February Director’s message

February may be a short month, but boy, there is quite a bit you can pack into 28 days!

For CEAT, the month began with a visit to our Innovation Hub by Senator David Pocock to meet Hub start-up Wildlife Drones. The Senator was taken into one of the labs where the team produces advanced drone radio-telemetry systems, and shown how those systems are used to track animals, both in natural and managed ecosystems.

The next day, I attended the ANU State of the University Address given by Vice Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt. Unexpectedly, Professor Schmidt announced that after several years as VC, he would be stepping down at the end of 2023. The role of VC is a demanding one – but being VC during the global pandemic would have made the role all the more challenging. Our thanks go to Professor Schmidt, both for what he has done for the wider ANU and for his vision of investing in ANU innovation institutes that leverage the full interdisciplinary capabilities of the university to address societal and industry challenges. CEAT is proud to be one of the two ANU innovation institutes, along with InSpace. 

I, along with several others from the CEAT team, travelled to Adelaide for the evokeAG agrifood tech conference last week. Over two and half days, I got to listen to some great talks and panel discussions, as well as connect with researchers and industry representatives. Huge shout out to the AgriFutures crew who put on what was a fantastic event.

While much of the conference focused on showing how innovation was key to enabling humans to explore outer space, the tag line ‘down to Earth’ pointed to how space innovations have relevance for the agrifood ecosystem at our doorstep. With dozens of companies showing their tech innovations, one could think that agriculture was at the cusp of a revolution. And in many ways, it is. A nice example was the entertaining and accessible talk by Dr Alexander Tokarz from Syngenta in which he outlined how technological breakthroughs are enabling the breeding of new types of crops with improved disease resistance, stress tolerance and yield potential – crucial traits needed if we are to meet an ever-growing demand for nutritious food while also minimising the environmental footprint of agriculture.

A similar theme was picked up by Alasdair Macleod in a session focusing on what were dubbed the 4Cs – COVID, conflict, climate and cost. During the panel discussion, Alasdair highlighted the need to reduce farm inputs (e.g. fertilisers and water) to reduce costs in the agriculture sector and, in doing so, help protect the environment, improve profitability and reduce sovereign risk. The availability of crop types capable of growing on less nutrients and using less water will be key – with technological development and accelerated breeding being at the forefront of addressing this need. 

When viewed in isolation, such ideas and advancements might leave one thinking that technology was revolutionising all stages of the agrifood value chain. However, in the same panel discussion, Sam Trethewey  provided an important reality check, highlighting the disconnect between increasing availability of agri-tech innovations and the limited extent to which technology is adopted on farms. For me, the discussion highlighted a few important threads of how technology is influencing agriculture. Yes, on-farm adoption of the many technological advancements remains relatively limited. But on the other hand, technology is revolutionising many of the inputs farmers use (e.g. germplasm – as highlighted by Dr Tokaz), while also having an important impact on post-farm parts of the value chain, including how farm-produce is packaged, shipped, tracked and traded. Thus, while on-farm adoption is limited, agri-food innovation is having an important impact on the wider agrifood system. 

In the same week, it was great to see Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, announce a review of Australia’s national science priorities led by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley. The review will be important, as the science priorities set the framework through which government invests in initiatives that use science to address societal, environmental and economic challenges. I encourage you to read the consultation paper and terms of reference for the review.  As regular readers of this monthly message know, I am an advocate for Australia developing new forms of investment that harness the interdisciplinary capabilities of Australia’s research institutions to address long-term, complex challenges. In that context, I was pleased to see that Minister Husic say the Government wants to “tackle the big challenges [by]  supporting a strong and energetic research sector and a real sense of collective focus”. CEAT looks forward to contributing to the review in the coming months.  

February was also a month that CEAT worked with the ANU Office of Business Engagement and Commercialisation and the Canberra Innovation Network to host a workshop looking at what needs to be put in place to enable Canberra to develop a vibrant bioeconomy. The workshop brought participants from industry, government and universities together to discuss what initiatives are needed to help support the development of companies such as Nourish Ingredients and Samsara. A key outcome of that workshop was the need for a training pipeline to ensure that companies can access highly-skilled workers capable of working in an industry context while also drawing on their knowledge of science, technology and business. CEAT looks forward to working with the participants to develop initiatives that will enable these issues to be addressed in the coming years. 

The month ended with a day at the National Press Club to take part in the National Farmers Federation’s forum on International Engagement and Trade. Much of the day was taken up by discussions about how sustainability frameworks are becoming an increasing component of international trade agreements. The need for Australian agriculture to document sustainability practices, and to provide data as evidence, were highlighted. There was also discussion on how some countries are using sustainability requirements as a form of protectionism. Because such issues are complex, it will be crucial that solutions to the trade-sustainability challenges are developed in ways that bridge multiple disciplines. My hope is that ANU will play its part through inputs coming from experts in the Colleges of Law, Asia Pacific and Arts/Social Sciences, along with technical experts in the Colleges of Science and Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics.

Finally, an update on our Innovation Hub. Renovations are about to commence on an extension of our Hub space which will enable more businesses to join us in the coming months. If you are a business with an agrifood focus who would benefit from unique access to ANU researchers and infrastructure to support your R&D and growth, please get in touch with the CEAT team at [email protected]

And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!


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