Trade Minister Craig Emerson
Trade Minister Craig Emerson Rob Williams

Nation's farmers discuss industry issues at annual congress

FOREIGN investment, coal seam gas and rising farm input costs were hot topics at the first day of the National Farmers Federation Congress in Canberra on Monday.

The annual congress brought farmers, commodity traders, agribusiness bankers and even politicians together to talk about the big issues facing Australian agriculture.

An announcement from Graincorp, that it had received a takeover bid from United States grain giant Archer Daniels Midland in the morning, set the scene for a fiery debate on foreign investment.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson and outspoken Riverina farmer Jock Munro traded barbs on foreign investment, with Mr Munro even alleging overseas investors were breaking Commonwealth law.

Mr Emerson quickly put paid to that proposition, saying that in many discussions he had, issues such as the lowering the screening threshold for foreign investors would don't fix the system.

He also said the government was willing to look at a public register of foreign investment in Australia's land and possibly business.

This was a move supported by Tom McKean, from Qatari state-owned firm Hassad Foods, who said the company welcomed further scrutiny as it reassured foreign investors Australia had a framework in place.

On relations between the coal seam gas industry and agriculture, trust was the word of the day.

Despite varying views from the panellists, all agreed that resource companies and farmers needed to work together to improve trust, with the majority agreeing the CSG industry was the least transparent part of the relationship.

And several federal politicians, Agriculture Parliamentary Secretary Sid Sidebottom, Opposition agriculture spokesman John Cobb, Greens Leader Christine Milne and independent MP Rob Oakeshott, talked shop.

While each focussed on what they had done, or would do, to help Australian agriculture, all largely acknowledged the challenges facing the varied industry sectors.

NFF president Jock Laurie said that despite the lack of government support and subsidies - standard practice in places such as the US - Australian agriculture had "enormous potential, provided we are able to overcome the challenges ahead".

The conference will continue on Tuesday, with speeches from both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

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