Meet your board
GroundCover™ Issue: 43
As the future directions taken in Australian grains research will be vital to the industry, Ground Cover has invited members of the GRDC Board to introduce themselves to our readers with (in their own words) a brief and relevant biography as well as some thoughts on future directions for the Corporation's work.
CHAIR: Mr Terry Enright, grain and livestock producer, GRDC Board chairman
I GREW up on a grain and sheep property at Mt Barker in WA and started farming in the early 1970s. Developing a new property east of Albany demonstrated to me the value and capacity of scientific research. For example, the light acid soil was able to be farmed successfully following the establishment of subclover, the advent of which remains one of the most significant developments in Australian agriculture.
The 1970s also saw the collapse of the rapeseed (now canola) industry due to blackleg disease until plant breeders provided blackleg-tolerant varieties. The light soil was prone to wind erosion and in some dry years we experienced devastating effects — seedling crops blown away and sand over fences. We didn't have crop establishment techniques, the equipment or crop varieties to do things differently.
Today the contrast couldn't be greater. Successful crops are now grown on lower rainfall than in past failures, and wind erosion is managed. Together with my wife Keryl, I now operate two properties near Mt Barker producing grains, sheep and beef.
I have had the privilege of serving as a member on a GRDC committee, panel and the Board. Over that period the area sown to grain has increased by 50 per cent and production by 80 per cent. Research investment by the GRDC has contributed greatly to that success. The on-farm innovation by growers and the performance of our research partners and marketers are equally important.
Where to from here?
The challenge for the GRDC is to continue the investment in those programs that will maintain increased productivity. To that end the GRDC structure must have the flexibility to incorporate new ideas and information.
There is relatively less public funding available for rural research in Australia. So the way and with whom we invest must change to more commercial entities. The new arrangements mean a far greater focus on IP management and commercialisation of research outputs. The majority of agricultural research in the world is conducted outside Australia, so collaborative arrangements with overseas partners will remain vital.
Ultimately we must deliver to our stakeholders. That does not imply a dollar return for research outcomes, but meeting expectations and priorities, be they better varieties, an understanding of soil biology or a new food product.
On the world scene, changes in production and product requirements have implications for Australia — for example, Eastern Europe is becoming a major grain exporter. All markets are demanding quality specifications and in some cases quality assurance. It's imperative that market information flows to the R&D effort, and appropriate that the GRDC invests to assist the process.
Environment/sustainability and GMOs
Every sector of the community seems to have a view and there is real pressure to address very visible problems like salinity and erosion. In the past and today, a lot of money and time have been spent, and people with the best intentions have done some remarkable work.
However, we seem to have failed to devise farming systems that deliver maximum productivity and environmental sustain-ability.
This is surprising because the most productive and financially sustainable farm is one where environmental problems are minimal. I believe one reason is that historically we have focused on environmental problems, e. g. soil erosion, waterlogging, salinity and acidity as distinct problems rather than issues to be incorporated and addressed as a part of general farm management.
While there is increasing consumer pressure that products be produced in environmentally sustainable systems, there is also opposition to the introduction of GMO crops and the use of herbicides. Ironically, high living standards and world urbanisation have been possible because of scientific advances in crop production. Biotechnology offers some important means of achieving increased world food production at lower environmental cost.
There is no doubt that food safety is paramount and the introduction of GMO crops will not succeed unless society is convinced they are safe and not likely to create unintended environmental problems.
DEPUTY: Ms Christine Hawkins, businesswoman, GRDC Board deputy chair
I HAVE always done a great deal of work in the agricultural and agribusiness sectors and I still find it fascinating. Australia has many natural advantages but many barriers to success. I continue to be fascinated with the path that Australian agriculture should take to ensure a profitable future.
(Starting at the beginning) When I left school I went to work for the Reserve Bank of Australia, because I wanted to be an economist and they offered me a cadetship which paid for my university studies. Next an academic position at the University of New South Wales, which allowed me some flexibility in working hours, which I needed because I had a young son. After that I returned to the commercial world with one of the leading merchant banks as a senior executive in their Corporate Advisory Division.
