Address to the evokeAG Conference

PERTH
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 20

Well thank you Craig and thank you to everyone for having me here in Perth today. 

I want to start by acknowledging the Traditional owners of the land on which we are gathering today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. 

This is my second evokeAg conference as Agriculture Minister and it’s great to be back once again in Western Australia. 

This year’s conference is focused on the ‘exceptional edge’ of agritech food innovation and I’ll touch on that a little later. 

But first I wanted to briefly outline our government’s key priorities for the ag sector in the year ahead.  

They centre around dealing with immediate challenges facing the industry and setting it up for longer term success.  

Australian agriculture performing strongly 

Overall, I’m pleased to say that Australia’s agriculture sector continues to perform strongly.  

While it is certainly hot and dry in the West at the moment, good rains over east are delivering higher than expected yields.

According to Rabobank’s latest Agricultural Outlook, Australia’s agricultural sector is “moving confidently into 2024”, with a positive outlook for the nation’s farmers and agribusiness industries. 

Last year saw record breaking ag exports, valued at $82.5 billion, with 2023-24 forecast to be the second highest on record at $72 billion.  

We continue to prioritise opening doors for agriculture overseas, beginning to stabilise our relationship with China and creating more diverse markets than ever before. 

While last year oversupply and changing seasonal conditions saw domestic livestock prices fall, prices are now rising again, while grains and horticulture industries continue to deliver huge volumes. 

All in all, it’s a pretty good picture and I pay tribute to the farmers, farm workers, researchers and all in the ag supply chain who have achieved this success. 

As a government, we’re also doing our bit.  

Since our election, we have invested $3.1 billion in the ag sector - to protect it, grow it and help it deal with immediate challenges.  

Dealing with immediate challenges 

For the nation as a whole, and therefore our government, dealing with cost-of-living pressures is our number one priority. 

We also know that many farmers have been feeling the squeeze on their margins. 

Global inflation has contributed to rising input costs, but our government’s war on inflation is working, and we are seeing that translate to the costs of essential farm products. 

We’re also dealing with years of concerns from farmers about the prices they’re getting from wholesalers and the big supermarket chains. Something highlighted again in last night’s Four Corners episode. 

We’ve taken strong action, ordering a review into the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct as well as an ACCC inquiry into the pricing practices of the supermarkets. 

As a government, we want to get a fairer deal for families and farmers and these reviews are key to that.  

The other immediate challenge for agriculture, like most sectors, is finding the workers we need. 

While this challenge is far from solved, we’ve seen strong numbers of overseas workers return, led by record numbers of Pacific workers through the PALM scheme, all while improving worker conditions.  

Nearly all the 13,000 fee-free TAFE places for agriculture courses have been taken up, giving locals a chance to upskill or make a start in the industry.  

And the hosts of this conference, AgriFutures, are doing terrific work on attracting our young Australians into careers in agriculture, including through work on influencing careers advisors to promote ag careers to students.  

Embracing opportunities of the future 

But of course, as all of you know, while it is vital to have one eye on immediate challenges, it is equally important to have one eye on the future. 

To set the industry up for future success, we must look beyond the horizon, at the opportunities that will shape the next few generations of agriculture.  

Central to enhancing our position as a trusted supplier of food and fibre is strengthening our nation’s biosecurity system. 

When we came to office, we inherited a biosecurity system that was fraying at the edges, with no certainty of funding from year to year. 

We’ve changed that - for good.

In the last budget, the Albanese Government introduced Australia’s first ever sustainable biosecurity funding model - an extra $1 billion over the next four years in new biosecurity funding, and locks that funding in for ever more. 

This includes annual government funding of $350 million and $363 million from importers, with importers finally paying the full cost of biosecurity services they receive.  

The new funding model also includes a modest contribution from farmers - key beneficiaries of the protections it will fund. 

The new Biosecurity Protection Levy will contribute just 6 per cent of the total funding model, or about $50 million a year.  

Not a lot to ask, when you consider the livelihoods at stake. 

But thinking longer term, it’s hard to think of an issue that will have more bearing on the future of Australian agriculture than climate change. 

Already farmers are feeling the impact, with ABARES data showing that changes in seasonal conditions have already reduced farm profits by an average of 23%, or $29,000, over the past 20 years. 

And as a proud exporting nation, it’s also becoming more important from a trade perspective that our industry becomes even more sustainable. 

So there are strong economic reasons to take action now, beyond the obvious environmental benefits. 

