AUSTRALIANS need to rekindle their love affair with farming and the country life if the industry is to continue to thrive, the head of one of the nation's biggest agribusinesses says.
The Elders chief executive, Malcolm Jackman, responding to the government's National Food Plan green paper, has warned that unless Australia can get people interested in working in rural industries, television cooking shows will be using overseas ingredients.
"We have got to start turning agriculture into something that attracts people to want to work. It's interesting that we have so many cooking shows on television, all espousing what we do with the wonderful produce that we produce from Australian farms, but the only prime time television show we have about farming is The Farmer Wants a Wife," Mr Jackman told the Herald.
"That says a lot about where Australia is at. If we are not careful My Kitchen Rules and MasterChef, or any of the others, will all be dealing with produce from other parts of the world unless we get people back into farming."
The National Food Plan green paper touches on myriad issues, including the continued need for foreign investment, doubling food production, an increase in research and development funding and the huge economic windfall Australians can make from a booming Asian middle class.
The paper warns that the ageing Australian workforce may affect the agriculture sector more significantly than others.
Mr Jackman, who is a member of the government's food policy working group, says there needs to be a cultural shift and positive farming role models.
"A growing interest within the general community about food and food production represents an opportunity the food industry could use to its advantage," the green paper report says.
Mr Jackman said that from a commercial perspective the future needs to be focused on Asia's burgeoning middle class.
"We are not going to make money out of agriculture by doing more of what we are doing now, which is exporting what is called 'minimally processed' food, such as live exports, raw product, grain, etc, in to these markets. We need to do more value-add for the middle class," he said.
On the vexed issue of foreign ownership Mr Jackman says it is an old issue, pointing to Federation when farmers complained about English farm owners.
"We have had foreign investment in agriculture since day dot," he said.
"We don't have enough capital in Australia to be able to say we don't want agricultural investment from offshore ... Nobody is going to shift the land anywhere.
"The taxes will still be paid here and the government still controls the borders in terms of where we export."