Growcom has congratulated the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Joe Ludwig, on the release of the latest Australian Food Statistics report late last week.

The report shows the value of Australian food exports increased to $30.5 billion in 2011/12 which is $3.3 billion or 12.3 per cent higher than in 2010/11.

However, Chief Executive Officer Alex Livingstone said that while the report shows some sectors such as unprocessed grains and unprocessed oilseeds are doing particularly well on the back of a record Australian harvest in 2011/12 and meat exports are also up $218 million, the government needed to acknowledge the vulnerability of other agricultural sectors such as horticulture.

“Food imports increased to $11.3 billion in 2011/12 or 8.6 per cent higher than 2010/11,” said Mr Livingstone.

“One of the main contributors to the increased Australian food imports was processed fruit and vegetables (up $264 million). Australia’s trade deficit in fruit, nuts and vegetables increased by 27 per cent to $869 million. In fact, Australia has been a net importer of fruit, vegetables and nuts since 2003-04.

“Horticulture’s value of production is up 2.6 per cent on 2010/11, but this is less than the overall increase for agriculture as a whole which is 3.4 per cent.

“The fact that imports of processed fruit and vegetables are increasing at the expense of not only fresh grown produce and but also Australian processed fruit and vegetables should be of concern to government. These industries are major employers in regional areas and their decline will impact on the economic health of these communities.

“The value of fruit and vegetable food processing recorded in this report remains static and employment is down. With the closure of more fruit and vegetable processing facilities this year, the figures in next year’s report could be far worse.

“Imported processed fruit and vegetables are, of course, an obvious boon to the supermarkets and their private labels. This is reflected in the returns of 7.4 per cent for Woolworths and 3.6 per cent for Coles and Metcash which are higher than the calculated average returns of global major supermarket chains of around 3.1 per cent.”

Mr Livingstone said that a national food plan had been launched with some fanfare by the federal government in 2011 but there remained a bias in the debate towards abundant exports of meat and grain.

“There has been no concrete evidence of plans to boost productivity and profitability in sectors such as horticulture which is struggling to compete in the face of a strong Australian dollar. This is despite recent talk by the government of Australia’s agriculture sector becoming a food bowl for Asia.

“Australian horticulture could have an important role to play in the export market with the right investment and policy settings.”

Australian Food Statistics 2011/12 can be read on the DAFF website.

For further comment: Alex Livingstone, CEO on 0418 786 413.

Issued by Chris Walker, Communications Manager on 07 3620 3864 or 0408 014 843.