The needs of the malting barley industry are receiving a lot of attention at the moment, and rightly so. Barley is the second most important cereal crop in Australia. Malting barley offers an average annual value to the country of about $550 million - about half of that in export income.
Australia has traditionally dominated the international malting barley market - commanding about 45 per cent of world trade. Export malt is a value-added world market in which Australia has about a 9 per cent share. We would like to supply more.
The problem for Australian growers and for the industry, as painted by an exhaustive study commissioned by the Grains Council and paid for by growers, is simply this: Australia is currently being outcompeted on the quality-sensitive world markets that bring in the most export dollars.
The need for reassessment and response is made more urgent by the finding that China, Australia's largest customer and the second-largest beer producer in the world, will likely become more demanding within the next five years. These and other study findings are in this issue of Ground Cover.
The recent loss of sales to the Japanese market, associated with the demand shift toward malt with high diastatic power, provides a good lesson on how vulnerable the Australian barley industry has become to shifts in market requirements. With signals from overseas that breeders are targeting ever-finer
quality characteristics such as 'haze-free' traits, it is vital that barley researchers have the best market intelligence they can get.
To that end, the GRDC has invested $90,000 over three years in the establishment of a Barley Quality Objectives Group (BQOG). The group's brief is to define quality objectives in significant markets, to identify gaps and prioritise further research. Most importantly, the Group will help to identify likely future market demands so that the industry can plan to meet market needs rather than play "catch-up".
Meanwhile, the GRDC's 1993 initiative to fund and coordinate barley research through the National Malting Barley Research Agenda is already showing signs of paying off. New varieties and technology for faster breeding are coming on line - see stories page 5.
Nevertheless, investment in barley improvement has to be seen as an ongoing long-term proposition. Ten years is a reasonable expectation for the development and market-testing of new varieties. And a consistent flow of varieties with improved characteristics is essential.
But varieties alone are not the answer. The best genetic material will not deliver its potential without proper agronomic support. That matter, too, is being addressed.