Young think tank emerges

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

West Australian agriculture is now a sexy place to hang out.

As the sound of crashing iron ore prices echoes in the background, people have turned to agriculture as the next boom industry.

The State's political and industry leaders are fuelling the expectation that a WA agricultural giant is about to be woken with the abundance of arable farming land, clean environment and proximity to the growing Asian markets.

But, according to some, dark shadows trail the optimism and have the ability to stymie the agricultural march into the future.

"Agricultural supply chains in this State, as in other places, are unavoidably prone to moral and ethical dilemmas," chairman of Murdoch University's biosecurity and food security academy Shashi Sharma said.

Professor Sharma has written a book on global food security. He says contentious, unresolved issues such as genetically modified crops, live animal export and our State's limited water resources have the potential to hold up the march.

"There is a significant opportunity for WA, as there is for the whole country, to contribute to meeting the projected increase in global demand for food," he said.

"Food insecurity is historically linked to poverty; however, this nexus is gradually changing with a growing middle class.

"Bill Gates made a statement that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer.

"By 2030, Asia will represent approximately two-thirds of the global middle-class population.

"If, for example, in three countries - China, India and Indonesia - 10 to 15 per cent of the population moves from the 'food need' to 'food want' category, the food supply chain will be in strife.

"The new dynamics of food affordability, acceptability and food non-availability created by this growth will have a profound impact on the food system. Perhaps the answer is that Western Australia needs a green revolution.

"The question is, how are we going to sustainably produce safe food, taking in all of the considerations from every point of view, to feed these markets demanding food safety and food product integrity in the future?"

Young agricultural group AgConnectWA is on a mission to bridge the ideological divide and start an inclusive conversation to try to answer the questions raised by not only Professor Sharma, but also by other industry analysts considering the long term.

The group says it will contribute to the discussion by bringing together people from all locations and walks of life to get involved in the future of WA agriculture.

AgConnectWA hosts debates, industry lectures and social events in a fun and open environment.

It was formed in 2012 by farm lobby group WAFarmers, out of an identified need to provide a platform for young farmers to network with other young farmers and also other young people working within the industry.

The group is gaining traction with its young demographic and now boasts hundreds of members after starting with a handful and a dream. When I met seven of the eight members of the AgConnectWA committee at Muresk Institute, it is easy to understand why membership is growing - their passion and enthusiasm is obvious.

The committee arranged to meet at the State's tertiary agricultural school just out of Northam, because Nick Hardie, who is also the youngest committee member, is a resident student.

Gathered together were a farmer, a lawyer, a student, a consultant, a politician, an executive and an events manager. The conversation was about the future of farming and the role AgConnectWA plays in it.

"We're about getting young people involved in the agricultural conversation," group membership officer and Muresk agribusiness student Nick, 18, says. "That's just what we do and we aren't political in the way we do it.

"I've come from a grain and sheep background and I love talking to people. The AgConnectWA experience has taught me that there are a whole lot of aspects to life other than what I knew from the way I had grown up and I totally get why young people want to join and be part of this organisation."

Group events manager Megan MacNeill, who is also head of events at WAFarmers, moved to WA more than three years ago from Scotland, where she ran her own events company. She says AgConnectWA helps feed her overwhelming desire to spend her life organising other people.

"When I moved here from Scotland and became involved in agriculture, I was very surprised by how much everybody liked to talk about how much rain they'd had," she said. "How much it rains in Scotland is just not something that people talk about because there is an abundance of water falling from the sky there ... here, on the other hand, farmers seem to be farming a desert.

"Seriously, we have three sunny days in Scotland and everybody is beside themselves."

But group secretary Wes Lefroy begs to differ. "Come on, it's not that bad," he said. Wes ought to know; he's a soils expert who travels the State consulting farmers and giving advice on how to get the most out of cropping in variable conditions.

Group media liaison officer Maddison McNeil takes a side.

"I agree with Megan," she said. "In some parts of the State it barely rains at all ... ever."

Ms McNeil also ought to know because in her role as a grains executive at WAFarmers, she speaks to farmers across the State on cropping issues.

Katanning sheep farmer Kallum Blake is the group's president. I asked him about his views on live export.

"Animal welfare is a pretty hot topic that gets discussed from all points of view at our events, that's for sure," he said.

"But it is just one of the issues in the wider conversation about how to make the livestock industry meet growing global demands."

The group's aspiring politician and recently appointed Young Nationals president Lachie Hunter grew up on a cropping and livestock farm and takes a keen interest in the GM debate.

"The GM debate is similar to the live animal export debate," he said.

"GM allows more grain to be yielded to feed the world and the pros and cons of the debate need to be included in the wider considerations of the issue."

Lawyer Katie Pole, the group vice-president, grew up on a Kimberley cattle station. Now a partner with a Perth law firm, she brings non-rural based diversity to the group.

"Look, as a group of friends we (AgConnectWA) talk about those things among ourselves, but that's not what we do as the organisation," she said.

"In the case of the live export industry, for example, the discussion the organisation will facilitate is to create a safe environment where people from all parts of the industry or animal welfare debate can discuss what the industry is doing well and what needs to change."

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