December CEAT Director’s message

As readers may know, CEAT established its Agri-Innovation Fellow Program in late 2020. 

One of the main reasons for starting the Program was to ensure that CEAT is as well connected as possible to external agri-sector agencies. The Program is also designed to help CEAT identify the major industry challenges where researchers from the ANU-CSIRO Precinct could help develop innovative, transformative solutions. We also want our Fellows to act as ambassadors to build awareness of what the ANU/CSIRO Precinct has to offer to the agri-sector, and to contribute to events, workshops, and research projects where relevant. 

In return, each Fellow becomes an official ANU Campus Visitor, and with it, access to our world-class library resources and other resources at Acton Campus. We also provide Fellows with a place to work while they are visiting the CEAT Innovation Hub. But perhaps most importantly, we want to help Fellows advance thought-leadership projects where there is a mutual gain to both the Fellow and CEAT.  

Prior to this month, we had appointed three Agri-Innovation Fellows: Professor Janelle Allison to support  courses in Responsible Innovation; Dr Rohan Rainbow to explore where technology from other sectors (e.g. military, telecommunication) could be used to address complex challenges facing the agri-sector; and, Dr Nadeem Samnakay to develop a deeper understanding of what is meant by the term ‘drought resilience’ and to explore structural strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s agricultural innovation ecosystem.  

Looking forward, I am keen to expand the Fellow Program to link CEAT with a range of other sectors and communities, both within Australia and overseas. It is with this in mind that I am pleased to announce that CEAT has just appointed Dr Alison Bentley as our latest Agri-Innovation Fellow recruit. Alison is Director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Global Wheat Program and associated CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. From her base in Mexico, Alison manages a team of 40 international scientists tasked with developing new varieties of wheat with improved yield potential and climate resilience. Their work is crucial to improving food security across the planet, with CIMMYT germplasm currently distributed to 200 partners in wheat-producing countries worldwide. To give you an idea of scale of their work, the new varieties developed by CIMMYT are now grown on 50% of the spring wheat area in developing countries.

Alison has extensive experience in using genetics and genomics to improve crop production. She is passionate about improving the climate resilience of key crops such as wheat – the importance of which cannot overstated given climate change and the need to produce nutritious food for a growing global population.

Prior to joining CIMMYT, Alison worked at the century-old National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge UK, where she was a Senior Research Scientist for over nine years, and Director of Genetics & Breeding for just under five years. At NIAB, Alison’s work focused on translation of fundamental scientific breakthroughs into tangible impacts for the agri-food sector, with her work using genetics and genomics to improve crop production. Alison, as is often the case for such well-travelled scientists, is Australian (PhD, University of Sydney). 

In our discussions with Alison about how she would like to use the Fellowship to advance her work, we explored ideas around how crop development and distribution of seed globally could be advanced through new ways of thinking and technology development. Noting the need to dramatically shorten the time taken to develop new climate-resilient crops (often 10-15 years), Alison is particularly interested in understanding what lessons could be applied from the rapid and agile COVID-19 global vaccine development, in order to produce new wheat varieties within two to five years. Alison also sees opportunities to learn from block chain processes to achieve more equitable and effective seed delivery to developing countries – many of which face war or are politically unstable. CEAT looks forward to working with Alison to develop new initiatives in these areas. 

Talking of COVID-19, I was super pleased to see that the Canadian-based Medicago Inc. has just announced the positive results of their Phase 3 efficacy and safety trail for their adjuvanted plant-based COVID-19 vaccine that is stable in regular refrigerators. CEAT, along with staff from the ANU-node of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility and the ANU School of Computing, is proud to be collaborating with Medicago on an interdisciplinary project to develop non-invasive ways of examining the plants Medicago uses to produce vaccines.  You can read more about the collaboration here

This month, we were pleased to award funding for projects under the newly-launched CEAT Strategic Investment Program, which has been established to increase the number of ANU researchers engaging in projects of relevance to the agricultural sector and facilitate new collaborations between researchers and industry.  

Below is a taster of the SIP projects that CEAT has agreed to support.

  • Prof. Alex Maier from the Research School of Biology will work with a veterinarian specialising in parasitology to conduct proof-of-concept field trials designed to secure interest from commercial partners, of a lipid-based delivery mechanism for antiparasitics (for use in treatment of parasites in livestock).
  • Associate Prof. Cormac Corr from the Research School of Physics will work with the Australian Meat Processor Corporation and industry partners to produce a prototype of plasma technology as a tool sterilisation solution in Australian abattoirs, with the goal of decreasing water and energy use.
  • Dr Jeremy Smith from the College of Engineering and Computer Science will team with Black Duck Foods Farm (Vic), South Coast Native Seeds (NSW) and local farmers to explore ways in which technology can be used to harvest native grains for consumption, and support indigenous-led, industry-aligned research.

Finally, I would like to express my thanks to Penny Brew (Business Administration Manager) and Sarah Biggerstaff (Communications Officer), both of whom will be leaving CEAT later this month.  Since joining CEAT two years ago, Penny has been instrumental in establishing a range business processes crucial to our operations and evaluation frameworks.  Sarah has also been with CEAT for two years – she has been CEAT’s point-person for growth of our social media profile, monthly newsletters and web content.  Both have been crucial to CEAT’s success and I wish them well for the future.

Also, a huge thanks to the rest of the CEAT team and our CEAT Governance Committee all they have done in 2021. In a year where there was no shortage of challenges, they have ensured that CEAT has had many wins and is poised to have greater impact in 2023 and beyond.

Best wishes, Happy New Year. And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.

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