This is where you go if you are a jack-of-all-trades. It particularly requires the ability to sniff out a good deal, find funding, whether debt or equity, or public listing, take companies to market, find new technologies and ideas that can be commercialised, then make them work. Being able to identify good people is a part of that. Good management is critical to any organisation. My expertise was also in identifying and analysing serious corporate and industry problems and finding workable solutions.
In 1991 I became a founding shareholder and director of a new investment bank. When I left in 1995 I was headhunted for the board of Wool International, and so began a long and very intense involvement with the wool industry.
I finally found the corporate world incompatible with what I saw as my family responsibilities, so I established a new small business — my fascination with the problems of the wool industry led me to think that I could do it better, and I set up a very specialised knitwear business. Other appointments that I currently hold are on the Board of the Australian Sheep Industry CRC (once you're in wool you never get out of it) and I am Chairman of Go Grains, a GRDC/BRI initiative working at the consumer end of the chain, with interests associated with almost all the major grain products companies in Australia.
Where to from here?
Look beyond the region — think globally
I believe that it is time to look far beyond the farm gate. Consumers have an increasing voice around the world, as do marketers who control parts of the food supply chain. It is difficult sometimes for farmers to see the link between what comes out of a cardboard box, with what they put into the ground on their farms, but this link cannot be ignored for much longer. GM is the first real example of consumer power that has directly affected farmers. Yet in a world where we expect higher and higher yields from a decreasing amount of arable land, with devastation of whole continents through civil war and neglect, GM may offer the only real option that we may be able to feed the planet in the future. In any case, it's not going to go away. The broader benefits of biotechnology are already here and they are here to stay.
Don't underestimate climate change
Australia's ability to maintain its traditional agricultural production base must be in doubt. Survival through periods of severe drought might require a total change in the nature of farming systems or very different products from our traditional agricultural base. This is another reason for looking for new types of products. Although motor cars still run on petrol, major car manufacturers around the world have been working for many years on viable alternative types of engines that can run on totally different types of fuel. Some of these will begin to emerge commercially over the next five years. The Australian grain industry must do the same.
We need strategic long-term investments as well
This is the real challenge of being on the GRDC Board — to convince growers that some part of the resources that they devote to R&D must be directed to more strategic research. A more strategic focus requires high-level science and marketing and business skills. It requires lateral thinkers. It is inherently risky and there are likely to be many more failures than successes, which is not easy for a very publicly accountable GRDC to manage. We need to find the very best skill set for each task, and this may not be in Australia. I believe that we should not be working in isolation from overseas organisations, nor should we cling parochially to local research skills. We should seek the best, wherever it is, in the longterm interests of the grain industry.
DIRECTOR: Ms Helen Cameron, company director
MOST OF my working career has been spent in two global industries — food and finance. My first degree was in biological sciences, and I completed an MBA a decade later. I have broad experience as a company director with public companies, state and federal organisations, and NFP charities — on most I have either chaired or been a member of the audit committee. This experience gives me a solid understanding of the board member's central role in setting the strategic direction of the organisation and challenging management to effectively implement the business plan to achieve targeted outcomes.
Earlier, I worked for two major Australian food manufacturers, Burns Philp and National Foods —where the focus was on capital raisings, international strategy development, stakeholder liaison, acquisitions and divestments of businesses. I was recruited into Burns Philp from Deutsche Bank (then Bain Securities), where I was a director specialising in the food/ agribusiness and retail areas.
I actually started life as an aspiring concert pianist but, like Mae West, sort of drifted into finance, on my arrival in Australia in 1981. I have two children who are both at university, I am married to Alistair (whose family has been farming since 1839), and I own two bossy cats and one ancient (9-year-old) guinea pig. I still love to play the piano and swim around 3-5 km each week.
