The National Farmers Federation boasts an aspiration to grow Australia’s $60 billion agriculture sector to a $100 billion industry by 2030. It’s an ambition worthy of support.
But the reality is that $100b would be a 'business as usual' result. As a share of the economy, it would leave agriculture approximately where it is today. We can do better.
But we won’t do better until we develop an urgency to do so. The first step is to stop believing our own bravado (I could have used a different word) and face the reality that productivity remains flat, international competition is growing, we are losing global market share and our climate is working against us.
With the right scientific approach we can mitigate and adapt in the face of a changing climate. We can counter growing competition by becoming more cost competitive. And we can lift productivity through automation and plant breeding technologies.
But the key to achieving all of these things is research and innovation. This is why agriculture research should be amongst our highest policy priorities. It’s also the door to the strongest of biosecurity systems.
Research in the agriculture sector is shared by a range of entities: state governments; universities; the CSIRO; and Cooperative Research Centres.
But the bulk of Commonwealth and industry investment is done through 15 Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). Some are statutory bodies, other have evolved into industry-owned companies.
Few Australians will know about our RDCs, in part because many have removed 'research' from their branding. Dairy Australia, Meat & Livestock Australia, and AgriFutures are all RDCs. So too are the Grains RDC and the Fisheries RDC.
Between them the RDCs receive around $400 million in taxpayers’ money each year. This investment matches money the RDCs receive from their levy paying farmers, foresters, fishers.
Most people will be surprised to learn the RDCs do not do research. Rather, their boards and CEOs set research priorities and contract out the work to other entities. The overheads and transaction costs associated with this process are significant.
The architecture has served both the agriculture sector and the Government well for almost thirty years. It was the initiative of a Labor Government and we are proud of it.
But it is now tired and in need of renewal. Our RDCs have grown bloated with non-research activities. They suffer silo syndrome: too little cross-sectoral research takes place.
Too often they act more like industry leadership groups than research organisations. They tend to invest only to the level where the government’s matching funds dry up. Their work in marketing is important but too often can be a distraction from the main game. Measuring their performance is a difficult task for even the most learned and time endowed.
Back in 2011 the former Labor Government came to the view it was time to re-visit the model.
The Productivity Commission was tasked with a review. It made significant recommendations about both the funding and operational models.
Sadly, the 2013 election intervened before government could respond. The report has been gathering dust ever since. It’s time to dust if off and update the PC’s good work.
Research dollars are scarce and we need to ensure every cent invested is a cent well spent. A Shorten Labor Government will build on the foundations laid by the Hawke Government by ensuring we have the best agricultural research system in the world and one which ensures we meet our aspirations.
Joel Fitzgibbon is the the federal agriculture spokesman for the Labor party.