Alison Bentley joins AFII

Scientists need to think and dream big if they’re going to support the agriculture industry to make the transformational changes it needs to thrive in our changing climate. That’s according to the head of one of Australia’s largest wheat breeding companies.

Talking to the ABC last week, Intergrain CEO Tress Walmsley said the industry needs to provide a safe and supportive environment for scientists to propose boundary-pushing ideas, like nitrogen-fixing wheat.

“We’ve [the grains industry] been doing a pretty awesome job. In WA in the past 30 years, you can’t doubt now that we’re in a drying climate and we’ve got increased heat, and we as an industry have still been producing more and higher volumes. But, as that climate challenge becomes more accelerated, doing more of just the same probably isn’t going to be enough. Let’s take the blinkers off our scientists [and] provide a really supportive environment for them to be safe and go ‘what if we did this’,” Ms Walmsley said.

Wheat scientist and newly appointed Deputy Director of the Agrifood Innovation Institute (AFII), Associate Professor Alison Bentley agrees with Ms Walmsley, saying she hopes to use her new role to drive cultural change around the ways researchers approach the science of agriculture.

“The reality in agriculture is we still don’t have an innovation landscape where we can say, wow, these places are really taking forth innovations in different ways,” Associate Professor Bentley says.

“As a part of AFII and ANU, I see a great opportunity to be disruptive, by taking the best of what we already do, and matching that with an aspiration to do things differently.

“We can do that by taking a more open mindset and harnessing the talent of a much wider group of people and disciplines to try to catalyse new ways of thinking and, in doing so, sow seeds for future innovations.”

Associate Professor Bentley will be starting at ANU in January as part of a joint appointment with AFII and the Research School of Biology. Her research combines genetics and genomics to develop and deliver new tools and technology to improve plant breeding, crop production and adaptation to climate change.

She brings 18 years’ international experience, including, most recently, three years as Director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. At CIMMYT, Alison led a team using scientific approaches to develop improved wheat germplasm. 

Prior to joining CIMMYT, Alison worked at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in the UK, focused on translation of fundamental scientific breakthroughs into tangible impacts for the agrifood sector. She has a doctorate in agricultural science and PhD in agriculture from The University of Sydney, Australia.

She comes to the ANU keen to harness the expertise of the University’s world class researchers to tackle some of the complex challenges facing agriculture in a truly interdisciplinary way.

“If we are successful, I see the next step being to scale our integrative approach so that it can be applied by other people in other places. We can build an agrifood innovation community around the world, not just in one university or one place.”

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