allocates $AU28.5m ($26m) for research into Asian food markets and aims to increase the value of food exports by 45 percent in the next 12 years.

It follows the release of the government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper last year, which outlines plans to build stronger diplomatic and trade relationships with countries in the region.

The food bowl concept, to me, is a viable concept, but it's only viable at providing high-quality food of guaranteed safety and guaranteed specification. It's not providing enough food to feed Asia, because we just can't do that.

- Snow Barlow, professor at University of Melbourne

Experts have pointed to various flaws in the plan to ramp up food exports to Asia, including its failure to recognise those struggling with food insecurity at home.

Some have also questioned how much more food Australia can actually produce with the land and water resources available.

Snow Barlow, a professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Melbourne, says the country can still get “quite a lot more” out of its land and water and significantly boost its food production, but only with careful funding of agriculture and water research.

He says farmers and scientists are continuing to improve water efficiency in terms of the way water is stored, transported and applied to crops, but research funding has stalled in the past decade.

The country should also focus on its strengths – advanced and sophisticated agriculture industries that can deliver specialty, high-value products.

“The food bowl concept, to me, is a viable concept, but it’s only viable at providing high-quality food of guaranteed safety and guaranteed specification,” he says. “It’s not providing enough food to feed Asia, because we just can’t do that.”

‘Rivers of gold’

Barlow notes that Australia is barely on the radar in terms of the amount of food it can contribute to Asia, with the nation able to feed about 60-80 million people at current levels of productivity. Asia’s population is more than 4.1 billion and counting.

In July, the federal opposition issued its own food bowl plan, setting its sights on the untapped land and water resources of northern Australia as potential “rivers of gold”. Announcing the plan, the Liberal-National Coalition’s finance spokesman Andrew Robb said, developing the north – where more than 60 percent of the country’s rain falls, but is largely unused – could help to double Australia’s agriculture output.

“In previous debates about the potential for a food bowl, the key missing ingredient was the presence of a huge developing market on our door step,” Robb wrote in an opinion piece in The Australian newspaper. “The percentage of the world’s middle class in our Asia-Pacific region is expected to explode from 28 percent to 66 percent by 2030, or more than three billion people. This will be the century of food security.”

The dream of harnessing the north’s resources for food production has been around for decades, but any attempts to make it a reality have so far failed.

Job creation

While there are vast land and water resources, the climate is harsh, soils are often fragile and low in nutrients, and infrastructure is lacking.

Expanding agriculture and urban development in the north is also likely to have a significant negative effect on indigenous people, with many having strong cultural connections to the land and river systems.

However, the Institute of Public Affairs, the public policy think-tank, has welcomed the Coalition’s move to recognise that northern Australia could become the driving force of the Australian economy in coming decades.

“Developing the north further will create wealth and provide jobs for all Australians, both in the north and in the south,” it said in a written statement. “The north remains underdeveloped and it is fantastic that the Coalition is looking to unleash its potential.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his own, sweeping plan for Northern Australia this month, including company tax cuts to trigger investment in the region.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott accused the Labor prime minister of  “playing catch-up” to the Coalition. The Coalition’s agriculture policy is expected to be issued this week.

However Australia manages to boost food exports, the country is set to send more food to Asia in the coming years.

‘Nutrition transition’

Martin Caraher, a professor of food and health policy at City University London, says one of the dangers of the food bowl concept is the spread of health problems associated with Western diets.

Caraher warns that the Western diet is now an industrial one, with highly

This is about affordability and access, often called the McDonaldisation or Starbucks effect.

- Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy, City University London

processed foods leading to a loss of local food culture and skills. He describes “nutrition transition”, where the rich and middle classes shift to Western-style diets which are high in fat, salt and sugar, and initially cost more than local foods so only the well-off can afford them.

Later, these dietary habits spread to the rest of society and the rich and middle income groups start eating healthily or revert back to so-called peasant diets.

“This is about affordability and access, often called the McDonaldisation or Starbucks effect, Caraher says.

“Imports often distort local food systems by undercutting them and in the short term making them unsustainable. This results in people leaving the land and the development of larger farm units, less employment in rural areas and creating new food insecurity among both the urban and rural poor.” Meanwhile, in Australia’s picturesque Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, there’s work to be done at the macadamia farm.

The 16,500 trees on Starkey’s plantations are about to start flowering, so it is time for fertilising, pruning and prepping the plants for pollination.

“There’s always something to do in the orchard,” Starkey says.

But, as chairman of the macadamia industry body, Starkey also remains focused on the work to be done further afield. He is passionate about the potential of macadamias, citing their health benefits and the environmental positives of growing a crop that is native to Australia.

“It’s all about how you set your sights,” he says.

“I think that’s one of the good things about the food plan – there’s a visionary position there. If people can come on board with that, I think we’ll see some success in our farming industries.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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