Infrastructure needed for grain imports

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Australia did not have the necessary infrastructure to import grain on short notice during the most recent drought, a Federal Government conference was told.

The comments were made by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s Craig Scheibel at the ABARES Outlook 2021 conference, which was held as a virtual event last week.

Scheibel, an assistant director of plant import operations with the department, said biosecurity, storage and transport requirements had put pressure on potential grain importers and the challenges around this needed to be prepared for with future droughts.

"The majority of our grain handling sites and ports are geared towards export, which is understandable because in normal years we export a lot of grain," he said at the conference.

"Imported grain may have requirements regarding place of production, so area freedoms, even conditions regarding harvest method, storage restrictions, transport, segregation of that grain if it’s being loaded out through terminals or if it’s being stored off-site or at terminals, making sure of that product preservation and that it’s not getting contaminated with grain that may not meet our requirements.

"All of those things were proven to be major challenges for the existing infrastructure and in most cases in order to meet department requirements, the sites would have required or the department did request significant infrastructure changes to meet our requirements.

"All of those types of changes and capital works involved a significant cost.

"The time that would be taken to make some of those capital changes was significant and it’s not something that could have been done quickly.

"When we’ve got good times, we need to be thinking about and ensuring we’ve got systems and infrastructure in place for those times when we’re not in such a positive position.

"The previous experience over the last year or so has shown at the moment we don’t have a lot of infrastructure in place that we can ramp up." 

Grain production is set to increase in the 2020-21 financial year, ABARES figures show.

These ‘good times’ appear set to return, at least in the short term, with figures shown during the conference projecting 2020-21 winter grain crop production is set to come close to the 2016-17 production peak.

This comes after three consecutive years of declining production, due mostly to the drought in New South Wales.

Another speaker at the conference, Professor Mark Howden from the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University, said the future of Australia’s grain industry depended on how the nation responded to climate change challenges, particularly compared to our competitors.

"One of the critical things here is that everything points to a very substantial increase in variability of production in many places around the world, so the difference between the good years and the bad years is likely to increase and that generates fluxes in exports and imports and also movements of grain across the country," Howden said.

"These sorts of issues about maintaining import markets so we can bring material into Australia in a safe way and maintaining our export relationships so they are stable and robust in the face of variability are going to become increasingly important, just like maintaining very effective and low greenhouse gas footprint trade routes across the world is going to become increasingly important."

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