Australia has a long history of strength in agriculture. Our farmers and agricultural industries helped lay the foundations of the Australian economy and way of life we enjoy today, but those foundations are being shaken by disruption on a global scale.
We have a climate that is getting hotter and dryer, making growing seasons difficult to manage and leaving farmers and regional towns at risk of running out of water.
We have a growing global population that our current food systems can’t sustain, and it is going to take a mammoth effort to sustainably feed the 9.8 billion people who will inhabit Earth by 2050.
And we have evolving consumer behaviour towards products that are sustainably and ethically produced, causing importing countries to add new regulations that impact the competitiveness of our exports.
But as I learned growing start-ups from science in Silicon Valley, disruption is just opportunity in disguise. Silicon Valley may lead in tech, but Australia could lead in ag-tech.
We have an opportunity to leverage our science and our experience to re-imagine our traditional agricultural industries, and again lean on our strength to generate $20 billion in new revenue for Australia.
That’s why CSIRO and our partners have invested $150 million to launch three national ‘missions’ in the agriculture and food sectors sector where, playing to our strengths, science is helping to turn challenge into opportunity.
The first challenge is less rain. CSIRO’s 2019 Australian National Outlook report foretold that Australia would spend more time in drought, and projections indicate our farmers will experience up to 30 per cent less winter rainfall by 2050.
As world-leaders in agriculture, Australia is already making headway in future proofing us against drought, such as through new farming systems that use water more efficiently and new uses of plants to support feed for livestock in drought years. So instead of treating drought as a crisis, we can use innovations like this to shift to being prepared. That’s the opportunity, and our Drought Resilience Mission aims to capture it.
As a child I marvelled at how innovative people can be at finding water, as far back as the First Australians tens of thousands of years ago. Building on this knowledge, CSIRO has been mapping natural aquifers around the country, and we’ve found areas like under the Murray-Darling Basin that can store up to eight Sydney Harbours’ worth of water.
It’s called water banking, and while it’s not new, it holds huge untapped potential to deliver water security to regional towns. Instead of trucking in water, we can bank it underground on a rainy day and save it for drought.
CSIRO is also inventing a range of drought-resistant seed varieties to help farmers plant crops and pastures in the absence of rain. Callum Wesley is a farmer trialling these on the dry margin of the wheat belt in Western Australia. For the last few years, he hasn’t had the rain to sow conventional crops, but using a CSIRO-bred wheat variety that is planted deeper to tap water stored further below the surface, he’s no longer at the mercy of the rain.
The second challenge is more mouths. We simply don’t have enough agricultural land to grow enough of the plants and animals we currently eat to feed our surging global population by 2050.
But again, science is turning challenge into opportunity. The world is going to experience a surge in protein demand, and Australia is well positioned to meet that demand from more diverse sources.
Our Future Protein Mission aims to capitalise with new protein products and better use of existing proteins, earning Australia $10 billion in revenue. For example, CSIRO is working with business to establish a new plant protein industry that’s expected to deliver $4 billion in value and 6,000 new jobs by 2030. We’re also creating new capability in advanced biomanufacturing, and a sustainable white flesh fish industry fed on commercial food waste and insects.
Demand for animal-based protein will continue to grow, and we’re looking at how we make our meat industries more sustainable and more profitable. Australian meat products are so coveted that they are counterfeited overseas, so we’re also looking at how we recapture that lost revenue for Australia.
This, together with difficulties gaining access to high value international markets, is the third challenge.
Our ‘Brand Australia’ reputation for safety and quality means our agrifood exports are in high demand and can fetch a premium – as long as we protect it. That’s the opportunity, and our Trusted Agrifood Exports Mission aims to overcome access issues to boost our export earnings by $10 billion by 2030.
To unlock these markets, we are looking at how we digitise supply chains and factories to automate compliance to a range of requirements like sustainability, pest control, and animal welfare, making it easier for more Australian businesses to export more products.
We’re also investing in how we protect our ‘Brand Australia’ reputation from impersonators, with unique science that can verify the origins of our food products.
We can’t lead at everything, but we can play to our strengths. Australian agriculture helped build our economy once before, and it can do it again.
We have the vision, and we have the science. We’re planting these seeds today because future generations are depending on it.