Working in an international environment in industries physically distant from most of their target markets, I rapidly came to understand that excellence in one sector of a supply chain does not ensure success in the marketplace.
Where to from here?
'Chain-alliance' joint ventures are an area of particular interest and I probably have a bias for research that facilitates both a greater understanding of target markets and a smooth flow of market signals to the producers of product. China clearly is one of the markets which, targeted appropriately, could benefit Australian graingrowers — but only if all steps in the chain are supported with appropriately allocated research dollars.
A research innovation would be to target better grain storage, handling and distribution in the market. This would not only reduce wastage and assist with maintaining product quality, but it would also help Australian growers forge valuable personal links with local businesspeople. It is expected that private importers will dominate the Chinese grains import market by the middle of the century.
For the GRDC this may mean significant shifts in funding allocations — historically focused on domestic production and technology — towards market research and analysis. In some instances research dollars might be best spent in the offshore market itself through new partnerships. Such shifts in expenditure will require some courageous vision.
New alliances and linkages to the end-market will change the risk profile of the GRDC. New corporate structures — such as new wheat-breeding companies or even possible joint funding of, say, a high-technology storage and handling facility — could be developed.
These new corporate structures have different, higher-risk profiles from historical structures and, as such, the GRDC will need to partner with people who have different skill sets from those required in the past. Ensuring the appropriate risk/ reward frameworks for such structures will be an area to which I would hope to contribute during my term.
I also believe it is critical that appropriate accountability for how money is invested is key to an effective organisation. Having excellent IT systems in place, which are fully integrated and which are programmed to produce useful information, is vital to the GRDC. I will continue to encourage excellence in this area so that research dollars are spent in the most effective manner, and that accurate and clear feedback can be given to all stakeholders.
DIRECTOR: Dr Tony Fischer, research program manager, ACIAR
I WAS born on a wheat-sheep farm in southern NSW and have remained involved in that farming operation to this day. This influences my thinking even though I have worked as a crop scientist away from the farm all my life, firstly with NSW Agriculture, then CSIRO and for two stints with CIMMYT in Mexico.
Now, as a research administrator at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), I deal with crop and soil research projects that involve Australian and developing country scientists working on mutual problems, part of the Australian overseas aid program. I travel a lot in Asia. Previously with CIMMYT I travelled to most developing countries with significant wheat production.
It seems to me that the main objective of grains research is to maintain the financial strength of the Australian grain industry, comprising efficient family farms. Many things flow from that, including capable and resilient farmers, sustainable farming systems and strong rural communities. I am aware of the irony that grains research globally has driven down the real price of grain for a century or more — the solution is not to stop the research but to be better at it than one's competitors. This is hard when we are only a small part of global research — we must cautiously seek global alliances.
Where to from here?
In the short term, the GRDC must ensure that the public/private partnerships we have set up in wheat breeding become self-sustaining, while delivering new varieties to farmers without wasteful competition. There will be a special challenge in distributing fairly the products of strategic breeding research in which the GRDC has always invested. The forces that have driven these challenges, such as privatisation, user pays, biotechnology, plant variety rights and intellectual property, are not of the GRDC's making, but we cannot simply ignore them.
These global forces will also affect the breeding of all other important grain crops and must be accommodated in the medium term, just as special biological challenges, almost always related to pests and diseases, must be dealt with. I believe it is very likely GMOs will eventually become widely adopted.
Other priorities? I dream of reliable canola and pulse cropping as a substantial part of the cereal rotation. I believe that animals will remain an important part of grain farms in Australia, not to mention the growing local market for grain as feed, as we are discovering with the current drought. Pasture and grazing and feed grain research must therefore remain a significant component of the GRDC's portfolio.
There will always be concerns about sustainability of our systems. We have found solutions through research and policy—for example, the investment in research on herbicide-resistant weeds, acid soils and dryland salinity — and we must anticipate and continue to seek solutions. Demand for environmental management in its broadest sense, and new products like biofuels may be just around the corner. Our physically limited natural resources (water, soil, physical and chemical endowment) limit the ultimate extent of grain production in Australia.
