November Director’s Message

In October the Australian Government released the most recent edition of the National Agricultural Innovation Policy Statement. The Statement provides an up-to-date overview of the Agricultural Innovation Agenda and how a range of investments are being deployed to help greatly increase Australia’s annual agricultural productivity growth. 

In this Director’s Message, I briefly explore some of the key pillars of the Agricultural Innovation Agenda and areas where further development is needed. 

The Policy Statement outlines how average productivity growth has stagnated over the last 15 years, and the need to significantly increase productivity growth if Australian agriculture is to achieve annual output of $100B by 2030. With these challenges in mind, the Statement outlines a range of strategies and investments targeting increases in agricultural productivity, profitability and sustainability. It includes a focus on investments that improve “the balance of funding and investment to deliver both incremental and transformation innovation”. The Statement highlights the importance of getting the regulatory settings right if we are to stimulate innovation. There is also a focus on “empowering our regions to achieve greater uptake of innovation” – a goal that is being addressed, in part, through the $66M Future Drought Fund investment in eight Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hubs. Achieving greater impact from the research knowledge that already exists, or will soon exist, is a key aspect of the Hub investments. 

To what extent are the investments outlined in the Statement likely to deliver “incremental and transformational innovation”?  On the plus side, the focus on extracting value from existing research and increasing adoption, extension and commercialisation is warranted. Setting up knowledge broker networks that link the needs of industry stakeholders to research output of regional and capital city universities is also a plus. All well and good. 

However, if we accept that a key element of “transformational innovation” is to invest in research that tackles the complex, intergenerational challenges facing the agricultural sector, then the investments outlined in the Statement may not be enough. Ideally, it would be great to see the Agricultural Innovation Agenda broadened to include long-term, transformational investments targeting agricultural productivity, resilience and sustainability in the decades beyond 2030. This might include addressing big hairy challenges such as the need to reduce our reliance on inorganic fertilisers and in doing so, reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. This challenge has been highlighted by recent sharp rises in the price of nitrogen-based fertilisers – whose production consumes large amounts of energy, typically obtained from the burning of fossil fuels. Looking ahead, it is also likely that the world’s readily-available phosphorus supplies will be inadequate to meet demand within 30-40 years. Given these issues, it is vital that we develop the capability to grow crops using less fertilisers. Some of the solutions will require developing new crops that can modify the soils around roots to stimulate biological fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by soil bacteria and/or free up phosphorus that is otherwise bound to soil particles. Redesigning crops such as wheat to fix nitrogen in their roots (as occurs in legumes) would also be a potential long-term research goal. These ‘moonshot’ goals could help transform agriculture – but to make them a reality, new approaches will be needed – approaches that are unlikely to be met through our existing agricultural innovation ecosystem. 

A key aspect of a future Australian innovation ecosystem will be emergence of a vibrant, industry-led agri-tech sector. Key to achieving this is ensuring that the industry is able to speak to government with a single voice. Noting this, I was super pleased to see that Tracey Martin has been appointed as the new CEO of the Australian Agritech Association (AusAgritech) – the peak body for agri-tech companies in Australia. As I noted in June, CEAT is supporting AusAgritech as a Foundation Member; this reflects our shared goal of fostering a world-class agri-tech industry and ecosystem in Australia. Tracey, Andrew Coppin (Board Member, AusAgritech) and I met earlier this month to discuss how CEAT and AusAgritech could work together to forge closer links between agri-tech companies and the research capacity of Australia’s universities. We also discussed how the ANU could work with AusAgritech to identify the regulatory settings needed to support and stimulate a vibrant, export-oriented agri-tech industry in Australia. Please keep an eye out for events in 2022 that address these issues. 

Also related to the above, the recently established ARC Training Centre for Accelerated Future Crop Development – led by Professor Barry Pogson – has begun formalising its programs and initiatives. The focus of the Centre will be to train a new generation of researchers and leaders to build capabilities for agriculture. CEAT is looking forward to working with the Centre, particularly with respect to developing industry placements for the PhD student cohort. Professor Pogson; together with Professor Bob Furbank (CEAT Champion) and Professor Adrienne Nicotra from the ANU Research School of Biology have been named as world-leading experts in their fields, featuring in the 2021 “Highly cited researchers” in the Web of Science. We are proud of their achievements and grateful for their contribution to fundamental and industry aligned research. Talking of PhD students, applications are now open for the first round of the ARC Training Centre’s PhD scholarships (due December 3rd 2021). 

November was also a month during which ANU and a Canadian biopharmaceutical company (Medicago R&D Inc) successfully completed the first phase ($1M, 14 months) of a five-year research collaboration to monitor the growth and performance of plants used in the production of vaccines and protein-based therapeutics. The second phase (15 months) of the collaboration will support $1.5M of research to enable Medicago to optimise their proprietary plant-based technology.  CEAT and the ANU Office of Business Engagement and Commercialisation are proud to have supported the collaboration since its inception.  It has been a pleasure to be involved in a project that harnesses the knowledge, expertise and infrastructure of the ANU-node of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility, Research School of Biology and School of Computing to help increase vaccine production – particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about the collaboration here

Finally, make sure you read our CEAT newsletter.

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.

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