China to drive growth of pork protein

As the impacts of African swine fever in Asia fade, pork will lead a global animal protein production surge in 2021. Locally, however, production growth will be limited, as Australia’s beef and sheep producers focus firmly on rebuilding stock numbers.
In its just-released Global Animal Protein Outlook 2021, agribusiness specialist Rabobank said China’s initial recovery from African swine fever (ASF) would emerge as the biggest driver of growth in the global animal protein sector in the year ahead – while also representing the greatest risk for global trade.
Rabobank senior animal protein analyst Angus Gidley-Baird said production growth was expected across most key animal protein markets around the world in 2021, and within most species, after a challenging 2020.
“Pork production is expected to grow faster than its protein counterparts in 2021, driven by the ASF recovery in China and Vietnam, while poultry and aquaculture are also expected to grow based on post-COVID-19 improvements to foodservice,” Gidley-Baird said.
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Beef should return to modest growth, he said, led by increased production in North America and Brazil, while wild-catch seafood would go against the growth trend, with a small decline expected due to climatic conditions and reduced quotas.
Australian outlook
With the smallest cattle herd in over 25 years, and favourable seasonal conditions, the report said Australia’s beef production would be restricted in 2021, with slaughter numbers to dip slightly from 2020.
Despite this, Gidley-Baird said improved pastoral conditions would increase average carcase weights, leading to a small lift in both production and exports in 2020.
Ongoing competition from producers, feedlotters and processors would also ensure cattle prices remained strong, although prices would ease as numbers build.
“Continued high female slaughter rates in 2020 and high livestock prices suggests a focus by producers on trading cattle rather than retaining them for breeding, and we expect herd rebuilding activities to extend into 2021,” Gidley-Baird said.
Australian lamb slaughter was however expected to increase in 2021, despite the country’s smallest sheep flock in over 75 years.
“Better breeding conditions and an increased focus on lamb production will drive increased lamb slaughter and, while carcase weights are expected to remain steady, production and, in turn, exports should grow,” Gidley-Baird said.
Domestic demand for sheep and flock rebuilding was forecast to remain firm, with export demand key to lamb pricing. And, with softer economic conditions prices –would be lower than in 2020, although remaining good, he said.
African swine fever driving change
Globally, recovery from ASF in China would be the major factor impacting the animal proteins sector in the year ahead, the report said.
China’s pig herd started its recovery in 2020 after nearly halving in size the previous year due to ASF, and would continue to grow strongly in 2021, Gidley-Baird said.
While ASF still threatens many of China’s smaller pork producers – who make up about half of the production – Rabobank expects the ongoing recovery would see the 2021 herd inventory reach above 80 per cent of pre-ASF levels.
ASF still remained active across the globe, with Germany continuing to manage an outbreak detected in September 2020, Mr Gidley-Baird said. And further herd losses were likely in the Philippines and also Vietnam, where, despite sporadic outbreaks in 2020, there was still expected to be an increase in pork production in 2021.
China to dominate global trade
Despite the recovery in China’s domestic pork production, Chinese imports of pork, poultry, beef, and seafood will continue to dominate global trade, the report says.
And, as such, any irregular swings from China could have significant consequences for producers and markets.
“Changes in China’s import policies, shifts in China’s commitment under the Phase One Trade Deal with the US or moves to avoid human or animal health risks could all present trade issues in the coming year,” Gidley-Baird said.
COVID-19 recovery
Gidley-Baird said recovery from COVID-19 would also impact the global animal protein market in 2021, with issues surrounding foodservice recovery, labour availability costs, supply chain transformations and food safety creating both opportunity and risk.
In the beef sector, Gidley-Baird said, labour availability and cost would remain the most pressing challenge for global beef processing and production.
“Given the higher cost and reduced opportunities in foodservice, margin squeeze will also be a challenge, however foodservice recovery will help lift these margins, particularly for higher-value beef cuts served in restaurants,” he said.
Reduced global poultry demand due to the economic downturn in some importing countries had impacted trade and created the need for more focus on domestic consumers, but Gidley-Baird said foodservice recovery would help balance out supply and demand.
Similarly the global pork market would shift its focus away from exports towards local consumers, mainly due to ASF but also COVID-19.
“Global seafood trade has been greatly affected by COVID-19, and the market risk will be ongoing pending foodservice recovery and improved demand – sectors such as shrimp are yet to recover from trade disruptions.” he said.
However post COVID-19 opportunities would also emerge, Gidley-Baird said, largely on the back of foodservice recovery and the rise of e-commerce direct-to-consumer trends.
Technology and innovation for a more sustainable sector ‘Tech innovations’ – such as methane-reducing additives which improved feed efficiency, or traceability to mitigate animal disease risk and offer supply chain transparency – exemplified an increasing focus on sustainability and productivity in animal protein, the report said.
These technologies, Gidley-Baird said, would enable and accelerate commercial adoption into 2021 – helping drive environmental, social and economic sustainability.
The increasing role that the market and regulators would play in improving the sustainability of the animal protein supply chain would also become clearer in 2021, Gidley-Baird said, with the number of animal protein, food retail and foodservice companies making commitments to a lower environmental footprint likely to grow.

