Western Australia needs long-term vision for agriculture

A reader in Bunbury put me on to this article by John Barrington “State needs long-term vision for agriculture” published in The West Australian (but apparently not on the www). If anybody can find a link please pass on. The chart of WA wheat production history is mine –

I thought I had better point out that something is going right in WA agriculture. To read article click

State needs long-term vision for agriculture

The Geological Survey of Western Australia has had constant funding for 100 years,
creating one the world’s great resource databases and a prized State asset. In contrast,
parts of our agriculture sector can barely look five years ahead because of poor research

Too many disparities between the WA resource and agriculture sectors exist, although both
are exposed to the greatest megatrend of them all: the coming boom in the Asian middle-
class and its effect on minerals, energy and food demand.

Why doesn’t WA have the equivalent of a Fortescue Metals Group in agriculture?

Why don’t we have the same entrepreneurial spirit of innovation that exists in mining? Why
isn’t WA a leader in agriculture technology (AgTech) research, as we are in Mining
Equipment, Technology and Services (METS)?

WA is ideally located to help feed billions of people in Indian Ocean Rim countries as
populations expand and incomes rise.

We have the natural capital: agriculture scale, high-yielding crops, efficient grain storage and
delivery system, and stable climate. And human capital: a culture of start-up companies and
a skilled, adaptable workforce.

WA has the technology: The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, the Southern Hemisphere’s
largest public-research supercomputer, has the digital firepower to handle the data-
processing AgTech requires. Pawsey researchers from the University of Western Australia
this year discovered 21,000 new genes in 16 varieties of common wheat, yielding better
disease resistance.

We also have the history: Agriculture is WA’s second-largest export and our State has long
recognised AgTech’s potential. Early last century, WA led the world in superphosphate
research and application. In the 1950s and 1960s, our discovery of trace elements led to
spectacular increases in crop yield and low-cost cures of animal diseases.

So, what’s the problem?

WA Government funding of agricultural research is haphazard.
Arguably, too much State funding of agricultural research replicates more advanced
overseas work. Our focus should be on turning local or overseas research into farming
innovations and commercialisation.

Lack of government focus is another problem. WA Chief Scientist, Peter Klinken, sensibly
recommended WA focus on agricultural and food, and biodiversity and marine sciences, as
two of five industry priorities.

But as the WA Government ‘talks’ about industry priorities, other States are doing more to
help develop high-potential AgTech enterprises.

Queensland has identified biofutures (industrial biotechnology and bioproducts) as a priority
in the Advance Queensland strategy. It wants to facilitate a $1-billion biofuels industry and in
June 2016 launched a 10-year action plan.

In a world first, New South Wales farmers last year traded grain using blockchain technology
(a distributed ledger that secures online transactions) that directly links farmers to buyers.

Tasmania start-up, The Yield, is exploiting the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial
intelligence (AI) to measure and predict microclimate at row level within crops.

In Central Queensland, SwarmFarm Robotics is commercialising robot use in crop
production, to improve productivity and reduce environmental impacts.

Why aren’t there more examples like this in WA?

Sporadic State Government commitment is part of the reason. France, Germany, and
Switzerland fund AgTech research for a minimum of 15 years. WA struggles to look beyond
this decade for research funding.

WA can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to emerging sectors. We must focus on
building new high-tech industries around mining, energy and agriculture – and exploit
technology opportunities around our industry strengths.

WA should have an Agriculture Technology Innovation Fund, similar in principle to the
recently announced Future Health Research and Innovation Fund.

A long-term plan recognising the State’s competitive advantages in AgTech is needed. One
that focuses on the next 20 years rather than the next three, provides an over-arching
strategy to catalyse and capture the AgTech opportunity, and helps the emerging AgTech
sector better collaborate and manage risk.

Another challenge is commercialising AgTech research. WA has legislation to channel $1
billion each year into regional development. Part of that should be used to develop unique
AgTech competitive advantages.

To compete, WA farmers need reliable, cost-effective access to high-speed, high-volume
digital connectivity. As McKinsey reports, the biggest differentiator between leaders and
also-rans, by a factor of eight, is having a digitally empowered workforce.

There are good signs. West Australia’s new Minister for Agriculture and Regional
Development, Alannah MacTiernan, has lifted government engagement with the agriculture
sector, understands its potential and is well positioned to champion AgTech through her
regional development portfolio.

But the Government must think bigger. When we talk about grains, livestock and lobsters, in
the same way we talk about iron ore, base metals and gold, we’ll know real progress is

• John Barrington is founder of Barrington Consulting Group, a leading strategy consultancy,
and Chairman of GotSkill Platforms Ltd

9 thoughts on “Western Australia needs long-term vision for agriculture”

  1. Not suitable for general publication until those crop data and the article have been peer reviewed and subjected to homogenization and adjustment?

