AgriFutures Australia has a mandate to invest in cross-sectoral research, development and extension (RD&E)—ie. issues that affect multiple primary industries and/or communities. The Rural Futures program funded under AgriFutures’ Arena 2: National Challenges and Opportunities, was established to specifically deliver on that cross-sectoral mandate. Investments in the Rural Futures program are designed to create impactful change for producers and industries by recognising critical barriers and developing opportunities for growth.
Given the number of issues currently facing the agricultural sector, AgriFutures Australia undertook research to scope, filter and prioritise specific areas of investment. Some of the factors considered were:-
(i) creating the greatest impact for primary producers and industries,
(ii) potential for collaboration, and
(iii) was the issue positioned in a unique space where few others, if any, were active.
One area identified for potential investment was understanding and responding to sector vulnerabilities, particularly for cross-sectoral challenges.
Australia’s agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector faces many risks, such as climate and market volatility, pests and diseases, extreme weather events, cyber security and malicious intent, as well as an ever-increasing number of protracted crises and conflicts. Natural disasters being just one type of system shock that has resulted in lost agricultural production valued at billions of dollars. The human food chain is under continuous threat from an increase in the number of outbreaks of transboundary animal and plant pests and zoonotic diseases. Conflict and crises are forcing more and more people into conditions of poverty, food insecurity and displacement. This has become the “new normal,” and the impact of climate change is likely to further exacerbate these threats and challenges.
Covid-19 has focused our attention on a serious underlying fragility that goes well beyond health. This fragility stems from the fact that our health, energy, finance, and food systems are all connected. There are clear lessons to be learned for Australia’s agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector about how supply chains that cross multiple borders are vulnerable to a host of intersecting economic, social and environmental risks associated with Australia’s participation in global systems, markets and supply chains.
While Covid-19 has proven to be one of the biggest and broadest value chain shocks in recent memory, it is only the latest in a series of disruptions. In 2011, a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan shut down factories that produce electronic components for cars, halting assembly lines worldwide. Just a few months later, flooding swamped factories in Thailand that produced roughly a quarter of the world’s hard drives, leaving the makers of personal computers scrambling. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, hit Texas and Louisiana. It disrupted some of the largest US oil refineries and petrochemical plants, creating shortages of key plastics and resins for a range of industries. Forty weather disasters in 2019 caused damages exceeding $1 billion each—and in recent years, the economic toll caused by the most extreme events has been escalating. The world is experiencing more trade disputes, higher tariffs, and broader geopolitical uncertainty.
These examples highlight the potential for significant flow-on effects for Australia’s rural sector from global events. Looking beyond the present, and not minimising its importance, the Covid-19 crisis will likely be a trigger for fundamental transformation of agriculture and the global food system and its supply-chains.
These circumstances present an opportunity to accelerate transformation in the rural sector to build its resilience in the face of a range of challenges. The ability for producers, industry, agribusiness, markets and governments to operate and cooperate in fragile and disaster-prone situations will become a defining feature for achieving resilience and sustainability.