We will remain only a medium-sized grain producer on the world scene, but must continue to be one of the most efficient. Besides there are no limits to useful knowledge about grain production and farming, and one day Australia may export more grain knowledge and technology than actual grain. However, we won't achieve any of the above without maintaining our solid investment in education and training for scientists, technologists and farmers, in all areas relevant to grain production and utilisation.
DIRECTOR: Mr Ross Johns, grain and livestock producer
MY WIFE Julie and I farm at Warracknabeal, in the northern Wimmera region of Victoria. We have a mixed farming operation producing wheat, barley, canola and some pulse crops, along with sheep for meat and wool production.
I am an active member of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), previously holding positions locally and at state level as a Grains Councillor and a member of the marketing and logistics committee of the Grains Council.
In 1993 I was appointed to the former Australian Barley Board and served to 1996 on the Board's Corporate Risk and Audit Committee. In 1999 I became a director of ABB Grain Limited where I serve on the ABB's Remuneration Committee.
With this background I have gained 20 years experience in grain production, running a business and corporate governance, and international grain marketing. As important, for the grains industry, is the social future of rural communities and environmental sustainability — on our farm, we have had a lot of practical experience with reveg-etation work. In tandem, I have had a longstanding interest in native birds, recording many details of birdlife on-farm and around my area, which is also a measure of biodiversity.
Where to from here?
Long-term results are the only measure of truly sustainable performance. The GRDC Board should put in place the capacity to measure performance of research and additional value generated for growers and the Australian community.
The grain industry is in a period of rapid change, from world markets to the structures in the Australian grain industry. I believe the market should be the driver behind all major research investments — although information in relation to market requirements is becoming increasingly commercially sensitive and more difficult to access. The GRDC must strive to deliver results at a faster rate than Australia's major international competitors through commercially structured deals and innovation.
It is crucial that the GRDC protects its intellectual property (IP) on behalf of its stakeholders, and develops arrangements with various parties using the IP as value contributed to joint ventures or commercial arrangements.
GRDC revenues are governed by both grain production and commodity prices, which history has shown to be quite volatile. Research projects require continuity of funding, therefore a conservative level of cash reserves is required by the GRDC.
DIRECTOR: Professor John Lovett, GRDC managing director
PRIOR TO joining the GRDC Board, John Lovett had spent the majority of his academic career at the University of New England, ultimately occupying the Chair in Agronomy and being elected Chairman of the Academic Board. He also spent three years at the University of Tasmania as Professor of Agricultural Science and worked in academia in countries as diverse as Finland and Indonesia.
It was during the final years of his New England career that John was appointed to the inaugural GRDC Board — and he is proud to have the distinction of being the only person to be a member of all five GRDC Boards, to date.
He says that his time with the GRDC has been the best period of his long career in agriculture. It has been a privilege to be part of an organisation that has grown with the grain industry, and to have the resources to be able to really make a difference.
During John Lovett's 12 years with the GRDC, R&D investment has quadrupled, with investment in 2002-03 expected to reach $115, 000, 000. The GRDC is the biggest single investor in grains R&D in Australia and takes both, the Opportunities and the responsibilities that this position brings extremely seriously.
The value of GRDC's investments is showing up now in difficult times. Crop varieties are performing better than 12 years ago, delivering more kg of yield per mm of rainfall received. The widespread adoption of technologies such as minimum tillage means that many growers are able to conserve moisture and to get a crop in a dry season when this wouldn't have been possible before.
While the GRDC can list many contributions over its lifetime, there have also been disappointments —none greater than meeting grower demand for more robust and productive pulse crops. While good progress has been made in some pulse crops, there is a long way to go to match the impact of, say, canola on the Australian oilseed industry. John Lovett wonders whether this may be a case where it really will be gene engineering that makes the breakthrough.
Where to from here?