Crops expected to bounce back during winter

Australian winter crop production is forecast to increase by 64 per cent in 2020-21, with New South Wales expected to have its second biggest winter crop in a decade.

ABARES’ September 2020 Australian Crop Report has found that winter crop prospects in Australia are generally average to above average at the beginning of spring.

Winter crop production is forecast to be 47.9 million tonnes in 2020–21, 20 per cent above the 10-year average to 2019–20 of 40 million tonnes.

This forecast is an eight per cent upward revision from the ABARES June 2020 forecast.

ABARES executive director Dr Steve Hatfield-Dodds said crop prospects are strongest in New South Wales where favourable winter rainfall and a strong start to the season are expected to result in well above average production.

“Increased production in New South Wales has accounted for 60 per cent of the forecast increase in production nationally,” Hatfield-Dodds said.

“New South Wales production is forecast to be 14.8 million tonnes in 2020-21—that’s more than a 300 per cent increase on last year and the highest since 2016-17.

“Crop prospects are average to above average in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and southern Queensland, despite warmer than average temperatures and below average rainfall in June and July.

“Soil moisture levels and timely rainfall were sufficient to sustain established crops through this period. Timely August rainfall provided a boost to yield prospects in many regions.

“However, it is expected August rainfall was generally insufficient for crops in central and northern cropping regions in Queensland to achieve average yields.

“Area planted to winter crops in 2020–21 is estimated to have increased by 23 per cent to 22.6 million hectares from the drought affected season in 2019–20.

“In New South Wales, the area planted is estimated to be six million hectares—almost double that from 2019-20.”

The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest three-month climate outlook (September to November), issued on 3 September 2020, indicates spring rainfall is likely to be above average in most cropping regions.

However, in Western Australia the outlook is mixed, with below average spring rainfall most likely for the Geraldton zone and part of the Kwinana zone.

For the major winter crops:

Wheat production is forecast to increase by 91 per cent to 28.9 million tonnes, 22 per cent above the 10-year average to 2019-20.

Barley production is forecast to increase by 25 per cent to 11.2 million tonnes, 23 per cent above the 10-year average to 2019-20.

Canola production is forecast to rise by 47 per cent to 3.4 million tonnes, 4 per cent above the 10-year average to 2019-20.

Summer crops also look set for a boost from last year. Area planted to summer crops in 2020–21 is forecast to rise by 194 per cent to around 1 million hectares, 11 per cent below the 10-year average to 2019–20 of 1.2 million hectares.

Area planted to rice is forecast to increase by almost 400 per cent to around 27,000 hectares because of higher water allocations compared to the drought affected allocations in the last two years.

Area planted to grain sorghum is forecast to rise by around 300 per cent to 595,000 hectares, 13 per cent above the 10-year average to 2019–20 of 525,000 hectares.

Area planted to cotton is forecast to rise by 300 per cent in 2020–21 to 239,000 hectares, 40 per cent below the 10-year average to 2019–20.

