Fact check: Will Australia ever be the 'food bowl of Asia'?

With huge tracts of land, sunshine and plentiful water across the northern states and territories, there are high hopes for Australia's post-mining future pinned on its ability to produce enough agricultural product to feed Asia's rapidly growing population.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce wants to temper those expectations.

"We only produce about 1 per cent of the agricultural product of the world and to start saying that this country... is going to be a predominant player on the global stage is not correct," Mr Joyce told ABC News Breakfast on August 19.

"When we start talking about 'we're going to be the food bowl of Asia' - at the very best we feed about 60 million people now. If we doubled it - well, 120, 150 million people. We couldn't even feed half of Indonesia. So if we can't feed half our neighbour, stop talking about 'we're going to feed the whole of Asia'."

Mr Joyce says instead of focusing on feeding everyone, Australia should make a name for itself as an exporter of premium produce, targeting the growing global middle class.

ABC Fact Check looks at how much food we produce and how much more we can realistically grow.

Australia as the 'food bowl of Asia'

With the world population expected to hit 8.3 billion in 2030 and 9.1 billion in 2050, food demand is expected to rise by 50 per cent in the next 15 years, and 70 per cent by mid century.

Buoyed by expectations that the Asian middle class could reach 3 billion people by 2030 - two thirds of them in the Asia-Pacific region - agricultural exports were part of a "5-Pillar Economy" plan published by the Coalition before the 2013 federal election.

"We will build on our comparative strength in food production and better manage our precious water resources to help our agriculture sector become the 'food bowl of Asia' and achieve 'food security' in a world demanding more of our food resources," the policy document says.

The notion was also central to a separate election commitment to develop northern Australia. The northern Australia policy document pledged to drive growth, including by "developing a food bowl, including premium produce, which could help to double Australia's agricultural output" by 2030.

The Coalition is currently overseeing two white papers relevant to the industry - one for agricultural competitiveness and another for developing northern Australia. The preliminary (green) paper for the agricultural competitiveness review was due "mid-year" but has not yet been released. An interim report for the developing northern Australia review was released in June 2014.

Despite the Coalition's policy proposals Mr Joyce, the deputy leader of the Nationals, has repeatedly spoken out against unfounded optimism about Australia becoming the food bowl of Asia. On August 3, he told Sky News Australia Agenda: "We're not going to be the food basket of Asia. We've got to dispense with that rhetoric. It's ridiculous. It is read as a threat overseas."

When pushed on the difference between his stance and the rhetoric of his Government Mr Joyce said: "Whoever [this rhetoric] has come from, I'm trying to return it back to logic.

"We're going to be selling a premium product to a premium market that is not going to be a threat to the Chinese farmers and to the Philippine farmers and to the Vietnamese farmers and to other farmers," he said.

How much food does Australia grow and export?

In May 1788, three months after the British established their first settlement in Australia, there were seven horses, seven cattle, 29 sheep, 74 pigs, five rabbits, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks and 209 chooks in the colony.

Now, each Australian farmer produces enough food to feed 600 people, "150 at home and 450 overseas", according to the National Farmers Federation. There are about 134,000 farm businesses in Australia - 99 per cent of which are family owned, and which produce about 93 per cent of the domestic food supply.

If domestically consumed farm and fisheries food - that is, crops, meat, poultry and fish - is included along with exports, then Australia's total food production is worth about $43 billion a year in current dollar figures, Agricultural commodity statistics published by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences show.

In 2009, locally produced food helped feed 40 million people outside Australia every day, according to a report on food security by the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, citing data from the Department of Agriculture. This number continues to be relied on by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Fact Check asked Mr Joyce's department to explain how it calculated the number of people Australia feeds - domestically and internationally - as 60 million. A spokesman said the methodology used to establish the figure wasn't described in the department's publications, but it was a widely used figure.

"The department did not derive this particular figure, but recognises that estimating world food consumption is a complex issue that must account for many variables, ranging from seasonal production volumes to specific nutritional demand in any given geographic region. All figures in this area should be viewed as an approximation."

Australia's Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb said in a speech in 2013 that Australia currently produced enough food to "directly contribute to the sustenance of 60 million people - that is 1 per cent of the world population and 2 per cent of the population of Asia".

These sources support Mr Joyce's statement that Australia produces enough food for about 60 million people, although it is worth noting the estimate is five years old.

The World Bank estimated Indonesia's population in December 2013 was 250 million people, making it the fourth most populous country in the world behind China (1.36 billion) India (1.24 billion) and the United States (316 million).

Could Australia become a 'predominant player'?

To double Australia's production capacity would require more land, water, fertilisers and chemicals, new innovation and research into maximising pastures and crop and livestock growth as well as changes to infrastructure systems to make exporting cheaper and faster. It would also require changes to tax and trade systems, including more favourable free trade agreements with Asian countries that would foster more lucrative export markets for Australian producers.

The debate about Australia's agricultural capacity has given rise to a diverse range of opinions, with industry waiting for the green paper on agricultural competitiveness to be released, which is expected to detail perceived challenges and opportunities based on a number of submissions received by the review body.

