Interview with Madeleine Morris and Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

Madeleine Morris and Lisa Millar
Food insecurity; energy price increases; climate change.

MADELEINE MORRIS: In recent years, the effects of floods, fires and the pandemic have impacted food production and the supply chain.

LISA MILLAR: Today, the Minister for Industry and Science will address a global food forum in Melbourne and outline how Australia can cater for its growing population into the future. Minister Ed Husic joins us now in the studio. Good morning, Minister. Welcome to News Breakfast. 


LISA MILLAR: Why is this so important for us to be food secure?

ED HUSIC: If you look ahead, the world's population will grow to close to 10 billion, during now and say, 2050. Demand for food, will be up 60%. Yet we have over 2 billion people that are either moderately or severely food insecure. 

We've got another 3 billion that can't afford healthy diets and we've got a climate that's changing. So, you look at all those factors and you think, well, how do we attend to our most basic need for, in particular, good quality food? 

And that is going to take a lot of work. So, we do need to start preparing for that, build more sustainable, resilient food systems. And given Australia feeds so many people, I mean, not just ourselves, but we're a big exporter of clean, green food. But that – you just can't rely on that to happen and as you indicated earlier, the climate, ecological change means we've got to think ahead about how we reshape our food system.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Yeah, and we've seen evidence of that in Australia. I mean, who can forget the $10 iceberg lettuce which was caused by floods and fires? So, the CSIRO wants to work on diversifying our own food security. How could we actually do that in Australia, given that we do have, you know, real specialisations of food productions in certain areas?

ED HUSIC: So, there's probably a number of areas. It's about building those sustainable and resilient food systems and thinking ahead about how that will look using our R&D and know-how in Australia. 

And we've got some really great – and I've watched for years in the agtech space; agriculture-technology, improving much more in terms of precision agriculture, using data a lot more, using robotics and drones, because we're going to find it hard to address skill shortages. And also, the fact that a lot of people are not wanting to take up the opportunity to stay on farms if they've been in a family. So, R&D and our know-how and looking at how we reshape those systems. And the other thing is, it's going to take a lot of work between business or industry, government, academia, universities, to start rethinking these systems. And so, collaboration is going to be vital and we can't rely on just one group to do it all. And getting that happening is going to be really important.

LISA MILLAR: You've said you think people are at risk of being complacent about this.

ED HUSIC: I think there is a concern that the good times will keep rolling on and the reality is we do need to think of new ways of meeting food demand. And I see it, I see some great examples out on the road when I visit. Out in Western Sydney, where I come from, there is a terrific firm that is turning wheat into meat. 

Not literally meat, but they’re value adding wheat and through their processing, they can give it the taste and texture of lamb and chicken. Complementary proteins will be really important as the world's population grows, but it can be stored well, transported easily. It's tasty, but it meets that need for protein. 

So, again, those type of Australian firms that can meet our needs and globally, really important. And the other challenge too is we waste a lot of food, nearly 8 million tonnes in Australia, of which 70% is still edible. And you think of the impact that has not just in terms of production and at a time where people need food, but there's also a climate impact on that as well in terms of the processing or the growth of those food inputs. And that's something we need to think about too.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Can I just take you to another of our top stories this morning, and that is energy prices? So, we've got the default market offer out from the regulators today. Prices are going to be going up between 20 and 24% for households. For some small businesses, it's between 15 and 30%. Now, you're Industry Minister, that is going to be business ending for some businesses. Are you confident that you are doing enough to bring down those power prices?

ED HUSIC: Well, over the course of the 12 months, it was one of the big issues I was concerned about as an incoming Industry Minister, the impact of energy prices, particularly when you think that half of gas demand, for example, is used by industrial users and having those price increases would impact on jobs. And in the case that you've just mentioned, with smaller businesses as well, it's why we took a really big stand bringing back the Parliament in December after we'd already finished for the year, because we needed to bring in those new laws and the energy price relief, cap prices. We've seen some big drops and we're trying to work – 

MADELEINE MORRIS: But we’ve seen less of an increase is, I think, the point. We have seen drops in wholesale power prices, less of an increase. But I mean, we're still talking about 30% in some cases for small business. There will be some businesses that go to the wall over this.

ED HUSIC: And I am concerned, too, that even though we've made those big changes and, yeah, you're absolutely right to point out that the increases haven't been as big, but we would hate to have seen them go in the way the Treasury was predicting in October last year.

LISA MILLAR: But what do you say, businesses getting these bills right now?

ED HUSIC: So, I am still concerned about in particular for some of those businesses, they're not getting the contracts being offered to them, and they're still, in some cases, having to go in the gas arena to the spot market. 

And so, we are trying to work through the development of a mandatory code to ensure that there's better negotiation of those energy contracts. And we're working through that as well. And clearly, I mean, I share those concern, concerns that you just expressed in your question to me. And that's why we will keep our mind open about all the steps that need to be taken. We've shown that we'll take big steps when we need to. If we need to do more, we will.

LISA MILLAR: Minister Ed Husic, thanks for coming in this morning. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you both for your time.