Nespresso spends $240 million in expansion of production facility

Nespresso announced a $240 millino investment to expand its Romont production center in Switzerland to meet increasing consumer demand for its coffees and support international development in the coming years

“Despite the challenging times we have all been living in, this strategic long term investment reconfirms Nespresso‘s continuous business success and leadership in the portioned coffee segment, which we pioneered back in 1986,” said Guillaume Le Cunff, CEO of Nespresso. “It also demonstrates our continued commitment to our Swiss roots and to the long term economic development of the region and the country, with which we share values of quality, innovation and expertise.”

These are the kind of announcements that feel good in times of crisis. Nespresso confirms that large international groups can produce competitively in our region. It’s also an investment that strengthens our region in the bio-economy field with which I’m very pleased,” said Olivier Curty, State Councillor and Director of Economic Affairs and Employment at the Canton of Fribourg.

The construction of the second production hall is set to start in June 2021. It will result in an augmented capacity of 10 new production lines dedicated to producing Nespresso coffees for the Vertuo and Professional ranges and the creation of 300 new direct jobs in the next 10 years while increasing third party employment and local and regional business development. The first new production lines are expected to be fully operational by June 2022.

The Romont factory, inaugurated in 2015, is the center of excellence for the production of Nespresso‘s Vertuo coffees now available in 21 countries across North America, Europe and Asia. Vertuo is a versatile system that makes freshly brewed coffee in 5 different cup sizes using the innovative Centrifusion™ technology that recognizes the bar code on the capsule and adjusts the amount of water, speed of extraction and temperature to deliver a perfect cup of coffee.

In the last two years, Nespresso strengthened its operations in Romont with the addition of four new production lines and the creation of 50 new jobs, while inaugurating a new Product Development Center and a Coffee Campus in 2018, fostering coffee innovation and expertise.


Eliminating bottlenecks in the food and beverage industry to avoid disruption

To remain competitive, food and beverage manufacturers need to continually improve their products and optimise their manufacturing processes, but bottlenecks can be the bane of their existence.

Bottlenecks are caused by processes in the system that limit its entire capacity, delaying subsequent processes and often causing a knock-on effect that impacts downstream productivity. There are a countless number of issues that can cause bottlenecks for a food and beverage manufacturer, so how can these be identified and overcome?

Please note that you can register for the complimentary Webinar: A no fail recipe to fix bottlenecks in food and beverage manufacturing hosted by Food & Beverage Industry News on this topic, Wednesday 12th August, 3pm-4pm AEST.

Types of bottlenecks
Understanding the type of bottleneck causing the disruption is the first hurdle and they usually come in three forms: production line bottlenecks, supply chain bottlenecks or employee bottlenecks. Each one of these bottleneck genres can severely reduce throughput, cause delays, annoy customers and impact employee morale.

When attempting to eliminate bottlenecks, it is important to differentiate between the short-term and long-term types. Short-term manufacturing bottlenecks are often temporary and avoiding them is futile. In a food and beverage plant, this could be a key technician getting sick or going on holiday, or a critical machine requiring urgent maintenance. They are unpredictable in nature, and their impact can vary from negligible to significant delays.

The focus should be on working towards eliminating long-term manufacturing bottlenecks. These are systemic bottlenecks that are causing persistent production delays, such as specialised equipment with consistently long queues.

Many small-to-medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers in Australia must deal with long-term bottlenecks regularly. Many will experience significant downtime due to breakdowns and other than regular planned maintenance schedules to keep machinery operational, factories must have contingency plans in case of a worst-case situation.

Overcoming supply chain bottlenecks
When the entire production line is reliant on a company’s resources, material bottlenecks can appear due to poor management of inventory that creates situations where factories are waiting on supplies, inadequate forecasts of production that create unexpected problems, incomplete financing, or changing the mix of products.

Any number of factors can contribute to a poor flow of materials through the supply chain, and while it may be impossible to eliminate unexpected disruptions, creating and sticking to a comprehensive supply chain disruption monitoring and response program can prevent extreme bottlenecks from arising.

