Australia's food value-adding sector's worth is poised to double, or even treble, in the next 10 years if our processing networks can make the most of burgeoning consumer health and wellness trends and smart production opportunities.
Plant protein-based products, personalised meal choices sold in supermarkets or home-delivered, healthy "functional" foods, and energy-smart production systems are some of the 19 agribusiness growth opportunities identified in research for the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre.
It suggests the potential value of this post-farmgate agribusiness sector could be at least $125 billion by 2030, maybe even $200b.
A growth centre study has highlighted how new technologies and shifting consumer tastes are reshaping food product and production expectations worldwide.
Technology also promised to cut food waste and fraud, change the way farmers dealt with food businesses, and change the skills needed in regional Australia to grow and value-add agricultural produce.
Capturing jobs prize
Findings in its "Capturing the prize" report also pointed to 300,000 jobs being created by focusing on these specific consumer trends and food sustainability and production goals, lifting the total number employed in the sector to about 840,000.
However, some current food and agriculture sector skills would fade out, replaced by demand for workers with technical, numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving strengths.
Trendy themes like targeted eating, urban agriculture and protected cropping look likely to become almost as mainstream on farming's radar as meat, milk and eggs.
Australia's 194,000 food manufacturers, who range from one person jam makers to major baking and dairy nutrition plants, will also need to collaborate with each other, clustering their skills and research needs to ensure the industry can innovate more rapidly and grow.
"If we can grow the post-farm gate industry's value and skills, we will grow on-farm activity and opportunities, too," said Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL) chair, Dr Michele Allan.
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New market options and technologies would require new workforce capabilities and training in regional communities as consumer demands and efficiency improvements changed how food manufacturers operated and made farming more automated.
"We'll need a lot more people and quite different sets of skills working behind the scenes in protected cropping environments than we've employed on farms in the past 20 years," Dr Allan said.
Pool our resources
She said manufacturing fragmentation and the food sector's long tradition of "everybody for themselves" needed to rapidly evolve into an environment where smaller operators pooled some resources and funds for shared research, technology or production tasks.
In particular, greater regional business cluster co-operation and innovation could "help mum and dad ventures become medium-sized ventures" without having to invest in specialist staff or equipment they could not justify by themselves.
Regional cluster thinking would also take greater advantage of regional strengths like native food production or local agricultural commodities well suited to a region's geography.
FIAL is working with Agriculture Minister David Littleproud to develop a roadmap for adding value to agribusiness and food industries which involves promoting regional clusters to seize on some of the 19 food production and distribution growth opportunities it has identified.
Many of those prospects, such as reducing packaging waste and using precision agriculture and big data, were nothing new.
However, the research pointed to the "future consumer" as a big value opportunity, and likely to create the most new jobs.
Emerging prospects included meeting the demands of growing numbers of health conscious consumers, particularly in nearby Asia; developing plant-based alternatives to meat and fish; capturing nutritional markets for functional foods like nuts, fruits and vegetables, and finding new niches to encourage greater adoption of traditional dairy, meat and egg products.
In southern Queensland where the Toowoomba-based Food Leaders Australia is supporting food and agricultural businesses to capitalise on new market opportunities and innovation, general manager Bruce McConnel said FIAL's report highlighted the sort of collaboration his organisation was already helping to co-ordinate.
End users were clustering together to make it easier to procure farm produce, while meat businesses had been able to work together as a group to lock in kill space at a local abattoir.
"I know of three projects worth more than $100 million each where groups of about five different businesses have pooled resources to build joint facilities to add value to produce from the region, or co-locate different activities," Mr McConnel said.
"There will always be business aspects and IP that individual operators value which can't be shared or discussed, but if you get the basics right the power of a network provides a lot of problem solving ability, buying power, or innovation."
Agriculture had often been guilty of focusing on its differences, its many commodities and multiple markets, rather than the resources and investments it had in common.
Food Leaders had instead opted for a narrow regional focus on the Darling Downs, but was broad when it came to sharing resources and casting the net wide to find help for a membership base spanning farms, food processors, restaurants, freight companies and more.
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