While some still want to fight outdated climate wars, our government wants to work with industry.  

To that end, you’ll be aware we have been consulting on our proposed Agriculture and Land Sector decarbonisation plan, one of six under the Government’s Net Zero 2050 Plan. 

The public consultation process is the first step in developing the sector plan, which will map out the role for the agricultural sector in Australia's transition to net zero emissions. 

As the Prime Minister often says, we can shape the future, or have the future shape us.  

So it’s wonderful to see so many stakeholders participating, including farmers, peak industry bodies, private organisations, environment groups, the finance sector, universities and researchers. 

We’ve published their submissions, which have raised several options for the government to consider around issues like investment in research and development, incentives to adopt new technologies and land management practices, building landholder capacity, and establishing standardised approaches to calculating and reporting emissions. 

This work builds on steps we’ve already taken, such as working with the states and territories to develop Australia’s first National Statement on Climate Change and Agriculture, our ongoing work on the Future Drought Fund and the rollout of $302 million in Climate-Smart Agriculture programs under the Natural Heritage Trust. 

As part of this program, today I am pleased to announce the opening of the $45 million Partnerships and Innovation grant opportunity and the $9 million Capacity Building grant opportunity. 

The grants, which both open on Thursday, will empower our agricultural sectors to foster more innovation and build knowledge in responding to the impacts of climate change. 

As you can see, we’re determined to make a difference on this vital issue for agriculture.  

Rather than stick our heads in the sand, we will meet the climate challenge head-on, which will help secure the future of Australian ag, and that’s good for farmers, good for Australia and good for our economy.

Investing in AgTech 

Of course, embracing new agtech and innovation - the focus of this conference - is key to dealing with sustainability and many other challenges.

When I meet with my international counterparts, I feel proud that they want to draw on Australia’s expertise in plant and animal genetics, husbandry systems, salinity and soil management, water efficiency and more. 

I feel excited when I meet people all around Australia embracing new techniques, like the Central Queensland grain and cotton farmers using robotics to improve fertiliser efficiency, or the teams at our Drought Resilience Innovation Hubs connecting farmers with scientists producing new drought-resilient feed, the researchers in lab coats at La Trobe University making soil and seed discoveries, the horticulture packaging sheds using AI to improve performance, and the abattoirs using more water and energy-efficient technologies. 

At a local level, it was great to see Western Australia’s own Brad Egan recognised as 2022 Young Farmer of the Year, for his integration of data analysis tools and science into his farm management toolkit. 

As a government, we’re supporting this effort too. 

For the past four decades Australia’s agricultural sector has benefited from public-private research partnerships, most notably through commodity-based rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). 

Australia’s 15 RDCs allow the Australian Government and primary producers to co-invest in RD&E. 

Each year these bodies receive around $600 million in levies from farmers, producers, processors and exporters – and more than $300 million is provided by the Australian Government in matching funding for RD&E. 

That’s important, because for every dollar invested in agricultural RD&E, there is close to an eight-fold benefit to farmers.  

Our support for agricultural RD&E goes beyond the RDCs and, indeed, beyond the agriculture portfolio. 

Last year, my colleague, the Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic, committed $87 million in Australian Government funding for a new CRC for Net Zero Emissions in Agriculture, a multi-stakeholder approach to transitioning Australian agriculture to net-zero, healthy, resilient and profitable food systems by 2040. 

There’s more to come, with our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund starting to take shape.

This fund, created to co-invest with private industry to support value adding and advanced manufacturing, includes a $500 million allocation specifically for the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors.  

Minister Husic has been developing co-investment plans across the fund, and I know some people in this room have been part of the industry working group consulting on that.  

To conclude, I just want to thank all of you for the work you do to invest in the future of this incredible industry. 

And a particular thanks to our hosts, AgriFutures. 

Whether it’s technology, people or research, AgriFutures is at the forefront of embracing the opportunities of the future. 

Hopefully you can see that in the Albanese Government, you have a willing partner, to deal with the immediate challenges facing the sector and to set it up for a prosperous future. 

Across biosecurity, trade, workforce and sustainability, we’ve begun work to fix the problems we inherited, we’re delivering on immediate needs and we’re planning ahead to take the sector forward, with technology and innovation at the core. 

All this work has been built on a strong partnership between an Albanese Labor Government and industry. 

A partnership I am committing to making even stronger.  

Thanks for inviting me and enjoy the conference.