Resource management
Manufacturers need to apply the same discipline to planning and orchestrating their employees’ work as they do to optimising their supply chain and production lines. This starts with realising that, just like the machines on the production line, employees are constrained resources and can only do one thing at a time and are capable of only so much output in a fixed period.

Regardless of where a new product idea originates, the “heavy lifting” to make it happen isn’t done on the manufacturing line; it’s done by the engineers, designers, technicians and other skilled professionals whose work supports and feeds into the production line. This is where the problem lies with many manufacturers as this development process can be complex, time consuming and fraught with challenges. Often, this is due to poor resource management and many companies still use spreadsheets to plan and track peoples’ work.

On the production line, this type of resource management quickly falls apart with tasks taking longer than estimated; customers submitting change requests; team members getting pulled off projects; budgets changing; corporate priorities shifting; and so on. Regardless of the specifics, without proper project management, as things change, people waste time spinning their wheels, and decisions are made without full visibility into how these may affect other commitments.

Supplier collaboration
Food and beverage supply chains have unravelled in just a couple of months during the pandemic, as has the trust and goodwill between many buyers and manufacturers. And whilst it caused severe shortages of some food and beverage products, the food and beverage companies that specialise in supplying the restaurants, bars and pubs now have excess or spoilt inventory to contend with.

As Australia starts opening its eating and drinking establishments, carefully tuning inventories to slowly returning demand will require supplier collaboration. Working with these vendors to adjust and delay orders will be a strategy in use for a while yet, and implementing network inventory management using their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system will help to predict and avoid future shortages as well as help to reduce excess supply.

Warehouse optimisation
Warehouse optimisation is the key to an efficiently run warehouse – big or small. It is a highly specialised process that involves automation and identifying ways to save time, space and resources while reducing errors and improving flexibility and communication. Achieving this improves customer satisfaction due to getting shipments out faster.

The automation of material-handling in a warehouse should be a key priority, with the right warehouse management software, materials and products can be automatically grouped by type and storage requirements. Automating much of the stowing and picking process means a greatly reduced likelihood of pallets and cartons going missing due to human error.

Removal of bottlenecks
The best way to solve this issue is to identify what areas have become bottlenecks by evaluating metrics such as throughput, capacity, and wait time. Then evaluate the consequences of those bottlenecks. What operations are being delayed as a result? Thirdly, manage those bottlenecks. What can be done immediately to solve them? And finally, work towards preventing future bottlenecks from arising.

This article complements the Webinar: A no fail recipe to fix bottlenecks in food and beverage manufacturing which is hosted by Food & Beverage Industry News on: Wednesday 12th August, 3pm-4pm AEST.

No need to panic, Australia produces enough food to feed 75 million people

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) is reassuring Australians that there is more than enough food being processed, as an increase in the purchasing of food and grocery products in Victoria begins to look similar to the ‘panic buying’ experience earlier in the year.

Acting CEO Dr Geoffrey Annison said that with the unfortunate number of COVID-19 cases in Victoria, no one needs to panic buy food and grocery products.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and still today, AFGC has continued working closely with food and grocery manufacturers and government to ensure minimal disruption to supply chains and that there is no need for people to panic buy products,” he said.

“In Australia we are lucky because most of our food is grown and produced here. We produce enough food to feed 75 million people. That is enough to feed the entire population three times over. We have a very safe, reliable, and efficient food supply chain.
“Australian consumers can be confident essential products and their favourite brands will continue to be available as the coronavirus runs its course. The food, beverage and grocery sector is working hard to ensure Aussies can access everything they need.

“We have a very strong, reliable and resilient Food and grocery sector that worked hard to make it possible for essential products to reach Australians right around the country. We are proud of how responsive and agile the Australian food, beverage and grocery sector has been during the COVID-19 crisis. We thank the companies, their staff and supply chains for keeping the shelves stocked for all Aussies.”

The $122.1 billion Australian food, beverage and grocery manufacturing sector is the biggest manufacturing sector with 273,000 jobs and is a backbone to regional Australia.

Enhancing Australia’s bee pest surveillance to aid food security

Enhancements to the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program have delivered a range of valuable outcomes to support the health of Australia’s bees.