  2. Dear Warwick
    The West Australian does not have the article on their website, as you point out. A text copy is at: www.linkedin.com/pulse/state-needs-long-term-vision-agriculture-john-barrington

    As you also point out, WA’s agricultural production output has grown historically, aided by earlier world-leading research undertaken by the previous Dept of Agriculture. However, we lack a policy focus that can ensure Western Australia remains at the forefront of research and technological development in this important sector. Take for example the cuts to Department of Agriculture and Food WA funding in recent years. Coincident with this, $8b has been invested in Royalties for Regions with little focus on creating sustainable advantage in one of our largest industries. With the exponential rise in the application of technology to improve yields and the competitive threat of production from other regions, we are at risk of falling behind. Take for example the Black Sea, which is now the largest exporter of wheat globally. This region’s wheat production is forecast to grow 85% in the period 2012/13 – 2025/26 while Australian exports grow circa 20%. Three-year average yields in the Ukraine are almost double those of Western Australia. Our relatively low yields mean that WA’s competitive cost per hectare does not convert into a competitive cost per tonne relative to Black Sea origins.
    With a strategic focus on agriculture, an area of natural strength for Western Australia, these competitive threats could be addressed to the benefit of all Western Australians.

  3. Thanks for dropping into our humble little discussions John – I suppose we have to consider that thousands of hard working and well informed WA farmers have a long-term vision because they risk debts with banks to put crops in – in the face of a variable rainfall and keep on doing that using the best technologies increasing the States wheat crop over the decades. BTW – Your link wants me to login to Linkedin – a thing I have avoided.

  4. Back in the 80’s I was a machinery rep for a Canadian manufacturer, covering the whole state, of Western Australian machinery dealers. There was one large stranglehold on cropping, interest rates. Dealers had to pay 23-24% interest a year, and farmers even more to purchase up to date machinery. Drought was common, and wheatbelt farmers were more diversified, farming sheep and pigs far more intensively than today.
    In the last 20 years, companies like Kalyx have expanded rapidly in plant breeding right across Australia, improving yields substantially after taking over this role from CSIRO. Machinery has become far more Hi-tech than the products I was trying to sell, and much easily funded.
    Things can only go up, as long as the climate remains Meditteranean and stays a bit warmer with higher atmospheric CO2. Even mild droughts are not the crop killers they used to be.

  5. We are the verge of a robotics revolution in farming that will vastly improve productivity as robots attend to the needs of each individual plant.

    As in much high tech, Israel is at the forefront, but Australia will be a major beneficiary.


  6. With respect to John, when technology is rapidly transforming an industry, any long term vision is pretty much guaranteed to be wrong.

  7. Waterguru
    July 10, AT 12.00 NOON.

    Having also read and applauded and agreed John Barrington’s story, I was further encouraged to send this reply, to not only support it, but to provide further proof as to why our agricultural industry and rural sector is in such a mess.

    I was also galvanised into action during my reading of Saturdays West Australian, to see who the real culprits to the
    demise of our once largest agriculture and export industry.

    Front page story “Bureaucracy Gone Mad”, then “Tied up in Red Tape”, “BATTLING FARMERS STRANGLED” and these
    headlines and supporting stories continued on page 6 with Red
    tape “blocking jobs and strangling farmers”, then “Growers give up hope of any harvest” and finally “at page 81 of the business section, Red dirt red tape.

    The common denominator in all these stories, seemed to be lack of interest and enthusiasm, by the many politicians and
    public servants I have met over the past 30 years.

    Initially the politicians, including the relevant Ministers were very interested and supportive of the $3.5 billion worth of
    agricultural projects that recovered over a million hectares
    of once prime agricultural land devastated by salinity, recovering our rivers, stream and lakes and reversing rural
    town shrinkage.

    These projects in recovering the land were also producing 75mw of hydroelectric power pa and 260 GL pa of high quality
    potable and process water as a consequence.

    These projects were the epitome of best environmental practice, providing social and cost benefits together with strong economic growth for all rural towns.

    The Ministers and politicians were initially exited be these projects, but as soon as they referred them to government
    agencies and their bureaucrats their mood quickly changed.

    The clear evidence to me for the bureaucratic resistance
    was this all meant work for them and would also destroy the myth they had created over many decades, that engineering
    solutions did not and would not work.
    As far as they were concerned only science would remedy the problem and now 30 years later and despite expenditure by them in the hundreds of million dollars, they have not corrected one nett hectare of land in our SW wheatbelt.

    Try and find for me in any of our agricultural agencies any engineers of any discipline, be it civil, structural, construction
    or water and dams.

    Their ranks are predominantly of a “Green” persuation who are fiercely resistant to engineering solutions of any kind,
    because they are not “green thinking” people,

    In my view blame for the financial and productive mess and uncertainty caused in the agricultural and commercial sector
    lies firmly at the feet of our bureaucrats and politicians who are
    too afraid to say “don’t do what I do, do what I say in the interests of the State and not your personal views”.

    Put them on binding contracts and pay them on what they
    physically do and not on the basis of them attending work
    and sitting on a chair contemplating the weekend.

  8. A WA reader Waterguru has sent me these examples of the ridiculous demands from bureaucracies red and Green tape causing stupid delays to normal farm operations.
    Absurd Kimberley red tape is strangling station owners 8 Jul 17
    Recounts the trials & tribulations of station owners near Broome dealing with Perth red & green tape.

    another take on above story – Tied up in red tape –

    Anybody familiar with operating a resources company would say – “join the club!!” – at the above stories.

  9. Bureaucrats and their masters are presently an (over) protected species, but given their continuing dismal
    performance, they will soon become extinct and as soon as that happens and the voting public wake up to the fact, we will start
    voting in politicians who know to lead and direct the currently
    undirectable, Australia will flourish.

    No more Labor Party, Greens or Liberals just a new Party with
    a practical agenda.

    Priority Action Alliance has a ring about it, much better than the current say nothing, do nothing breed of pollies we have
    at the moment.

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