Speech at Food and Innovation Australia Ltd's Building Collaborative Ecosystems Summit


I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to elders past and present. I extend that respect to all other First Nations people in the audience today. Thank you Dr Mirjana Prica and FIAL for inviting me to this important event – and hello everyone.

Australia is known globally as a producer of high-quality agricultural products and excellent agriculture research and development. Over many decades, outstandingly talented men and women in the industry, in universities and in civil society have enhanced our agricultural capabilities. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, William Farrer collaborated with other agronomists, nationally and internationally, to improve the yield and rust resistance of Australian wheat. Australia is now one of the world’s largest exporters of safe and clean food-grade wheat. Our durum wheat is recognised among the world’s best – and it commands premium prices. 

Where our researchers have created breakthroughs, our growers and entrepreneurs have stepped up to promote those products in domestic and international markets. The Australian dried fruit industry is an example of our talent for food and agribusiness entrepreneurialism, collaboration, value-adding, and brand-building. When George and William Chaffey, urged on by Alfred Deakin, developed the Murray River for irrigation in the 1880s, they had in mind a fruit bowl supplying Melbourne and Adelaide. Unfortunately for the pioneering growers, the promised rail link to Mildura was a slow train coming.

Horse-drawn wagons took over a week to deliver their cargoes, by which time the fruit was often overripe, bruised or ruined. Producers soon realised that drying their fruit was the best way to get it to market. So, they invested in new packing sheds, drying racks and irrigation infrastructure upgrades. By the end of the Great War, the Sunraysia district was supplying dried fruit to Australian and world markets.

When post-war shipping shortages disrupted exports, growers needed to boost domestic sales. They turned to a Mildura entrepreneur, C.J (Jack) de Garis. Some of de Garis’s strategies to market and promote Australian dried fruits might look quaint to us from the perspective of 2023. But he was a forward-thinker, championing dried fruit's nutritional value – and appealing to buyers’ concerns about important social issues. De Garis also conceived an early example of food value-add – a sweet made from crushed and crystallised dried vine fruits dubbed the Normey . 

Those of you here today, standing on the shoulders of pioneers like Farrer, de Garis and others, have helped make Australia a global food and agribusiness powerhouse. Helped by free trade agreements, Australian food exports have risen from $29 billion to almost $50 billion over the past 15 years. 

The Albanese Government is fighting hard to deliver greater market access for Australian agricultural products through agreements with the European Union, UK, India and Indonesia. We know Australian beef and lamb producers are using European equipment imported freely into Australia; it is only fair that they get meaningful access to European markets to export these products. Of Australia’s $67.5 billion in agricultural exports, only eight per cent is to Europe. This presents a massive opportunity to scale up. 

Food and beverage manufacturing is a major part of our domestic manufacturing industry landscape, generating over $28.8 billion in economic output. The sector accounts for 1.3 per cent of Australia’s GDP and employs more than 234,400 people, 40.2 per cent in regional areas. The economic importance of the agribusiness sector – and its growth potential – was recognised last year when the ASX launched its Agribusiness index. With companies like Treasury Wines, A2 Milk, Nufarm, Elders and Bega Cheese, the index will raise the sector’s profile among investors. It will also help underpin further agricultural growth and innovation in food and beverage manufacturing. This is a critical mission given the rising worldwide demand for ethical and sustainable food.

Australian producers have worked really hard to improve sustainability in their production processes, particularly the meat industry. The agriculture industry continues to grow its green credentials, meeting the expectations of both our trading partners and domestic customers.  Supermarket customers are telling the major chains they want to see more sustainable products on the shelf, better animal welfare, and more recycled packaging. A consumer survey commissioned in 2022 found that most participants were willing to pay up to 25 per cent more for organic products.

There is also big potential in pulses, complementary proteins, health and wellness, and aquaculture. With government, industry and researchers working together, we can galvanize these food and agribusiness opportunities to move Australian products further up the global value chain.

Of course, we recognise there are challenges. Production and processing costs are rising off the back of higher energy, fertiliser, and fuel prices. Last month, the Reserve Bank confirmed that the Albanese Government’s energy plan is helping to moderate inflation in the economy, taking some of the sting out of high power prices. There are early signs that our Energy Price Relief Plan is making a difference to wholesale prices and taking some of the pressure off local manufacturers. Australia’s supply chains have been increasingly exposed to disruption in recent years, whether due to geopolitical dynamics, inflationary pressures or extreme weather events, to name a few. 

However, our food and agribusiness sector has reached an inflexion point – and it is poised for bigger things. I can say this confidently given our proven record as an innovative and efficient producer of clean, green and nutritious foods. Australia is at the forefront of technological development in areas that can increase crop yields and develop new protein sources. Our researchers are developing new food products and processes that will help feed a hungry world. 

The Australian Government is committed to ensuring we maintain that technological edge. Not just because it makes good economic sense but because we want Australia to be a country that makes more things. A nation that’s able to capture more high-growth global markets. That is able to add value to products right here in Australia rather than simply exporting raw materials offshore.

Rejuvenating and transforming Australian industry won’t be a walk in the park. But the rewards – more well-paid jobs and sustainable economic growth that secures future prosperity – justify us giving it a red-hot go.

