Corporate R&D bridges the GFC for US grains

Photo of Dr Tim Lust

United Sorghum Checkoff Program chief executive officer Dr Tim Lust.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

Insight into the R&D landscape in the US added an overseas perspective to the issue of private sector grains research at this year’s Australian Summer Grains Conference in Queensland.

In a keynote speech, Dr Tim Lust from the United Sorghum Checkoff Program said R&D had become “big business” in the US following a major shift from public to private investment in recent years.

Dr Lust said that annual R&D expenditure for maize, soybeans, wheat and cotton in the US was currently estimated to be about US$12 billion (A$12.7 billion).

The Texan said the global financial crisis had seen a decline in government-funded research, but this had been offset by a major increase in privately funded R&D.

“As private industry investment continues to increase in research, public sector government research is declining,” Dr Lust said.

“This is probably tied to our financial situation, so there is likely to be a further substantial decline over the next few years.”

He said another point of difference between the R&D sector in the US and Australia was much less grower-funded research in the US: “On the grower side, we fund research at a much lower level than you do in this country.”

But he said while grower-funded research was only a fraction of the farmgate value of US crops, it was still significant due to the sheer size of the national crop area.

For example, this year US growers invested about US$180 million (A$191 million) in sorghum research alone, and this is less than one per cent of the crop’s annual farmgate value.

Dr Lust said R&D in the US had also recently shifted its focus from crop protection to yield gains to help lift the competitiveness of the national grains industry.

“Australia has made some real progress with midge resistance and it’s helped you on the yield side. Whereas, we’ve spent 20 years chasing a little insect called the green bug, and spent a lot of time back-crossing genetic material to try and have resistance when we should have been making yield increases to stay competitive.”

Overall, Dr Lust believed climatic extremes posed a major challenge to R&D, with drought and flood conditions in the past few years leading many US growers to rethink the cost-benefits of new multi-trait varieties.

“We have cotton and corn now that’s up to about US$247 [A$262] a hectare or more in seed costs,” he said.

“The traits are cool, but if we don’t have much probability of producing a crop, at some point the question becomes: how many traits can you afford? And do you really need them all?

“I think the sorghum industry is benefiting a lot right now in the US because we don’t have some of those traits, and our lower-cost seed is allowing us to be more competitive.”

He said the main disadvantage of privately funded R&D in the US was that intellectual property and ownership interests in new technology could be complicated. The main disadvantage for publicly funded R&D was often a limited commercial opportunity or research projects disrupted by funding cuts.

He said that while public-sector research was favoured by a diverse scientific foundation, it was links to commercial applications and markets that were the drawcards for private sector research.

Looking to the future, Dr Lust said breeding priorities for US sorghum R&D included herbicide resistance, yield increases and tolerance to frost and heat stress, plus development of varieties suited to biofuel and high-end markets.

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GRDC Project Code GCS10574

Region Overseas, North