September Director’s message

For me, September has been a month of learning. Through a series of meetings with researchers and agri-sector experts, I have been learning more about the complex challenges facing agriculture, and ways in which research-intensive universities can deliver the R&D needed to address those challenges. A key topic in those discussions was whether Australia’s current agricultural R&D innovation ecosystem – with a focus on increasing profitability and sustainability of today’s farmers – will be able to develop solutions to the complex challenges facing the next generation of farmers. 

One of the reports I read this month was a report published by AgriFutures Australia: From ideas to impact: A revitalised collaborative innovation model for Australian agriculture. In that report, Andy Lamb and his co-authors explored how a strength of the current Australian R&D innovation ecosystem – that being its focus on returning value to today’s farmers – may leave a gap in our ability to address longer-term challenges. As the authors note, the current ecosystem is focused on investments that target near-term production problems, with reduced capacity “to embrace longer-term transformational projects” that target the needs of the next generation of farmers. Our children are likely to face a very different environment, as shifts in climate are changing what can be grown where and when, and are negatively impacting the long-term resilience, stability and growth of rural communities. This, when combined with increased competition and productivity in the international market, means that other forms of innovative R&D will be needed if Australia is to secure the future of its agricultural communities.  

In response to this need, several agencies have increased their agricultural innovation investments, with a strong emphasis on near-term projects that promote adoption, commercialisation and extension. Examples include the Federal Government’s $5B Future Drought Fund, and associated investments in Drought Resilience Adoption & Innovation Hubs and the Drought Resilience Innovation Grants Program. Another is CSIRO’s 5-year Drought Resilience Mission investment. Achieving greater impact from the research knowledge that already exists, or will soon exist, is a key aspect of many of these investments. Less emphasis, however, is placed on investment in longer-term research needed to develop the transformational tools that will be needed by the next generation of farmers. 

For example, how could a future farmer remain profitable in areas where winter rainfall continues to decline and temperatures continue to rise?  The solution is likely to come from R&D targeting transformational change in water management and water use efficiency, with breakthroughs in plant molecular biology being fused with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.  Similarly, how might future farmers slash the high financial and environmental costs associated with fertilisers? Here, the ultimate solution might be to develop cereals capable of symbiotically fixing atmospheric nitrogen into plant protein (as occurs in legumes). Success would require a sustained research effort at scale, but could deliver huge benefits to future farmers. In both cases, achieving transformational change will require a new of way investing in R&D – one that combines the success of today’s near-term investments with a longer-term commitment to world-leading, industry-facing research that is conducted at a scale currently missing the Australian agricultural innovation ecosystem. 

Australia’s universities do world-class discovery research – research that seeks to “know the nature of things”.  But such research will, in itself, not address the complex, long-term challenges facing the agri-sector. Thankfully, change is afoot. Across the country, Australia’s research-intensive universities are evolving how they work with industry, with more and more researchers wanting to use their knowledge to address complex industry challenges.  There is also greater emphasis on researchers working in interdisciplinary teams. An example is how CEAT has brought researchers from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science and ANU-node of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility together to develop technologies need by a Canadian pharmaceutical company (Medicago Inc.).  Medicago Inc. use glasshouse-grown plants as factories to rapidly produce commercial quantities of vaccines that target a range of diseases, such as seasonal flu, Ebola and COVID-19. To better understand their production system, Medicago Inc. needed access to experts in plant science, sensor technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Mediated by CEAT, ANU was able to assemble an interdisciplinary team to address the company’s needs. We are now one year into a 5-year agreement, with the project being an exemplar of how universities are changing the way they can and do work with industry.  

Looking forward, there are exciting opportunities for how the interdisciplinary research capability of the ANU and other universities can be also used as part of transformational projects targeting the complex challenges facing the next generation of Australian farmers.  

As I mentioned last month, CEAT is working with the Canberra Innovation NetworkANU Institute of SpaceANU Institute of Water Futures, CSIRO, Charles Sturt University and others to run a hackathon that focuses on how satellite technologies can be used to improve water management. Titled ‘H2O Hack: solving water challenges from space’, the event will run from Oct 11-15th 2021. The virtual event is open to teams across Australia and overseas.  With $20K of prizes on offer, and a great line up of speakers and mentors, the event promises to ‘unearth’ new ways of using space technology (e.g. Earth observation, geolocation & connectivity tools) to address water challenges facing the agricultural sector and rural communities. There are still a few openings for teams, so get in soon if you want to participate. Registrations close on 8 October.

Finally, make sure you have a good read of two articles in this month’s CEAT newsletter – one written by Dr Stephen Trowell on his journey from CSIRO researcher to PPB Technology start-up entrepreneur, and the other looking at the success of Nourish Ingredients, another start up emerging from CSIRO.  

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.

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