Director’s message

With 2024 now at the halfway point, the Agrifood Innovation Institute (AFII) team has been busy supporting initiatives targeting transformation of the agrifood system.

Key to our approach is engaging experts from areas not traditionally associated with agriculture to develop ideas on how to produce nutritious food in ways that are profitable, equitable and environmentally sustainable. In support of this, AFII recently hosted a unique forum to explore how learnings from the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines could be used to accelerate crop breeding. You can read more about the event, which was led by AFII Deputy Director Alison Bentley, here.

Responding to global food security challenges will involve the application of technologies that change how, where and when we grow food. In many cases, those solutions are likely to require the use of biotechnology tools which enable introduction of novel genetic material and/or control over what genes are expressed in situ. These technologies are generally considered safe from a nutritional and environmental perspective; however, their transformational nature means their use is highly-regulated safety and appropriate use. In Australia we have agencies tasked with regulating the use of biotechnology to produce food (e.g. the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) and ensuring the food we eat is safe (e.g. Food Standards Australia New Zealand). 

As part of our focus on food safety and regulation, several of the AFII team recently met with FSANZ CEO Sandy Cuthbert. In our chat, Dr Cuthbert highlighted the need to consider the impacts of climate change and new ways of producing food on how we regulate for food safety; societal perspectives when developing policies on food safety regulation; and nutritional outcomes when developing policies in the food domain. She noted that FSANZ has a role in supporting industry to innovate while also creating a regulatory environment where the public can rightly trust the food they eat. ANU – through its world-leading expertise in developing policies that improve governance and regulation, and in reimagining how governance shapes technology – looks forward to working with FSANZ and other agencies to create a safe and sustainable food system for all.

The need to transform plant breeding and improve nutritional outcomes for consumers were topics covered by many of the speakers at a Sydney Institute of Agriculture (SIA) research showcase focusing on sustainable food systems. In my talk, I outlined how researchers are using the latest developments in plant phenotyping tools, machine learning and biological discovery to dramatically improve our capacity to screen for variations in metabolic heat tolerance of staple crops such as wheat. In many parts of the world, extreme temperatures of 45-50°C are becoming more common, highlighting the need to find new ways to develop future ready crops. 

One of the speakers at the SIA event was David Raubenheimer, a Professor of Nutritional Ecology. David focused on the need to optimise the nutritional quality of foods, by getting the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats, to achieve better societal and environmental outcomes. The negative impact of high-fat and carbohydrate diets on protein intake was highlighted, as were the challenges we face to produce more affordable and environmentally sustainable protein options. Later, Professor Anne Marie Thow focused on the policy settings needed to achieve healthy and sustainable food systems. She emphasised the need to adopt a system-wide approach when seeking to achieve better nutritional outcomes, and the need to incorporate economic and trade factors into food system policy development. Links between calorie intake and life expectancy were then discussed by Professor Johannes le Coutre, with his talk showing how increases in calorie consumption in developing countries were linked to longer lifespans up to the year 2000, but with lifespans then declining as calorie intake exceeded the optimum. Thus, the issues we face are not just now much food is available, but also that there is equitable access to more nutritious foods.

A key aspect of achieving the outcomes discussed above is ensuring that Australia has the policy settings needed to support a vibrant and sustainable food and beverage manufacturing sector. In partnership with the ANU National Security College (NSC), AFII made a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Food and Beverage Manufacturing in Australia.

Our submission highlighted the urgent need for innovation in the way Australia produces food to ensure we can continue to contribute towards feeding an increasing global population in an environmentally sustainable way. In particular, we emphasised the need for collaboration between the university sector, industry and civil society.

PPB Technology founder Dr Stephen Trowell, NSC research fellow Dr Dirk van der Kley and I also gave evidence at a public hearing of the committee. I highlighted the central role that R&D plays in ensuring that Australia’s food and beverage sector remains world-leading, and in doing so, serves Australians. However, this contribution cannot be taken for granted, particularly with national R&D having declined from 2.2 per cent of GDP a decade ago to 1.68 per cent, well below the OECD average of 2.95 per cent. This downward trend urgently needs to be reversed. I also highlighted how ANU is doing is part to drive innovation in the agrifood domain through its investment in AFII and associated initiatives, many of which involve breaking down silos, building interdisciplinary teams to work on industry challenges, and ensuring the next generation of graduates have the skills needed by the sector. You can read the full transcript here.

Reflecting on the above, what strikes me is how absolutely fascinating it is to be working in a space where the future of the food system requires such a diverse range of inputs and actors.  Never a dull day.

Finally, we have had lab space open up in our Agrifood Hub located on the ANU campus in Canberra. If you have a business with an agrifood focus that would benefit from unique access to ANU researchers and infrastructure to support your R&D and growth, please get in touch with the AFII team at [email protected]

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