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Technology: Giving Aussie exporters a competitive edge

Australia likes to think of itself as the food bowl of Asia—or even the world—but there’s so much more to our food industry than container loads of wheat. Technology is giving Australian businesses the edge when it comes to exporting.

We’re often told that we’re a clever nation, yet when we look at the biggest numbers on our international sales ledger, the bulk of what we export might imply that we’re nothing but a quarry and a farm to the rest of the world. Never fear; like the mining industry, the food industry has a counterpart equipment, technology and services subsector that thrives on innovation and is populated by smaller businesses rather than corporations and farm barons.

Exports of good breeding
While Australia’s counter seasonality and diversity of growing environments means our food sector can sell fresh fruit and vegetables to the rest of the world year-round, horticulture is also a relatively lucrative aspect of this type of agriculture, valued at more than $9 billion a year. Our global clients predominantly buy fruit and vegetable seeds and plants, although there is an increasing demand for horticultural intellectual property.

Due to historical water scarcity in Australia, we have a number of drought resistant food plant varieties that are now coming to the fore as the rest of the world begins to experience water shortages. Doug Waterhouse, chief of Plant Breeders Rights at IP Australia, believes developing countries will benefit from these resource efficient breeds as demand for food grows in areas where the yield from traditional varieties cannot keep up.

But it is not just yield that brings in international customers, taste will also be an attraction, says Waterhouse. He cites the Cripps Pink, otherwise known as the Pink Lady apple, as an example of an Australian horticulture export that has become popular worldwide. “Pink Lady is the most popular apple in the world. Every market you see overseas has Pink Lady in it.”

In 1973 Western Australia breeder John Cripps crossed a Lady Williams and a Golden Delicious apple to create the Cripps Pink, which he then registered under the Plant Breeders Rights register in dozens of countries around the world and trade marked for commercialisation as Pink Lady. Any growers who want to grow the variety need to buy a license, one way the food industry can make money from its technology without having to worry about freight and spoilage.

Living off the land

Of course the larger umbrella of agriculture forms a huge part of Australia’s export sales. Of the $48.7 billion that agriculture contributes the Australian economy, $32.5 billion is from export sales according to 2010/11 figures provided by the National Farmers’ Federation. Livestock, wheat and dairy products top the list of agricultural products Australia sells to the world. Behind these food commodities, however, Australian agricultural equipment, technology and services are at the forefront of global best practice.

The technology sector in this space ranges from specialised machinery and resource management to growing techniques and harvesting processes, even animal genetics. In the high growth market of Russia, for example, there is strong demand for livestock for the meat and dairy sectors, but Russia has shown that it wants to focus on building its own food security rather than relying on imports from other countries. As a result, Australia has an opportunity to supply pedigree dairy and beef cattle and provide everything from artificial insemination and embryo transplant technologies to genetic science to ensure that Australian breeds can be adapted to Russian environmental conditions.

Like Russia, many other emerging markets in Latin America, Africa and Asia are looking to increase food security. Australia’s leadership in resource management therefore stands us in good stead as efficiency in crop management comes to the fore. Consultancy is a key service export here, and specialised equipment, for example irrigation technology, a significant product.

One example of Australia’s efficiency is major rice exporter SunRice, which brings in about $800 million a year. Rice is one of the most water intensive crops in the world so the fact that a dry continent such as ours has the capacity to grow more than 1 million tons of rice per annum is testament to the techniques, processes and technology that sees us supply more than 60 markets worldwide.

According to the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, Australian grown medium grain rice uses 50 percent less water than the global average but produces the highest yielding crops in the world at 10 tons per hectare through employing water recycling techniques to keep moisture in the soil. In comparable environments worldwide, particularly where there are droughts or other reasons for water shortages, this knowledge and technology is more valuable than the rice itself, which poverty-stricken customers may not be able to afford considering the high cost of transportation.

All part of the process

Although Australia’s manufacturing industry is shrinking by volume, food manufacturing exports are nothing to be sniffed at, worth more than $17 billion a year. Our advanced food processing technology is well regarded in a number of key markets, particularly in Asia, where we sell not just the products of the process, but also the technology itself. A high standard of processing is important to maintain the integrity of the food being preserved and Australia’s commitment to quality is the foundation of our nation brand. Processing techniques may be employed to extend the shelf life of a product (see case study), to improve taste or to retain nutrients. In many cases, technology will address all three aspects.

