THE Australian government’s first national food strategy underscores what agricultural scientists have been saying for the past decade – that it is not possible for Australia to double its food production by 2050 without the use of all available investment, innovations and scientific advances.
On a financial level that means accepting that foreign investment in agriculture -in the purchase of both our farms and our key food processing plants, as occurred so rapidly in sugar mills in the past 18 months – is here to stay.
And probably at an enhanced level, given the growing interest of Chinese companies in investing in Australian food and farming businesses.
As the Food Plan green paper points out, there will 3.2 billion affluent and middle class people living in the Asian region by 2030, mostly in China, India and Indonesia.
Their food needs will be driving the coming Australian agricultural boom. As the food plan starkly states, “Australian investment alone is not enough for our food industry to continue to grow, so foreign investment remains critical to the ongoing success of our agriculture and food sectors.”
Just as Chinese investment has driven Australia’s mining boom, so will it be the prime mover behind the cutely-named next “Dining Boom.” Another stark reality ahead for all those who currently object to the use of crops that have been bred using the latest biotechnology techniques, including genetic modification.
The Green Paper states clearly that without the adoption of new crop varieties, it will not be possible to meet the demand to grow double as much food by 2050 as Australian currently is now.
At a scientific and agricultural level, that undoubtedly means using all forms of enhanced biotechnology and crop and animal breeding techniques available, including growing genetically modified crops.
These new crop varieties have been bred by scientists to meet specific demands. Usually they are higher yielding, growing more crops, seeds or at its most basic, kilojoules of food, on the same amount of land.
At other times, as is the case for the GM cotton varieties now grown in Australia, the scientific manipulation has resulted in a cotton plant that is more resistant to common diseases or inspect pests, reducing the need for frequent chemical sprays.
On the way – and already existing in scientific laboratories around the world – are potato varieties with enhanced levels of specific vitamins or lower fat content, wheat plants with higher protein content, or crops that are resistant to weed sprays making control of competing nuisance plants easier.
Sometimes the genetic modification is little more than a quicker way of selecting and breeding for existing natural variation and traits already within some plants and crop species, such as better tasting tomatoes or higher yielding individuals.
But the more contentious side of genetic modification is inter-species gene manipulation. That is when genes from entirely different species of animals and plants are spliced into the gene mix of common crops such as sorghum, wheat and corn for a specific purpose, such as bestowing a new colour, a longer shelf life, a new disease-fighting mechanism or a different type of protein or production system.
This is the sort of research work currently underway which could lead to a cow whose milk will contain the same high-strength silk as naturally in the milk of some orb spiders, to be harvested to produce unprecedented quantities of the strongest natural substance for weight in the world.
Or wheat that has within its cells the genes that give oily fish such as salmon their high Omega 3 fat content, giving bread made using this GM wheat variety a higher polyunsaturated fat content and added health bonuses.
Or a sugar cane crop whose woody stalk can be broken down in processing more easily, releasing more sugar juice and so food from the same amount of cane.
The green paper makes it clear that no farmer will be forced to grow crops he does not want to grow, and no consumer forced to eat food they do not want to. Clearer labelling is also on the cards.
“The Australian government supports farmers’ right to choose which crops they plant; ultimately their decisions will be determined by factors such as market acceptance and the costs of production,” the food plan says.
“But food produced by new and alternative technologies [such as GM crops] can bring benefits such as improved human and animal health and nutrition, greater affordability, better tasting food, a more sustainable food supply, reduced chemical use and increased productivity.”
Flowing on from a national debate about greater consumer and farmer acceptance of GM crops, is the need for a national policy supporting their use, the Green Paper proposes.
It would appear that in the future, individual states may not be allowed to ban the growing of such higher yielding GM crops – as Tasmania now does – as the nation pursues high food production objectives.
However, in today’s Food Plan the government also rules out ever subsidising local farmers and food processors in their growing battle to remain price competitive on world export markets.
Without the prospect of such farm subsidies used in other countries, it may be that Australian farmers of the future will soon find anyway that the growing of such new GM crops with all their inherent biotechnology may be the only way they can both survive in the future and feed the growing appetite of our Asian neighbours for Australian food.
Sue Neales is The Australian’s rural reporter.