The world is hungry for clean, healthy food and Australian produce is in high demand. Dorothy Cook reports.
A smorgasbord of food facts and opinions was on offer at the 5th annual Global Food Forum in Melbourne on 27 March, where food entrepreneurs, chefs, growers, and agribusiness companies gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities of Australia’s booming food industry.
A key theme that emerged over the day was the huge, rising consumer demand for “clean, green” food.
Australia’s farm sector has just made its biggest contribution to GDP growth since 2008, said the forum’s key speaker, Visy executive chairman Anthony Pratt.
With food exports surging from $27 billion five years ago to $44 billion – a whopping 60% jump – Australia is transitioning from “the mining boom to the dining boom,” Mr Pratt said.
“Horticultural exports to China have grown 20 times to $300 million (in five years) and China is now our second-largest market for wine at half a billion dollars.”
A record 421 participants, including the CEOs of Woolworths and Fonterra, Gina Rinehart (via video link), small-to-medium businesses and chefs like Alla Wolf-Tasker and Peter Gilmore, attended the forum featuring panel talks chaired by journalists from The Australian.
Not unexpectedly, global companies, small growers and SMEs did not see eye to eye on all matters.
But one thing was agreed: eaters are the hero ingredient for success in the food industry.
Clean, safe food is the main demand of today’s middle-class consumer – and Australia has it cornered.
“Food safety is our biggest selling point,” Mr Pratt said.
“There are multinationals with empty factories in China, because the Chinese would rather buy from the same companies back in Australia because of Australia’s safety credentials.
“To keep going up, we can’t keep taking this export opportunity for granted.”
Wattle Hill founder Albert Tse said that in China, arable land was scarce and the air so poisoned with pollution that “you can see the air”.
Tse and his partner see organic and fresh food as a major focus of their future business in Asia.
Speaker after speaker talked about the need for provenance, animal welfare, transparency and traceability along the supply chain.
China Free Trade Agreement architect and former Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said Australia’s reputation for clean, green, healthy food was a comparative advantage Australia had to protect, and a golden opportunity to build on.
“Our reputation is absolutely gold standard because of the clean, green healthy (image),” Mr Robb said.
“China’s got 20% of the world’s population and it’s got 70% of the world’s water, and 63% of that water is deeply polluted.”
Mr Robb said Australia had the capacity “in a very sustainable way to double production of virtually everything we do, and in horticulture, many multiples of it.”
He also saw “guaranteed provenance” as a potentially big investment area for Australia.
Fresh, premium quality, niche produce is also top of mind for chefs and restaurateurs.
For executive chef at Sydney’s upmarket Quay restaurant, Peter Gilmore, heirloom varieties such as purple carrots and French pumpkins are culinary gems.
He is always hunting for premium produce from boutique seasonal suppliers, some of whom grow their produce on as little as 40 hectares.
“I don’t think we need to go down a corporate ‘Big Agriculture’ route. I think we can do better,” Mr Gilmore said.
“What I get excited about is the number of heirloom varieties that are out there.
“If I can put produce on a plate that you can’t find anywhere else – if I can give you something that’s only there for four weeks in a year – then that’s fantastic.
“And people will pay a premium for it.”
Mr Gilmore urged growers to “give things a go” because the demand was there.
Alla Wolf-Tasker is executive chef at The Lake House in Daylesford, Victoria, renowned as one of Australia’s best restaurants.
A long-time and active supporter of local suppliers, Ms Wolf-Tasker is also excited about niche produce like chocolate cos lettuce, Mexican cucumbers and garlic roots.
Ms Wolf-Tasker said there were “many passionate people out there growing amazing produce that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.”
As for consumers, “they like to know that we (the chefs) know, where our food comes from.”
Genetically Modified (GM) food is not on her menu.
Australia had a competitive edge for clean, green GM-free food, Ms Tasker-Wolf said.
“Countries all over the world will pay a premium for non-GM food. It would be a mistake to go down that path.”
She said consumers had the power to create change in food production.
“If local consumers can support local farmers, that will go a long way,” she said.
“Go to farmers’ markets and talk to farmers.
“Don’t buy out of season – think seasonally.
“Don’t buy imported produce.
“Create a demand, and farmers will supply it.”
The rapidly growing Mexican restaurant chain Guzman Y Gomez, which has 80 restaurants in Australia and 38 more opening globally in the next 18 months, is now Australia’s third-biggest buyer of avocadoes.
Its CEO, Steven Marks, buys only high quality avocadoes from Katrina Myers’ Barham Avocadoes for guacamole because her product is the best. He also uses free-range chicken and grass-fed beef.
“People want to know more about their food and about how it was farmed,” he said.
Describing himself as a food activist, Mr Marks’ goal is nothing less than to reinvent fast food with healthy, Mexican food.
John O’Loghlen from the Alibaba Group, an e-commerce developer, helps SMEs from Australia and New Zealand into the Chinese market with online export platforms and strategies.
It’s an exciting new growth area for small-to-medium food businesses to dip their toe in to the international market.
Mr O’Loghlen said exporting to China had risks and challenges such as regulatory barriers, but businesses with good premium brands could “put some small products out there and see what happens”.
“Make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew, and remember it’s a long-term journey.
“We have such a great product here and such a great story. The consumer has really put it on the map for us.”
Mr Robb said e-commerce was an enormous development and had vast room for growth.
“It’s giving SMEs an opportunity to export for the first time without too much risk,” he said.
“It’s introducing many of our very good small and medium businesses to international markets, so it’s got all of these things going for it.
“But it’s just touching the sides.”
The 5th annual Global Food Forum – Australia’s Place at the Table was presented at Crown in Melbourne by The Australian newspaper in partnership with Visy.