Lifting northern Australia’s protein profile

Northern Australia has enormous potential to expand its role in providing for one of the Indo-Pacific’s most crucial needs—protein-rich foods.

Thanks to its high-quality protein industries such as beef cattle and its potential to expand into new sources of protein and develop a diverse range of goods, Australia’s north is well placed to meet the surging demand for protein in markets across Asia. Backed by strong environmental and animal-welfare regulations that underpin the quality of its products, northern Australia could become Asia’s protein powerhouse.

Protein is vital to physical health and development, yet beyond their nutritional role, protein-rich foods grow in popularity as economic growth drives changes in a population’s diet.

Protein-rich foods are typically derived from one of three main sources: seafood, livestock and plants. Across the world, a country’s primary source of protein depends on a combination of economic, production, geographical and cultural factors.

In South Asia, for instance, the chickpea, a protein-rich legume, is popular because of favourable growing conditions, affordability for low- and middle-income countries, and suitability to the local cuisine. It also reflects the region’s culture—vegetarianism is very common in South Asia.

That said, the economic determinants of dietary intake tend to shift more rapidly than other variables, such as culture, religion or climate change. As countries develop, the share of household expenditure on protein begins to grow and consumers seek higher quality sources of protein. This has been the case in many of Australia’s regional trading partners.

In Vietnam, for example, meat consumption rose nearly fourfold from 15.6 kilograms per year per capita in 1990, when the country’s GDP per capita was $1,673, to 57 kilograms per year per capita in 2019, when its GDP per capita had grown to $8,041.

But in that same period, global meat production roughly doubled from 177.74 million tonnes to 335.46 million tonnes, largely driven by production in Asia. While in some countries dietary demand is met by domestic production, when demand grows quickly, as in Vietnam’s case, imports are critical.

Australia has helped to fill that gap over the past few decades. It is the world’s largest exporter of sheep and goat meat and the fourth largest exporter of beef. Australian pork, poultry, eggs and milk have also found their way to global markets. Fisheries and plant proteins also contribute significantly to Australia’s protein export profile.

Recent efforts to bolster primary production in northern Australia have strengthened the region’s protein-production capacity. In Queensland, the state government recently announced a $7.5 million aquaculture investment, much of which is set to benefit the state’s north at a time when aquaculture production there has achieved a record-high value of $225 million.

In Queensland and the Northern Territory, a project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia has demonstrated that plant material from peanut production can provide high volumes of feed for cattle ‘without significantly compromising end-of-season nut yields’.

Other projects using innovative approaches to primary production have demonstrated the steps required to grow protein-rich food in northern Australia. These initiatives have found creative ways to circumvent the constraints that have long created the perception that agricultural diversification in the north is too hard or unattainable. When the challenges of climate, geography, human resources and infrastructure are met with ambitious policy, science and people, new opportunities emerge.

But there is even more room to grow. Despite these initiatives, northern Australia’s agricultural potential is largely underutilised.

There are clear strategic dividends to come from increased protein production in northern Australia. For instance, agriculture can play the role of an economic launchpad for other prosperity-supporting infrastructure, such as in energy and water, and can serve as a companion industry for education, research and innovation.

Agricultural trade and investment links can also foster people-to-people connections between Australia and its global partners. At a time when food security, global peace and domestic manufacturing are ascendant in Australia’s national discourse, stronger protein production in northern Australia can provide a useful platform for contributing to progress in these areas.

By generating the technical capacity of scientists and producers to develop high-quality goods in the challenging growing environments of the north, conditions shared with nations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, Australia could export its expertise, too.

Sharing agricultural strategies with economies that have similar growing conditions to those in northern Australia would demonstrate Australia’s commitment to global food security and responsible production. It would also assist Australia’s partners in the region to achieve their food security goals.

As just one example, Singapore is aiming to produce 30% of its food domestically by 2030. This poses a significant challenge for the small, tropical nation. Versatile protein production in northern Australia potentially holds many lessons for Singapore, including in tropical animal health, circular economies and the use of agricultural technology in intensive production systems. Australia could invest further in sharing these innovations with Singapore.

Any breakthroughs could also be used in Australia of course, and this doesn’t mean that Australia would abandon its aspirations to be a leading protein exporter. A booming protein industry in northern Australia would contribute to food resilience across the region with expertise, as well as food. Expanding protein production would not just benefit Australian producers and their communities but also support the nation’s strategic, humanitarian and foreign policy interests.

For all of these benefits, northern Australia’s capacity to produce a diversity of protein products is still constrained by infrastructural, policy and scientific limitations. Water availability, research and development in production systems designed for northern Australian conditions, and efficient supply chains from farm to port are just some of the areas in which investment will be required if the region is to become a protein powerhouse.

There’s a reason protein-rich diets tend to emerge in high-income settings. This nutritional transition requires financial inputs greater than the traditional plant-based diets that tend to precede them because protein isn’t cheap to grow. Yet it is a price many more people in the Indo-Pacific and around the world are able and willing to pay.

If policymakers multiply the creative approaches that have already facilitated advances in northern Australia’s production systems, the region will continue to play a significant role in global protein markets, satisfying the nutritional and lifestyle demands of millions and helping to achieve Australia’s strategic priorities.