Last week, the Queensland Government released its 10-year RD&E Roadmap and Action Plan for agriculture – a document designed to underpin a productive, profitable and sustainable agriculture sector. As the government’s vision for RD&E through to 2028, the Action Plan is its strategy for how to capitalise on our competitive advantages and realise the opportunities for the sector’s growth.
Firstly, it is encouraging that the government has developed a forward-looking blueprint for the state’s agriculture and food RD&E, recognizing the sector’s fundamental importance, continued strength and ongoing transition. A vision from government for our sector has been lacking and QFF welcomes and commends this step.
But plans are only as good as their implementation, with the level of resourcing key to this. There remains a disconnect between what is said and written about the future of Queensland agriculture and demonstrable government action and support.
Considering funding, the Action Plan recognises the importance of public sector RD&E investment to ensure agriculture productivity gains. It highlights that total funding for rural R&D in Australia increased from $2.3 billion to $3 billion in real terms over the past decade. However, this increase is largely due to substantially greater investment (over 60%) from the private sector.
By contrast, total R&D funding from state and territory governments has decreased by more than 27% over the past decade, even though governments acknowledge that every $1 invested in RD&E returns $10.51 over the course of 25 years.
The Australian Government on the other hand has increased agriculture R&D over the past decade by about 18%. However, total funding for the agriculture portfolio has decreased at an average annual rate of 0.8% in real terms over the last 15 years. By comparison, total funding for the education, health and social security portfolios has increased at an average annual rate of 4.5%, 4.1% and 3.1% respectively.
There is a compelling case for increasing RD&E funding for agriculture. Governments have reformed market interventions to the point where the level of agricultural support is the second lowest in the OECD area at under 3% of gross farm receipts. These reforms made decision-making in Australian agriculture more responsive to market forces, but the productivity gains have now largely run their course. Structured and meaningful RD&E is an important element for raising productivity.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, between now and 2050, the world’s food system will need to produce 70% more food to feed an increasingly crowded planet. Continued productivity growth and improved management of existing land and resources is key to meeting these demands. For Queensland agriculture to capitalise on this opportunity, it will need to move to more intensive farming systems and maximise the use of scarce resources.
Therefore, if Strategy 3 (‘support the existing sector to grow and develop new business’) is to be realised, we must better address the acute and chronic energy and water stressors affecting intensive agricultural productivity. And we must better protect and utilise our best agricultural land.
While the Action Plan provides aspirational goals for the future, the current operating environment appears to be too disjointed to see how they might be achieved. However, rapid improvements in fundamental issues like energy, water, land use and planning would enable greater RD&E clarity and focus on the longer-term enablers and drivers for an intensified agriculture sector.