Last week I had the honour of addressing the Nuffield family at their National Conference; a key breeding ground for Australia’s agriculture and agri-business leaders.

I have noted before that our food and fibre sectors have enormous opportunities on offer. But the challenges are just as significant; the work of Nuffield and its scholars will be crucial to addressing them both.

Nuffield’s contribution to Australian agriculture is substantial.  It lays in part, in the quality of its scholars and the adoption and commercialisation of their ideas.

The very existence of Nuffield reflects a long-standing appreciation that neither our geography nor our natural endowments guarantee us the total fulfilment of our aspirations in agriculture.

That would be a lazy and complacent view of the world; one which would lead us to ordinariness at best.

Australia’s food and fibre sectors are too important to our economy, too important to our communities, and too important to our food security and adequacy, to be left to an ordinary effort.

The theme of the Nuffield conference was: “Making Change Happen – Educate, Innovate, Exceed”.

It was Nelson Mandela who said – “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.

In addition to our own and on-going self-education, all of us – politicians and industry leaders alike – must embrace the responsibility to be the educators. To challenge people to a conversation absent of political spin and games.

I believe there are 3 areas which more than any other, call upon the agriculture sector to embark upon a mission to create a better informed Australia.

The first is foreign investment which has been the subject of previous columns.

The second issue is climate change and sustainability.

Surely there is no greater challenge to our food and fibre aspirations than our changing climate and resource depletion. 

Our future in agriculture lays more in chasing value rather than volume.  But volume will be important and the question becomes; how will we grow more with less.

Our growers and producers know our climate is changing and it’s having an impact on agriculture.  While climate change is causing the land available to grow wheat here in Australia to contract, in Canada – one of our key competitors – it is expanding.

Unfortunately, over recent years our progress in dealing with the challenges of a drier continent and more erratic weather patterns has been hampered by the politicisation of the public debate.

An enormous effort is required to ensure we lift the productivity of our water and soil resources and it will only come with initiatives in a range of policy areas including carbon mitigation, adaptation, and market-based approaches to resource allocation.

The third issue is farm structure

While significant consolidation has occurred in recent years, our farm sector remains fragmented and performance is mixed. 

Around 80 percent of Australia's output by value is generated by just 30 percent of farm businesses. 

Meanwhile, the smallest 50 percent of farms generate less than 10 percent of our product.

Even more extraordinary, according to the Productivity Commission, the bottom 25 percent of broadacre farms did not make a profit in any of the ten years to 2007.

Given the importance of resource allocation to productivity growth, we need to ask ourselves whether we can afford not to have a rational conversation about the implications of these facts for agriculture's future.

I’m aware there are those who hold concerns about the demise of the family farm. 

But further rationalisation of our farm structure need not lead to a diminution of the role of the family farm.  Our family farms are most often the drivers of innovation.  In an environment with a focus on niche, high value products, the family farm is likely to thrive in an environment in which our financial, human and natural resources are allocated most efficiently.

There are many reasons I’ve fallen in love with the agriculture portfolio.  It is complex, diverse, and of growing importance to our economy.  It’s also full of great people.

But what really has me hooked is the scope for reform – the opportunity to change things.

Not change for the sake of change, but positive reforms which allow us to make the very most of the huge opportunities before us.

But to secure reform we’ll need to speak in an informed way and with one voice.

One well informed, educated voice.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday, 21 September 2015.

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