Farming wish list: free trade, foreign funds, research

FARM industry leaders have called for the establishment of free-trade agreements with crucial growing markets, a boost for ''stagnant'' agricultural research and development spending and for continued foreign investment in the sector.

These are some of the key points in a major discussion paper on Australian farming to be released on Thursday in Canberra, known as the ''Blueprint for Australian Agriculture 2013- 2020''.

The document, whose creation has been driven by the National Farmers' Federation, says that while Australia is ''well placed to service'' the growing markets in Asia, free-trade agreements do not exist with key markets such as China and India. Matt Linnegar, CEO of the Farmers' Federation, said that the free-trade deal between South Korea and the US would significantly disadvantage local beef producers. Australia does not have a free trade agreement with South Korea.

''For every year that we don't sign a deal with Korea, and we know the US already has one, they're going to be at a disadvantage to the tune of 3 to 4 per cent each year, to the US,'' he said. The disadvantage will keep growing over 15 years as South Korea gradually cuts tariffs on US produce to zero.

But Mr Linnegar also stressed that Australian agricultural commodities should not be made to suffer under free-trade agreements.

''In terms of free-trade agreements it is about getting them done, but it's also about ensuring from our perspective, that agriculture is front and centre. And that we don't get into the business of trading off one sector against another, in order just to get a result,'' he said.

The blueprint says a range of workforce issues are hampering the sector. ''Poor perceptions'' of agriculture are hurting course enrolments, it says, and education levels in the sector are low compared to others,'' it said.

The report calls for an expanded overseas worker program, more flexible labour laws and for agriculture to become ''embedded in the national school curriculum''.

Mr Linnegar called for a lift in agriculture's share of total federal government research and development spending. ''About 2½ per cent is spent on the ag sector,'' he said. ''If it can't move from 2½ per cent to say 3½ per cent over the next 3 years or so, then I think we're going to face substantially more challenges than we're facing now,'' he said.

The Blueprint also calls for:

■The development of new farm ownership structure options.

■The improvement of agricultural sector practices.

■The creation of a joint industry/government food and fibre ''think tank''.

■The upgrade of critical infrastructure used by the agricultural industry.

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