Queensland manufacturer Gourmet Garden produces more than 12 million tubes of herbs and spices a year, which goes to thousands of supermarkets in places as far flung as Slovenia as well as New Zealand, Asia, North America, the UK, and parts of Europe. It uses the patented Eva Fresh technology, where organically grown herb and spice crops are harvested under scientifically defined, optimum conditions, then washed, chopped, blended and packed raw into tubes to retain their flavour and nutrition. The end product has all the taste and nutritional benefits of fresh herbs and spices in a tube that lasts three months.

Gourmet Garden CEO Nick White says the technology to process the produce in this way was developed in response to a growing trend towards fresh food. “Over the past 20 years, the popularity of fresh produce has jumped considerably, with the sale of fresh herbs projected to double over the next five years.”

The company doesn’t just use processing technology to optimise its product, however. It also employs a team of agronomy specialists to ensure the herbs and spices are picked when their antioxidant and natural essential oils are at their peak. Educated staff are therefore also an important factor in technology exports, which is where Australia’s education system can support this sector.

Another food processing company, Preshafood, has also recently capitalised on new technology. In conjunction with Food Science Australia’s Innovative Foods Centre (a joint venture between the Victorian Government and the CSIRO), this startup developed a beverage that contains 100% fruit with no preservatives, added sugar, sweeteners or colours but retains twice the vitamin C and twice the antioxidants of other juices. The beverage is created using a ‘pasteurisation’ method that employs pressure instead of heat. Using a purpose-built facility, the high-pressure processing (HPP) technology deploys about 6,000 times the average air pressure at sea level onto the produce, killing micro-organisms but allowing the juice to retain its nutritional value.

The juice extracted does not suffer from the thermal degradation of traditionally processed fruit, which is why the flavour difference is significant, explains Alastair McLachlan, CEO of Preshafood. “Everyone else in the industry either uses preservatives or they use heat to pasteurise, whereas when you use cold high pressure processing, you keep the original taste of the freshly-squeezed juice, with a seven-month shelf life.”

Preshafood sells juices and fruit coulis to discerning Asian markets such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand with some exports to the tough European and North American markets.

A renewed focus on nutrition worldwide combined with a health sensitive market from our biggest buyers in Asia will mean a rise in demand for processing technology that can maintain the integrity of fresh produce but extend its shelf life. Australia, if it has the capacity, can supply such products and also has the opportunity to share intellectual property in the future if food manufacturers cannot scale up production to meet world requirements.

The whole package

Today, cask wine has a questionable reputation, but Australians should actually raise a glass to one of our finest packaging inventions: a sealed bag for liquids that collapsed as it dispersed its contents, protecting the wine from air and therefore preventing spoilage. In 1965, South Australian Thomas Angove of Angove Family Winemakers filed a patent for the wine cask, which has since led to other innovations.

In order to increase economic appeal of its wine, in 2006 Cheviot Bridge offered its Long Flat wine in an octagonal Tetra Pak, the Long Flat B-Pak, the first Australian winemaker to eschew glass bottles for the Tetra Pak packaging. This enabled the brand to offer a litre for the price of 750mL in an initiative to grow both domestic and export sales. It was a smart move; not only do Tetra Paks retain the flavour of the wine and make it easy to pour, the shape and weight of the carton makes it easier to pack and more economical to ship, both reducing the weight of the cargo and reducing product damage. “With the changing landscape of the global wine market, we recognised that innovation was the only solution to remain relevant to consumers,” Maurice Dean, Cheviot Bridge managing director, told Food Magazine (www.foodmag.com.au).

In recent times, environmental concerns, freight costs and concern for the welfare of products, has seen packaging technology grow in importance. Responding to winemakers’ demands, glassmaker O-I launched its award-winning Lean+Green bottles in 2009. The bottles are 26 percent lighter than traditional wine bottles, improving freight efficiency but maintaining the look and feel of premium glass bottles.

Beyond the mines and vines, Australia is a clever country and, best of all, we’ve applied our smarts to one of our key industries—food. Many of the challenges we face here, the tyranny of distance, resource constraints and a lack of an economy of scale, have been met by innovative thinking and the technology and services that follow. It is now this intellectual capital we’re exporting to the world, even if sometimes it sits behind that container load of wheat.

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Adeline Teoh

Adeline Teoh

Adeline Teoh is a journalist with more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business, education, travel, health, and project management. She has specialised in business since 2003.

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