More ag science grads needed

Australia needs more agricultural science and food technology graduates, according to Anthony Pratt, the executive chairman of paper packaging giant Visy Industries.

Mr Pratt told a Melbourne Global Food Forum in April it was no coincidence that more than 30 per cent of German university graduates were engineers, which helped make it the world’s greatest engineering nation.

In Australia, however, less than two per cent of graduates come from agricultural science. “So how can we expect to be as good at food as Germany is at engineering?” he said.

In the face of other declining manufacturing in traditional areas, like automotive and steel, food and beverage processing was a shining opportunity. “It makes sense because it plays to two great strengths.”

The first was Australia’s freight cost advantage to major trading partners like China compared to South American and European competitors.

The second was this country’s food brand based on safety, which may be its biggest contribution to global food security.

Mr Pratt said two more things that were needed was for universities to make more places available for agricultural science and food courses and to attract more capital from overseas and local superannuation funds to expand the agrifood industry.

“We have to modernise our food processing sector. We’ve made a great start but there’s a lot to do to get more Australian onshore investment in manufacturing.”

Following a doubling of food exports in the last three years, Mr Pratt said Australia should be aiming to increase that from the present $39 billion to $100 billion within seven years.

“But in getting to $100 billion of food exports, we can’t rest on our laurels. There are three big issues. First, selling more added value processed products because that’s where the jobs and value creation are on the supply side. Secondly, there’s water and infrastructure. And third, is productivity.”

With food processing, he said, the reason Australia was so focused on it was because it added more value than fresh food.

This sector accounted for 7800 businesses, employing 241,000 people, more than four times the fresh food sector.

Processing and further manufacturing of food increased its value because it made it safer to consume in an extended supply chain when the time between harvest and final consumption was often outside the fresh grower’s control.

“And consumers are searching out food that’s convenient, table-ready and are willing to pay more for it.”

Mr Pratt said good water management was also critical in drought-vulnerable countries like Australia.

“This month (April) Visy had a team in Israel scouting out better ways to recycle water for our own mills, but also for our customers,” he said.

Heavy investment was also needed in labour productivity where Australia was slipping behind its competitors. “Today we’ve fallen about 20 per cent behind.”

Rather than cutting wages a more dignified solution to boosting productivity lay in solutions such as robotics, Mr Pratt said.

US companies like Blue River have smart tracking devices that measure the health of individual plants and apply just enough fertiliser to optimise their growth.

“Google has bought nine robotics companies in the last year or so committing a $US1 billion to the agricultural sector.

“Japan has a company called SPREAD which is using robots to grow tens of thousands of lettuces.”

Mr Pratt said some of this new food technology was being developed in Australia. GP Graders for example had a cherry grader used by most cherry packers.

The cameras graded cherries on size and colour reducing human sorting in half and doubling accuracy.

Fruit and vegetable grower, packer and marketer Costas had also teamed up with US fresh berry producer Driscoll’s to bring berry growing technology to Australia.

Driscoll’s had developed taller plants for ease of picking the fruit and deployed 16 armed robotic harvesters to boost productivity.

Meat processor JBS Australia had built intelligent automation into its beef and lamb processing. New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra had invested $31 million in an automated milk factory in Victoria producing 100,000 bottles of fresh milk for Woolworths a day with robots packing pallets of milk and driving forklifts.

Nestle had eliminated five million manual handling steps a year with robotics. And PepsiCo had installed artificial intelligence in its South Australian plant taking packaged food products from automatic case erectors to labelling and shipping, Mr Pratt said.

– JOHN CARSON

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Visy Industries executive chairman Anthony Pratt

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