Head of biosecurity, at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Lyn O’Connell, said the enhancements will help prevent incursions of exotic bee pests and pest bees.

“Bee pollination supports our crop industries and food security, so we need to have strong biosecurity measures in place to protect the health of our bees,” O’Connell said.

“These enhancements will improve our surveillance, diagnostics, preparedness and response arrangements for key bee pests and viruses.

Forty upgraded catchboxes are being deployed in remote and restricted high-risk areas for pest bees, to allow workers to capture and inspect bee swarms and expand surveillance capacity.

“We are also investigating better options for Asian honey bee specific catchboxes, to improve our targeted surveillance for this significant pest bee,” O’Connell said.

Targeted floral sweep netting will be implemented at high-risk ports for Asian honey bees and other pest bees. It is seen as a tool to catch exotic bees and detect potential incursions.

Extensive surveillance has been undertaken for bee viruses of significance for Australia, including Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, Deformed Wing Virus, Slow Paralysis Virus.

“No exotic viruses were found, demonstrating the health of Australia’s bees. Ongoing surveillance will be undertaken to support evidence-based proof of absence for these viruses,” O’Connell said.

“We are building national diagnostic skills across laboratories to support our preparedness and response activities for these key bee viruses.

“Our response to potential incursions will also be boosted through a new electronic portal that will allow surveillance data to be captured and shared in real-time.

Biosecurity plays a vital role in supporting the health of Australia’s bees and these enhancements will help ensure the measures the country has in place protect bees now and into the future.

The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program is jointly funded by the department, Australian Honeybee Industry Council, Hort Innovation and Grain Producers Australia.

Softening the COVID-19 disruption risk

Increased use of precision agriculture practices and other workarounds can play a key role in softening the impact of potential agricultural input shortages due to COVID-19, agribusiness specialist Rabobank said in recent research.

As the nation’s grain growers begin sowing the winter crop – in some of the most favourable seasonal conditions experienced in recent years for many – optimism has been tempered by concerns the coronavirus pandemic may restrict availability of supplies of some imported agricultural chemicals and fertilisers.

Rabobank agricultural analyst Wes Lefroy said while the bank’s research indicates adequate supplies of agricultural inputs – including urea and agrochemicals – would be available in most instances, in cases where there were supply shortages, satisfactory alternatives or workaround strategies could be adopted.

These include the expanded use of precision agriculture practices, such as plant and soil testing and variable rate application.

“While global farm input supply chains are operating at near-full capacity, the risk of interruption still remains high”, Lefroy said. “The source of this interruption may be at production, or moving the product by road or at the port.”

Despite earlier concerns regarding the availability of agrochemicals, Australian growers have generally been able to access adequate stocks to begin seeding. However, more recently, urea imports have become an increasing concern to growers, particularly those looking to make the most of the first favourable soil moisture they have seen for some time following good rainfall and on the back of a promising outlook for the season ahead, Lefroy said.

“In the event of major disruption to supply which causes shortages of either fertiliser, including urea, or agrochemicals, we see a number of ‘work arounds’ for growers to consider,” he said.

Precision ag and work-around strategies
In particular, Lefroy said, grain growers would benefit from expanding precision agriculture practices this season.

“In light of a potential reduction in the availability of inputs for this season, we consider the full use of available precision agriculture practices will help growers maximise ‘bang for their buck’. This includes soil testing, plant testing and variable rate technology to ensure maximum efficiency of ag chemical and fertiliser usage,” he said.

Lefroy said following a below-average crop for many farmers across the country last season – and in some cases for multiple past years – residual nutrients in the soil were likely to be higher than usual heading into the new season, allowing for lower rates of fertiliser application.

“In addition, a wet summer will have driven greater mineralisation of nitrogen in the soil,” he said. “So both of these factors mean, in some cases, additional nutrient requirements may be lower than usual.”

Lefroy said growers’ planting intentions may be altered according to the suite of chemicals and fertilsers available to them. “In particular,” he said, “early-planted crops, such as canola may be most at risk of substitution in favour of cereals, which can be planted later in the seeding program, when inputs arrive.”