The $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund is the key element of the Government’s Future Made in Australia agenda – one of the biggest industry policy offerings in peacetime history. When it’s established, the NRF will provide finance – loans, guarantees and equity – in seven priority areas of the economy.

One of these will be value-add in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, with $500 million of the NRF targeted to unlock potential by value adding in these areas as well as food and fibre. We’re working to establish the NRF as soon as possible, and we trust Federal Parliament will respect our mandate to do so. Because in the tight contested world of advanced global manufacturing and innovation, we can’t afford delays.

The National Reconstruction Fund is a modern approach to industry policy – seeking to partner with industry to unlock private sector investment. Unfortunately, the Coalition is holding Australia back, standing in the way of a Fund that will be an important component of Australia’s innovation system – supporting the generation, adaptation, and application of new ideas.

It is beyond disappointing to see the Opposition turn their back on $15 billion worth of opportunity to advance Australian industry, including Australian manufacturing. 
After a decade of delay and neglect under the Coalition, you would have thought that they could confront their mistakes head on. Rather, they’re choosing to bury their heads in the sand, failing to back good jobs, particularly in country towns and regional centres. The former Liberal-National Government only ever understood the value of grants. 

The Albanese Government understands the value of the public and private sectors working together. Of course, there is a role for grant funding, but the NRF will unapologetically focus on providing finance to sectors that are important to our future.

It’s predictable that Peter Dutton and the Liberals decided to oppose the Fund. In doing so, they have taken a wrecking ball to the future of Australian manufacturing. 
And why is the National Party, a party the purports to stand up for regional Australia, opposing a Fund that will support good jobs in regional and rural parts of the country? Opposition to them means saying no to everything, even if that means abandoning good jobs in the regions and outer suburbs.

I urge them to rethink this position. Because there exists a wealth of opportunities that will spring from the NRF. It will complement the research and commercialisation activities of our universities and other institutions.

Among our many fine R&D centres, the CSIRO stands out for its lengthy and dedicated service to industry. The very first CSIRO laboratory devoted to the food industry was the Cold Storage Investigations Section established nearly 100 years ago in 1926. Through its food innovation centre at Werribee outside Melbourne, our national science agency continues to enable manufacturers to develop new processes, technologies, and services.

One present line of work is developing innovative animal, plant and novel proteins like yeast, fungi, algae and insects. The global animal and plant-based ingredients market could be worth up to $US115 billion by 2030. Here in Australia, the CSIRO has conceived its Future Protein Mission to create and value-add $10 billion of high-quality protein products by 2030. Knowing CSIRO’s track record, I think that target is well worth reaching for.

I mentioned complementary proteins, including insects, a moment ago. Edible insect varieties are incredibly rich in nutrients – three times the amount of Omega 3 as spinach, twice as much calcium as milk, and more iron than spinach. Again, our researchers and entrepreneurs are ahead of the game in growing this sustainable and potentially lucrative protein source.

Not far from here, on a farm in western Sydney, Circle Harvest is growing crickets on a diet of fruit and veg that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Circle Harvest began farming crickets in 2007 – and working with the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre (FIAL) and Mars Food Australia’s Seeds of Change Accelerator Program, it has built Australia’s largest insect protein farm. It’s also one of the most modern, employing robotics and artificial intelligence to streamline farming processes. Circle Harvest’s Cricket Protein Powder contains 69 per cent protein. Ideal for bolstering the nutritional value of corn chips, pasta, granola, biscuit mixes, and dukkha.

There are many other great examples of researchers, start-ups, and big established players commercialising innovative products. We anticipate there will be many more. The Australian Government will be there with you on that journey.

Concessional loans are on offer through our Regional Investment Corporation. Our highly regarded Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Program will continue to co-invest in new technologies, products, and services. Since it was launched in 1990 (under the Hawke Labor government), the CRC Program has committed $5.6 billion in grant funding. That money has helped support the establishment of 236 CRCs and 208 of the shorter-term CRC Projects. 

Of course, grants play a role in facilitating innovation. But they can’t be the only solution. That’s why we’re taking a modern approach to industry policy with the National Reconstruction Fund – a vehicle where the public and private sectors work in tandem to build national capability in important areas like food and agriculture.

With the global population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the world needs to produce more protein – and to source that protein from non-traditional sources.
Few countries are better equipped than Australia to meet the increasing global demand for protein – and satisfy changing consumer trends. We have all the ingredients required to tackle this challenge – a strong R&D sector, primary producers open to new possibilities and a federal government with big ambitions for the sector. 

The Australian Government will enable this process by acting as a catalyst for new product developments and improved productivity. If we succeed, and I’ve no doubt we will, the social and economic benefits of success will be massive. In 2020, FIAL forecast that lifting Australia’s value add in food and beverage could increase domestic and export markets from $61 billion to more than $200 billion by 2030. It would also help unlock the economic potential of our regions and bolster food security. 

Building on the work of FIAL, the CSIRO and other agencies, we’re confident we can help accelerate high-value manufacturing, and value-adding in food and agribusiness. We hope you share and support our appetite for collaborative research to advance the agricultural and food processing industry. Thank you.