Upscaling and expanding horticulture in northern Australia
Northern Australia has often been described as a potential ‘food bowl of Asia’.
Covering 40 per cent of Australia’s land mass, northern Australia spans the northern parts of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. The region has attracted particular interest in greater economic development through harnessing water resources.
But a crucial issue in northern Australia is the lack of data at a scale needed for agricultural development. Much of the region’s land and water resources have not been mapped in enough detail to allow reliable resource allocation, to mitigate investment or environmental risks, or to confidently build the policy settings to support decisions.
To help fill this gap, in 2016 the Australian Government commissioned CSIRO to undertake the Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment (NAWRA). Released in 2018, NAWRA is the world’s most integrated, multidisciplinary investigation of opportunities for water and agricultural development. It covers three priority areas in northern Australia: the Fitzroy catchment in Western Australia; the Mitchell catchment in Queensland; and the Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman river catchments around Darwin in the Northern Territory. (NAWRA builds on previous work in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments in Queensland, and similar work continues in another priority area, with the Roper River Water Resource Assessment currently underway.)
Expanding horticulture in catchments around Darwin
NAWRA provides key insights for horticulture in northern Australia. The study identified and evaluated the commercial viability of different agricultural opportunities.
One of the six case studies in NAWRA focused on the opportunity for groundwater and irrigated horticulture in the Darwin catchments. The study found the gross value of agriculture production in these catchments is about $135 million, of which $120 million is provided by irrigated fruit, particularly mangoes and vegetables.
The research also reported that the horticultural area could double in the Darwin catchments, based on the location of existing infrastructure: there is sufficient groundwater to support up to 7800 ha of trickle irrigated horticulture and mango trees.
Dr Chris Chilcott is the Research Leader for Northern Australian Development and the Deputy Director Operations at CSIRO Land and Water.
“One big thing we found is that it’s not just about broad scale agriculture,” he said. “Smaller developments – horticulture and mangoes – can incrementally grow utilising the skills and infrastructure that already exists. There’s great potential for small-scale development that builds on existing successes, building in the right place.”
Location is important. Most horticultural products from northern Australia are exported to southern domestic markets, so transport costs are high.
Given the high transport and input costs of irrigated crops, adding value to existing products makes sense. And, as NAWRA reported: ‘Gross margins of horticultural crops are generally much higher than those of broadacre crops but are highly price sensitive; establishing reliable market niches, such as early or late season supply, is critical to viability.’
Our scientists are now working with northern Australian producers to help establish these niche markets and value add to the horticultural industry. One focus area is mangoes.
Adding value to mangoes in the Top End
Mangoes are the Northern Territory’s largest horticultural product.
In 2018-19, nearly half of Australia’s entire mango crop was produced in the Northern Territory. In 2018-19, mangoes were worth $53 million, and listed as second only to beef, based on their gross value of agricultural production. Most of the Territory’s mangoes are grown in the greater Darwin area, but there are substantial orchards in Katherine in the Territory, and in Kununurra, in northern Western Australia.
The horticultural industry has grown quickly in the Territory. According to the Northern Territory Farmers Association, it’s grown from almost nothing in 1980 to more than $244 million. But there are many untapped opportunities.
Fruit and vegetables that are not able to be sold to existing markets are a big problem on farms and in manufacturing. Reports show that each year, there are 11,000 tonnes of mango food waste in the Territory alone. CSIRO provided input to the National Food Waste strategy, which quantifies all the waste on a national level. We’re most familiar with mangoes sold fresh, individually or in trays. But what if the mango is ‘out-of-spec’ or ‘ugly’?
“We estimate that 20 per cent of what’s grown on a mango farm gets left behind. Given mangoes are such a high-value product, that’s a lot of lost money, and points to new market opportunities” said Northern Territory Farmer’s Association CEO, Paul Burke.
There are many ways to skin … a mango
Our scientists, such as Professor Michelle Colgrave, are looking to turn horticultural trash into treasure.
“There’s a huge number of mangoes grown in the Top End,” Michelle said . “But the seeds and other parts are often left behind as waste. We can valorise [add value] to these waste streams: we can convert something that’s a waste problem, low- or no-value waste, into a high value ingredient.” .
For mangoes, CSIRO scientists are looking at what markets might be available for upcycling and secondary processing.
Group Leader of CSIRO’s Food Processing and Supply Chains group Dr Pablo Juliano and his team are investigating horticultural supply chains in northern Australia. In 2019, they undertook Australia’s largest study of food loss across the horticultural value chain to quantify the amount of food lost throughout the production value chain, including farms, packing houses and manufacturing facilities.
Now, they’re looking at solutions to food waste in northern Australia.
“We’re researching how we can take seconds and turn them into food products – for instance, by canning, juicing or further value adding into high value ingredients through traditional or innovative drying methods or by pre-processing the waste product to enhance health or nutrition,” he said.
Mangoes, for instance, can be canned, preserved as nectar or juice, dried, turned into a powder, or made into pulp for ice-cream, yoghurt, liqueur or other goods. But it’s not just the mango flesh itself which is of interest. CSIRO scientists are looking at turning the mango seed – typically a waste product – into a non-conventional protein source for food or feed purposes. Mango seeds contain high levels of protein, antioxidants and omega fatty acids. (Another project focuses on the impact of climate change on mangoes in the Northern Territory.)
This builds on the value-adding work the team has done with the horticultural industry in southern states. For instance, CSIRO jointly created NutriV, a spin-off company based outside Melbourne, which produces high-protein (up to 30 per cent, the same as milk) broccoli powder from broccoli offcuts.
Circular economy opportunities for northern Australia
For instance, Pablo and his team are looking at regional processing hubs, so that producers do not have to transport waste for processing. This will also create regional jobs.
“With the regional hub concept, we bring the technical aspects, we work with the growers, and we look at the market pull for ingredients (high-value plant-based powders, for instance),” said Pablo.
“Whatever is left we can look at turning into aquaculture inputs and other livestock feed products. There are so many different business models we can put together, but they’re all based on a circular economy strategy.”
Michelle agrees. Less conventional waste products can also be turned into high protein flours, such as banana flour. Turning waste into powder on-site creates shelf-stable and long-life foods, reducing transport and refrigeration costs, and potentially supplying food to remote communities. Waste can be transformed into high-value end powders, nutraceuticals or snacks.
“Ultimately, by using circular economy principles, we can use all of the harvested parts of a plant. That means producers are getting the most bang for their buck, and it’s also improving the environmental and economic sustainability of the system,” she said.