Assessing alternative weed management strategies should also be a consideration. “Depending on the availability of particular chemicals, some growers may be forced to change the suite of chemicals used on a crop,” he said.

Lefroy said growers would be prudent to maintain regular contact with suppliers about the availability of ag chemicals in their region and to consult with their agronomists about “plan B and plan C should adequate ag chem and fertiliser not be available”.

With most of the season’s phosphate requirements already on farm, all eyes are on urea – both in terms of import volumes and prices – ahead of nitrogen application during winter and spring, Lefroy said.

“We are now heading into the key importing period for urea in Australia,” he said. “On average, 60 per cent of our yearly imports of urea arrive on Australian shores during the April-July window. And Australia typically imports 90 per cent of its total urea requirements, so we are heavily reliant on global supply chains.”

To date, Lefroy said, production and logistics were operating with little interruption in Qatar and Saudi Arabia – Australia’s two largest sources for urea imports.

“And, in a scenario where supply was interrupted from the Middle East, sufficient alternative urea would be available from China, Indonesia and Malaysia – with whom we also have a strong trading history,” he said.

In terms of pricing, after an 11 per cent bounce in global urea benchmarks (FOB ex-Middle East) during late Feb and early March, prices have since retreated seven per cent in USD terms, and lie well below the five-year average.

”Chinese urea production has also increased to 70 per cent utilisation after the COVID-19 shutdown period in China. So, as the domestic spring peak finishes, we expect China to have more urea available for export which will weigh on global prices,”  Lefroy said.

However, despite favourable global prices, Australian growers should expect to pay slightly more than they budgeted for fertiliser this season, Lefroy cautioned, due to expectations for a sustained lower Australian dollar.

“Taking into account the currency impact, local prices will remain slightly above average for the next three months,” he said.

Lefroy said while not forecast by the bank, a scenario where there was a significant disruption to global or local urea supply chains which prohibited arrival of product, remained a potential risk in the current circumstances.

“If this were to occur, it would bring some significant upward movement to local prices, which will be amplified if we saw favourable rainfall conditions accelerate demand,” he said.

Ag chemicals
For agricultural chemicals, Rabobank said, a “perfect storm” had impacted some supplies – especially for glyphosate and trifluralin – with a combination of pre-existing lower production and higher local demand being compounded by disruptions to production and logistics in China due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to COVID-19, the ag chem supply chain was already under severe pressure,” Lefroy said. “This was due to a couple of factors. From 2017 to 2019, China cut agrochemical production by 44 per cent due to a combination of tighter environmental regulation and the Chinese government addressing domestic over-supply issues.

“With China supplying approximately 90 per cent of Australia’s agri chemicals, this lower supply was compounded by an increase in demand sparked by significant rainfall in early 2020, diminishing stocks held by local retailers.

“Then on top of this, COVID-19 has caused disruption to production and logistics in China, which added an estimated three to five-week delay on stock coming into Australia.”

However, current observations are that Chinese ag-chem production is ‘ramping-up’ and logistics chains have started to move supply out of China to export markets, which will help address shortages, according to Lefroy.

“In the past couple of weeks, a number of major suppliers have reported arrival of new shipments and product on the water,” he said. “Some retailers have more stock than others and this varies from region to region. In the majority of cases, growers will have enough inputs to commence sowing as planned.”

Food security not an issue for Australia

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences’ (ABARES) latest Insights report provides analysis of Australia’s food security.

ABARES Executive director Dr Steve Hatfield-Dodds said that despite temporary shortages of some food items in supermarkets, caused by an unexpected surge in demand, Australia does not have a food security problem.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken Australia and the world by surprise. Coming after severe drought conditions in eastern Australia, concerns have been raised about Australian food security. These concerns are understandable, but misplaced,” Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.

“Australia does not have a food security problem, with Australia exporting about 70 per cent of agricultural production.

“Australia produces substantially more food than it consumes, even in drought years.  Some of our largest industries, such as beef and wheat, are heavily export focused. Other industries like horticulture, pork and poultry sell most of their production into the domestic market, with an emphasis on the supply of fresh produce,” Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.

