What if seeds were vaccines?

What if the rapid innovations that delivered COVID-19 vaccines to the world could be applied to create future-ready crops? That was the question asked at a recent workshop led by AFII Deputy Director, Associate Professor Alison Bentley which looked at whether learnings from the rapid COVID-19 vaccine development and rollout could provide a blueprint for focusing international cooperation towards the accelerated breeding of climate-ready crops.

Alison said the workshop, which brought together experts in vaccine development, seed and data innovation, the economics of innovation, blockchain, crisis response, equity and policy, was a reminder that innovation is not just about science and technology.

“We know that technology alone is not enough to solve some of the wicked problems facing our climate and food systems. In fact, in many cases the science and technology needed already exists,” she said.

“To create truly transformational change, we also need a regulatory system that’s fit for purpose, funding structures that incentivise innovation and collaboration, and community and political support for new ways of doing things.

“It’s these areas in which I believe we have a lot to learn from what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For example, with the vaccines, regulatory flexibility cut a two-year process of review and approval down to just three months. This contributed to cutting the timeframe for developing a new vaccine from 10 years to just 12 months. That’s revolutionary.”

The high price of regulation

When it comes to regulatory hurdles, the parallels between vaccine development and crop breeding are clear.

Speaking at the workshop, Katherine Delbridge from the Australian Seeds Federation gave the example of the cost of meeting biosecurity requirements for imported tomato seeds, which she said was 6-7 times more expensive here than in New Zealand, based on seed lot sampling size.

She said that Australian producers and consumers were missing out on many overseas varieties of tomatoes because of the high barrier to entry in Australia.

This is just one example of where well-intentioned and important regulations hinder innovation in food production.

We know, when done well, regulation can enable innovation. The COVID-19 vaccine development process taught us that it is possible for regulatory processes to be streamlined in ways which mitigate risks for humans, animals and plants and are palatable for the community.

With research expertise in the School of Global Governance and Regulation and Research School of Biology, as well as centres like the Plant Biosecurity Training Centre at ANU we are well-placed to work with governments and industry to develop innovative solutions to safeguard our agricultural industries while also enabling greater crop diversity.

Engaging people outside of a crisis

Another key factor in the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to a large proportion of the Australian population was community support.

Emeritus Professor at the Doherty Institute, Terry Nolan observed that it’s easier to engage people in a crisis, but much harder to build that same level of support when things are ‘normal’.

Compared to the COVID-19 pandemic, the multifaceted crises of climate and food security are relatively slow moving, making it more difficult to garner community and political support for rapid and significant action.

In this context, it was powerful to hear from Khalid Muse from the Global Centre for Preventative Health and Nutrition at Deakin University.

He reminded us that when conducting research it’s important to meet people where they are and listen to what is important to them, rather than expecting them to come to you.

While in Khalid’s case he was referring to marginalised groups within a community in relation to health research, this advice also holds true when we think about food systems and climate.

These ideas are food for thought as we consider the significant impacts that climate change, and the changes needed to mitigate it, will have on the lives of people in regional areas of Australia, young people and farmers, among many other groups.

In the coming months, AFII will be working with workshop presenters and participants to identify areas for further exploration and action in relation to the development of future-ready crops and other major AFII themes.

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