Production research funding and Australia

In 2 weeks I will be depart for a 30 day working vacation in Australia and New Zealand. I say working vacation in that I will be giving producer talks and visiting farms in both countries. At the same time, my wife will be joining me for the last 2+ weeks and we will be spending a few extra days on the south island of New Zealand.

In preparing for the visit, I have been boning up on their production issues. In both Australia and New Zealand, there is a very large on-going debate regarding the use of gestation crates. In Australia one of the largest supermarket chain has said it does not support use of gestation crates and will begin sourcing pork from producers who convert to pen gestation. As you can imagine, this move by a major retailer to dictate a production practice is causing much angst in their industry.

After several years of a major drought which drove feed ingredient prices very high, the Australian pig inventory was severely reduced. While slowly rebounding, USDA-FOA forecasts the 2010 year end inventory to be 2.45 million pigs. This is slightly smaller than the current Nebraska inventory of 3.15 million pigs and similar to the 2.36 million pigs in Oklahoma. The difference between these states and Australia is both states are net exporters of feeder pigs, so the total numbers of pigs farrowed in Oklahoma is more than in Australia.

Australia currently is a net importer of pork, with most of the imported product coming from the US and Canada. Again, a lot of controversy on the use of imported pork for further processing in-country. There have been claims of processors failing to label products as derived from US origin pork, etc. The important question – does this make a difference to the consumer decision process? I don’t know the answer to this, but will be looking at it while in Australia.

Another source of debate, similar to that in the US, is what to do about funding for production research. How much of a production research base should the public support versus private research farms? What is the role of production research – to increase profits for producers, to decrease the environmental foot print of production, to ‘prove’ current production practices are best available technology in response to consumer concerns, etc.

As the world moves to a more urban basis for its entire decision process, in both Australia and the US we are seeing a decreased emphasis on production of food and fiber research by the public sector. Around the world, many decision makers assume they will always be able to purchase the food and fiber from a world source. In many countries, their concern for the local environment and or welfare is driving production of the food and fiber to off-shore countries which may or may not share these concerns. By necessity, large companies are involved in the off-shore production as they are the only ones able to coordinate all of the resources to effectively get their product into US or Australian markets. Many times, they don’t rely on public research as they are making a major in-house investment that meets their needs.

All of this leads me to believe that the decline in public funding of food and fiber research worldwide will hasten the consolidation of production agriculture.

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