Australia imports only about 11 per cent of our food by value.

“These imports play an important role in meeting consumer preferences for taste and variety,” Hatfield-Dodds said.

“Australian agricultural production and food supply chains are adapted to cope with our very variable climate. This results in stable supply for domestic consumption, while exports absorb the ups and downs associated with wet and dry periods,” Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.

Australians are wealthy by global standards and can choose from diverse and high-quality foods from all over the world, at affordable prices, regardless of seasonal conditions or changes in world prices.

“Most Australians can afford to purchase healthy food that meets their nutritional needs,” Hatfield-Dodds said.

“Global food supplies and access has improved dramatically over the last 70 years, driven primarily by increased physical productivity and crop yields.

“Recent rain and a positive seasonal forecast make it more likely that production volumes will increase, providing the best outlook in several years. Global grains stocks are also abundant. The International Grains Council is forecasting that world wheat, rice, maize (corn), and soybean production will all reach record levels in 2020–21,” Steve Hatfield-Dodds said.

Australian agricultural producers do rely on global supply chains and imported inputs. Shortages or disruptions to these inputs have not yet been widespread but could impact on profitability.

“While action is already in train to address key issues, it will be important for business and government to continue to actively monitor and manage these emerging risks,” Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.

Unilever ramps up food production 24/7 in wake of coronavirus

Unilever has announced a wide-ranging set of measures to support global and national efforts to tackle the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The company’s actions are designed to help protect the lives and livelihoods of its multiple stakeholders – including its consumers and communities, its customers and suppliers, and its workforce.

Consumers and communities Unilever will contribute $182m to help the fight against the pandemic through donations of soap, sanitiser, bleach and food. This includes:

• A product donation of soaps and sanitiser of at least $91m to the COVID Action Platform of the World Economic Forum, which is supporting global health organisations and agencies with their response to the emergency. In addition to the supply of soap, Unilever will adapt its current manufacturing lines to produce sanitiser for use in hospitals, schools and other institutional settings.

• Product donations, partnerships and handwashing education programmes, delivered through national health authorities and NGOs, to support local communities most at need.

In Australia and New Zealand, Unilever’s factories are operating 24/7 to help keep shelves across Australia and New Zealand stocked with essential food, personal care and cleaning products. As the situation evolves in Australia and New Zealand, Unilever will continue working closely with its partners, customers, industry groups, government and the wider public to offer timely support wherever possible.

For example, Unilever responded quickly to donate Dove soap to the NSW Department of Education for distribution to schools experiencing shortages due to stockpiling. Unilever has also provided funding to help Foodbank NSW and ACT employ paid casuals in lieu of corporate volunteer groups that have been cancelled due to new social distancing rules.

This will help Foodbank continue supporting Australians facing hardship, particularly as a result of the coronavirus. Customers and suppliers Unilever will offer $912m of cash flow relief to support livelihoods across its extended value chain, through:

• Early payment for our most vulnerable small and medium sized suppliers, to help them with financial liquidity.

• Extending credit to selected small-scale retail customers whose business relies on Unilever, to help them manage and protect jobs.

Workforce Unilever will protect its workforce from sudden drops in pay, as a result of market disruption or being unable to perform their role, for up to three months. We will cover our employees, contractors and others who we manage or who work on our sites, on a full or part-time basis. This will apply to workers not already covered by government plans or by their direct employer.

Automation is part of the solution to rebuild areas hit by fires

With an estimated 12.35 million acres of land and 2,500 homes and business having been destroyed in the recent runaway fires that ravaged the landscape since September 2019, Australia is now faced with the enormous and arduous task of rebuilding the country.

While this might seem like an insurmountable task to many, the fires also bring new opportunities to the adjacent industries involved in helping rebuild the homes, buildings and farmland that were lost in the fire, giving an opportunity to jumpstart the economy. This is particularly true in the agriculture industry, which comprised 14 per cent of the total land that was burned by the Australian bushfires. By mid-January, an estimated 820,000 ha of agricultural land had been destroyed across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Rising up from the ashes
Cobot manufacturer Universal Robots, believes that while this tragic event has left a trail of destruction and Australia still needs to recover from the loss to its ecosystem, companies may be able to speed up the process of rebuilding by implementing technological advancements across the spectrum.

