THE agricultural sector must convince state and federal governments of the importance of investment in public sector research and development, and funding for tertiary training, to ensure productivity gains.
That was the message from the Australian Farm Institute's executive director Mick Keogh who said industries such as sheep and wool could not afford to sit still.
"The policies, particularly at a state government level, are being driven by budgets rather than by anticipated outcomes," he said.
"Governments right around Australia say ag is the next boom industry, or one of five pillars of the economy, but cut R&D budgets in ag - and the two just don't meet.
"We know agriculture will not have any more land resources apart from a little bit of development in the north. We know the amount of irrigation water will not increase so the only answer to growing output to meet the demand everyone talks about is to increase productivity and the only way is to keep up investment in R&D."
The guest speaker at the Rabobank luncheon at Sheepvention in Hamilton, who recently visited the United States, said Australia could take a few lessons from the country whose agricultural productivity gains were much higher.
As an example, he said US corn industry yields had lifted 20 per cent with the use of variable rate technology that linked into large amounts of digital data from a range of sources.
Mr Keogh said the US had more farmers - about 2 million - but governments there had taken a long-term view of agriculture compared to Australia where they had been uncertain about its role in the economy.
"It may appear the major agribusiness companies in the US are driving new technology but in fact it is still heavily reliant on public sector R&D to get breakthroughs to then be commercialised and developed by these companies," he said.
"If we allow our public service R&D to run down we are allocating ourself a future where those productivity gains won't be available."
The US had a focus on agricultural education with specialised Land Grant Universities.
There was also a close association between their academic staff and industry, which enabled research to flow out much more quickly.
Mr Keogh said Australia needed a "fundamental rethink" about how its universities operated.
"Here governments have pushed our major sandstone universities into the business of education rather than as a service to industry," he said.
"If we look at the revenue generated by an overseas student studying a three-year Bachelor of Commerce in Australian Universities, it is about $75,000 per year.
"The revenue generated by a single HECS support agriculture student is about $25,000 per year so if you are the vice chancellor of the uni and you need to make your bottomline work, what are you going to do?
"On top of that if they are in ag you have to pay field staff and have laboratories and only small course numbers."