Australia is not the food bowl of Asia, nor should it claim to be.
That was the message from Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce at a farmers conference at Sydney’s Grace Hotel on Friday.
He said Australian farmers needed to focus on being recognised for the quality of their produce, not the quantity.
Produce from Australia feeds about 60 million people in Asia.
While that is more than double Australia’s population, it’s a few blades of grass in a paddock compared with the output of nations such as China and Indonesia.
“Even if we double it to 120 million, we couldn’t feed Indonesia,” Mr Joyce said.
“Food basket of Asia? That’s an absurd statement.”
Aside from the figures being far from food bowl levels, Mr Joyce believes promoting Australia in this way could be politically detrimental.
“As soon as the farmer in Indonesia finds out that (Australia is) apparently going to be the food basket of Asia, he starts asking himself what job he’s got,” he said.
“And the political pressure will start mounting.
“We’ve got to make sure that people understand we produce a premium product, in a premium market, and we are not a threat to other farmers in other areas.”
But Mr Joyce was not playing down the economic and trade opportunities in agriculture; far from it.
He noted the burgeoning middle class of Southeast Asia and rising demand for quality produce from the Middle East as strong causes for optimism.
He said the “clean, green” image of Australia’s produce was crucial to maintaining premium prices for exports such as beef, lamb and dairy.
“Mothers care about what they put in their babies’ mouths. It’s the premium image that counts,” Mr Joyce said.
He said 12 per cent of agricultural land was foreign-owned, which he called “substantial”.
And the family farm remained the backbone of Australian agriculture.
“The family farm is still the most fundamental unit to economics in rural Australia,” he said.
“This is a strong belief I still hold.”