Technology | Innovation

WA: Opportunity to pioneer new food and energy production systems

Western Australia has the potential to become the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century, replacing Australia's oil imports of $40 billion per annum with algae oil produced in an area the size of a sheep station, a CEDA forum has heard in Perth.

Western Australia has the potential to become the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century, replacing Australia's oil imports of $40 billion per annum with algae oil produced in an area the size of a sheep station, a CEDA forum has heard in Perth.

Author of The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb, told the CEDA audience that Australia - and WA in particular - was ideally positioned to take advantage of the impending change in food and energy production caused by global warming and population growth.

While "time bombs" were ticking in water, land, energy, technology, skills and climate stability, Western Australia had a "colossal" opportunity to pioneer new systems of food and energy production. This included algal oil, dry farming and aquaculture, the forum heard.

"We need to re-invent how we produce food in the climate change era. We need a new agriculture based on ecosystem thinking (that) produces more food using less water, soil and chemicals and resilience to climate shock. We need massive reinvestment in knowledge to create that agriculture. Our agricultural science effort must be placed on a war footing," Mr Cribb said.

"We enjoy more sunlight per square metre than practically any country on earth and this makes us the Saudi of the 21st century - the fresh oil province.

"Besides oil, algae can be used to make plastics, fertiliser, stock feed and human food, potentially replacing another $15 billion in imports, creating another 50,000 new jobs and establishing major export industries."

This could potentially provide a springboard for a new $5 billion industry in aquaculture by 2040, as the algae from oil production could be recycled to feed farmed fish, Mr Cribb said

"Currently Australia is importing 80 per cent of its fish and we are paying $1.5 billion to do so. Aquaculture is the world's fastest growing food industry," he said.

"In Australia, aquaculture could easily be a $5 billion industry by 2040 - exceeding all our other livestock industries combined. This is because fish turn plant matter into meat more efficiently than land animals."

The forum heard that while a potential "dining boom" could replace the mining boom in WA, much needed to be done to capitalise on the opportunities.

Speakers, including State Minister for Agriculture and Food, Ken Baston, Murdoch University Biosecurity and Food Security Chair, Professor Shashi Sharma, and Influential Women managing director, Catherine Marriott told the forum that agriculture must become "eco-agriculture", focused on sustainability.

The forum heard:

  • Climate change was causing crises throughout the world's food bowls and this would only get worse, leading to more conflicts, if governments and farmers did not invest in new agricultural techniques.
  • Cities must produce more of their own food in giant vertical food farms, already being piloted in Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Singapore and Canada. These use hydroponics, aquaponics and intensive approaches to revolutionise farming.
  • Humans must change their diet to eat a greater variety of products. The earth has more than 25,000 edible plants, of which we eat only a couple of hundred.
  • Synthetic meat, grown from animal stem cells in vitro, had already been developed in Europe to meet the growing demand for protein, but on the other hand, producers of fine fillet steak must be paid more to produce their premium product sustainably.
  • Countries could not afford to waste so much food and water, and need to divert it back into the value chain.

Minister Baston said billions of dollars of investment would be needed to expand export growth and capture the potential "dining boom", and much of this investment would have to come from overseas.

"Foreign investment is very important for the future of our agricultural-food sector and the State Government welcomes and encourages investment along the supply chain," he said.

Minister Baston said an overarching agriculture and food council was being established to draw industries closer together and work towards the target of doubling the real value of sales from WA agricultural business in the next 12 years.

Professor Sharma said that Australia could not afford to take a short term approach to producing food at the expense of its land and should adopt the three p's for food security and value chain: produce food sustainably; protect food from loss in the value chain; provide biosecure and safe food.

"We have to live on the dividends (of agriculture), not on the productive capacity," Professor Sharma said.

"Australia should invest in developing the diversity of its soil to ensure better productivity and reduce the risk of soil pollution.

"Whether we want a long term dining boom in WA or we want sustainable agricultural production throughout Australia, or we want food security in the world, this transformation to eco-agriculture is a prerequisite. If we do not, we will continue to have ecological damage caused by agriculture."

Ms Marriott said that the sector must also foster the interest of young people in agriculture - even if they were from the city and it must invest in education and training.

"We can diversify further on farms. We can form cooperatives, become more efficient in using the technologies that we have available. We can vertically integrate and deal directly with our customers, and we have a population interested in where their food comes from if only we can harness that," she said.