Drop the ‘xenophobic’ attitude to trade says AIFST

At the recent 49th Annual Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology (AIFST) Convention in Brisbane, most leading Australian food and agribusiness industry experts agreed that while innovation is the key to ensuring a viable future for the food and agribusiness industry, the concern around foreign investment is impacting markets and hindering the collaboration.

The panel, chaired by former ABC journalist Peter Couchman, comprised some of the industry’s leading decision-makers, including Peter Schutz (FIAL), Michele Allan (Science and Innovation Australia), Richard Katter (Ernst & Young), Dr André Teixeira (CSIRO), Terry O’Brien (Simplot), Janice Rueda (Archer Daniels Midland), Dr Ben Lyons (TSBE) and Alastair Maclachlan (Preshafruit). Chair of AIFST, Peter Schutz said the Australian food and agribusiness industry needs to work collaboratively and allow for investment in the industry.

“We need all components of the industry – including the business community, farmers, agribusinesses and the wider supply chain – all working together seamlessly.

“There is a lot of xenophobia in Australia, but we need these foreign markets to invest in the Australian food and agribusiness sector because they will guarantee us markets.

“This lack of collaboration culture within Australian food and agribusiness is impacting our readiness for engagement with the huge market potential of the emerging Asian middle class,” said Mr Schutz.

The panel agreed the Toowoomba region in Queensland is leading the way in food and agribusiness collaboration, and the rest of the nation needs to follow suit. “The Toowoomba and Surat Basin area is a stand-out region in terms of collaboration across universities, government and the production and agribusiness industry, opening up the region directly to international markets,” said Mr Schutz. CEO of the Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise (TSBE) Dr Ben Lyons said that while Toowoomba is part of Australia’s leading agriculture region in terms of production and innovation, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of collaboration.

“We have a number of opportunities opening up to the local food and agribusiness market in Toowoomba, such as the opening of the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport servicing the Toowoomba region,” said Dr Lyons.

“This has given us the ability to export fresh meat from Toowoomba at 5pm that will arrive in Shanghai by 7am local time, to be served in a high-end Shanghai restaurant that night. This makes everything much more immediate.

“Australia as a whole needs to step away from being insular and become more open to foreign ownership and investment. Australia has had a mindset of protectionism in the past. I was quite upset by the Kidman ownership decision, because what impression about investing in Australia does that send to China?” he said.

Terry O’Brien, Managing Director of Simplot said the resistance to innovation and new ideas comes down to a number of Australian agricultural and food production companies being family-owned.

“I do a lot of work in Tasmania, where the farming and agricultural land has been passed through many generations. This creates a fear of growing new products including new varieties as they feel they haven’t been tried and tested.

“This region almost has to wait for the current generation to stop and the younger generation to step up to utilise their new technical skills and their ability to think collectively,” said Mr O’Brien.