In 2012, Labor released a National Food Plan. It suggested that growth in agricultural production could be increased by 30 per cent by 2025. It stated that while Australia would benefit from the projected rise in the value of agricultural exports, it was "expected to only contribute about 3 per cent of the value of global food exports to 2050".

"In past decades Australia has seen strong growth in agricultural productivity relative to other sectors of the economy, averaging about 2 per cent between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s. However, since then agricultural productivity in Australia appears to have grown little, in part because of drought," the report said.

It also suggested that developing northern Australia's potential as a food production region would face challenges and need to be "culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable".

However, organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) rejected Labor's National Food Plan for dismissing the "major potential for expanding Northern Australia's agricultural output".

The IPA said in July 2012 that dams could and should be built to take advantage of high rainfall in some areas of northern Australia, and said that establishing a special economic zone with lower taxes and lower regulatory burdens would ensure Australia could effectively take advantage of export opportunities to Asia.

A paper drafted by ABARES and presented at its 2012 annual conference suggests the value of Australian food exports, in US dollar terms adjusted for inflation, will increase by 140 per cent from 2007 figures, by 2050. That compares with the size of Australian agricultural food production (rather than exports), which is estimated to increase by 77 per cent over the same period - with beef, wheat, milk and sheep meat being the biggest growth sectors.

A National Farmers Federation Blueprint for Australian Agriculture to 2030, released in February 2013, said that surging commodity prices over the past decade may have "masked a period of mostly flat production and export volumes". It says beef and wheat industries stopped growing, and other industries such as barley, cotton and canola stalled, or declined.

"It would seem that as the world raced to capture global soft commodity opportunities, Australian agriculture came to a standstill, with no major engines of growth currently in motion," it said.

The blueprint quotes figures from ANZ's Greener Pastures report released in 2012. It found that around $600 billion in additional capital would be needed to generate growth and profitability in Australian agriculture between now and 2050.

"A further $400 billion will be needed to support farm turnover, as ageing farmers make way for the next generation. In a world where capital with a long-term focus is in huge demand, agriculture needs to find innovative ways of attracting domestic and foreign investment."

As with the ABARES paper, the ANZ report suggested it could be possible to "more than double the real value of annual agriculture exports by 2050".

At present about 53 per cent of Australia is already under active farming either for crops or livestock, according to the ABS, which puts the figure at about 410 million hectares of farming land (Australia totals 769 million hectares). That's down from 490 million hectares used for farming in 1976.

On that basis it is unlikely Australia could double its food production levels to feed 120 million or 150 million people in the next 15 years by opening up new farming land alone.

CSIRO findings

Brian Keating, deputy director of CSIRO's Agriculture Flagship, told Fact Check that while the concept of a "food bowl of Asia" is not precisely defined, "it is reasonably clear that Australia would not qualify as a major supplier of Asia's food needs in volume terms".

However, he says, that doesn't mean Australia's food exports cannot grow in volume or value terms in the years ahead, in response to expected strong demand.

While a target to double the value of agricultural exports between now and 2050 is "not an unrealistic stretch goal", Mr Keating said it would require continuing innovation in agricultural science and business, and is likely to involve a mix of value growth as well as production growth, supplemented by sustainable development of well suited new regions.

However, doubling the volume of production is expected to be more difficult.

"Australia's competitive ability to respond to this growing demand in Asia remains an open question. It would require a significant step up in production and/or a significant shift in the nature of our production towards higher value products," Mr Keating said.

"It may involve new production areas (such as northern Australia) but these are only likely to make a modest contribution to overall agricultural output."

Any major production or value increase will hinge on efforts to lift productivity in existing agricultural areas.

"As a historical point of reference, aggregate output from Australian agriculture doubled between 1965 and 2000, ABARES data says. This required massive technical innovation and structural change," Mr Keating said

"It also required a three-fold increase in irrigation within the Murray Darling Basin and a five fold increase in nitrogen fertilizer inputs."

ABC News Breakfast, Barnaby Joyce interview, August 18, 2014 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Water for Life, August 28, 2014 Media release, Building a 5-Pillar Economy and Unleashing Australia's Potential, November 21, 2013 Media release, EY: By 2030 two-thirds of global middle class will be in Asia-Pacific, April 25, 2013 Agricultural Competitiveness Issues Paper, February 6, 2014 White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, 2014 The Coalition's 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia, June 2013 Sky News Sunday Agenda, Barnaby Joyce interview, August 3, 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, 2001 National Farmers Federation, Farm Facts 2012 PMSEIC Expert Working Group, Australia and Food Security in a Changing World October 2010 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, December 2012 Ian Chubb, Milthorpe Lecture Macquarie University, Sydney, May 23, 2013 ABARES Agricultural Commodity Statistics, December 2013 World Bank IBRD IDA Data Department of Agriculture, National Food Plan: Our Food Future, 2012 Media release, Institute of Public Affairs, July 18, 2012 ABARES, Food demand to 2050, March 2012 National Farmers Federation, Blueprint for Australian Agriculture, October 2011 ANZ Focus, Greener Pastures, December 2012 CSIRO Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review Report October 2009 ABS Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2010-11, June 29, 2012 Geoscience Australia, Australia's Size Compared Department of Agriculture, Australian Food Statistics 2011-12, 2013