With applications ranging from packaging and palletising, assembly, welding, product handling and many more, UR cobots can tackle those tedious tasks that require superhuman abilities to repeat the same movement over and over again for many hours with exactly the same precision. Cobots have been successfully deployed across a range of industries and have become more common in manufacturing environments.

“A big benefit UR cobots hold in this rebuilding process is that it provides manufacturers and industry with the ability to act fast, increase productivity, profits and offer higher quality products,” said Darrell Adams, Head of SEAO at Universal Robots.

Cobots can be programmed, operated and maintained by existing employees, regardless of the team’s previous robotics or automation experience. In fact, the out-of-box experience for an untrained operator to unpack a UR robot, mount it, and program the first simple task is typically less than an hour according to Adams.

Food production accelerated
As far as the agriculture industry is concerned, the company believes that farmers in Australia need all the help they can get. With automated agriculture going from strength to strength, cobots can offer an effective solution. According to a recent report, the market for agricultural robots is expected to reach $35 billion within the next five years.  “Cobots can prove their agricultural worth by assisting producers in getting their businesses back up and running faster and more efficiently,” says Adams.

He notes that UR cobots can be applied to a number of requirements within the agriculture and food processing sector. Robots are successfully used in planting, seeding, fertilising, irrigation, weeding, thinning, pruning, harvesting and milking applications among others.

The company prides itself in the cobot’s ability to handle delicate agricultural processes and products. Such an example can be found in the dairy industry, where a UR robot arm mounted to a small pallet jack is used to disinfect and milk cows, cutting labour costs and time taken to complete the job. The robot takes up no more space than a human milker and doesn’t require any safety caging.

Another application where cobots can be implemented is in the packaging of goods that are sent to market. Adams notes one case study of a UR10 robot, installed at a food manufacturer. The robot worked independently to pack vanilla cream bags into cartons, but also formed part of a network that includes a carton erector, a carton sealer, and a filling machine. “This is one of the real benefits of cobots – it can work alongside workers and form part of your factory process.”

Collaborative robots are also ideal for hygienic food processing environments, where it can operate around the clock during seasonal periods of high production and can be easily redeployed to new applications as needed, helping local farmers reach their production goals faster.

A local success story
Developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in proud partnership with Universal Robots, Harvey, a robotic harvester combines state-of-the-art robotic vision and manipulation techniques to identify and harvest capsicums.

Harvesting labour in Australia ranges from 20 – 40 per cent of operational farming costs and this combined with a shortage of skilled labour can result in some of the crops not being harvested.

In recent trails, Harvey used images from a camera-in-hand system to locate the fruit. A motion planning algorithm was then used to command a novel multi-mode harvesting tool to safely detach the fruit. Results show a fruit harvesting success rate of 76.5% – a significant improvement when compared to the state-of-the-art, which achieved 33% in a similar scenario. Harvey also achieved an average pick time of 20 seconds for this field trial compared to 106 seconds by its predecessor.

This year, QUT will further develop Harvey as part of its involvement in the new Future of Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre backed by $35M in Australian Government funding over 10 years, and $149.6M in cash and in-kind funds from more than 50 participants.

Making cobots accessible to everyone
According to Adams, UR has just released a financial services leasing programme which could prove to be a lifeline for producers who are rebuilding their business. “We are levelling the playing field by enabling all manufacturers to immediately put cobots to work without an upfront capital investment. UR Financial Services offers a fast, low-risk and financially-friendly model to accelerate automation. The partnership makes it easy to upgrade existing cobots, add additional units or test cobots for the first time – and equips users to maximise productivity, quality and profitability, without increasing costs or cash outlay” says Adams.

“It’s time to think more laterally about agriculture. Robotics is the revolutionary new technology which can change the way we think about producing food,” he concluded.