'Driving innovation' says it all. The GRDC has the resources. It also has to deliver against the triple bottom line of 'people, planet, profit' (as against social, environmental and economic). John Lovett says it's right that people come first. The GRDC has to deliver benefit to growers but also to the broader community. That means expectations have to be met. Growers want to stay on the land as well as make money; the community wants healthy, high-quality produce. The GRDC has to guide investment in grains R&D to meet those needs.
The natural resource base also has to be maintained. This is one cornerstone of the recently announced national research priorities for publicly funded research. (National priorities — an environmentally-sustainable Australia; promoting and maintaining good healthy-frontier technologies for building and transforming Australian industries; and safeguarding Australia.) The GRDC has to play its part and all four priorities are relevant to our work.
The Prime Minister's Gold Award for Excellence (more on p2 of this issue) was awarded recently to a GRDC team for six years' work on sustainable farming systems. John is very proud of that achievement, which exemplifies delivering to 'people, planet and profit'.
And on a personal note, John and his wife Jinnie both come from farming families and have a small property within half an hour of the GRDC's office. Their four children and one (recent) grandchild are all relatively close at hand and also enjoy a rural lifestyle. John Lovett has a dream that, at some future date, he will join the NSW Farmers' Association where he believes that he will meet many kindred spirits.
DIRECTOR: Dr Donald Plowman, director of research, SARDI
DON PLOWMAN was born in country NSW, was educated at Yanco Agricultural High School and Sydney University — majoring in soil science. His early career included lecturing at Sydney University and then working as an environmental scientist in SA.
Now as research director at the South Australian R&D Institute (SARDI), Don is responsible for programs in crops, horticulture, livestock, sustainable resources and aquatic science. He also brings to the Board considerable overseas experience and membership of a number of CRC and R&D Corporation boards.
Don enjoys a game of golf, appreciates Australia's natural beauties and is always ready for a discussion on a topic of mutual interest — augmented by the occasional glass of South Australian red.
A particular interest is in facilitating more research capacity through collaborative arrangements both between research institutions within Australia and with overseas groups. Together with new approaches to delivery of technology to farmers, this is essential if our industries are to compete with grain producers in Canada, Europe and America. We can learn much from our competitors.
Where to from here?
Dr Plowman responded to a Ground Cover suggestion that Board members might like to discuss the GRDC's commitment to the 'triple bottom line' in production—people, planet, profit — otherwise known as economy, environment and society.
Profitability and sustainability are synonymous, only the timeframe is different.
The major challenges to the grain industry are from unintended consequences resulting from large-scale changes, often with little control or influence from individual producers. Classic examples are the impacts of broad-scale clearing of vegetation, the impact of pasture legumes and management practices on soil acidity and the more recently highlighted impacts of dryland salinity.
There are very few instances where sustainable farming practices do not translate into greater returns to farmers, and therefore industry, in the medium to long term.
Economic modellers are still grappling with how to account for the impact of degradation of the resource base when measuring productivity. Maintenance of crop yields actually requires a resource input to account for lower levels of soil fertility, decrease in soil structure or progressive build-up of pests and diseases.
Environmental costs and benefits
(Example of dryland salinity) Australia has to address major changes in land use and farming practices to reduce the impact of dryland salinity or water quality, urban infrastructure and our roads. These changes are a good example of how government policy, technology and land managers will need to cooperate to achieve a benefit to the community.
One of the main social/community issues is reaching agreement on targets to be set. Some believe that we should be aiming to restore the resource base to its original form while others accept that some of the changes are irreversible and set more pragmatic (and achievable) targets.
We must be confident that we have sufficient scientific capability to adequately contribute to an understanding of our resource base as well as to take remedial action. The land and water audit did much to increase our understanding of the 'state of the nation's resources'. The challenge now is to make good decisions based on the audit as well as maintaining and managing the excellent database developed as part of the audit.
DIRECTOR: Dr Rachel Lucas, commercial development manager
WITH A PhD in molecular biology, I have worked in research management, banking and venture capital, but I specialise in the arena of commercialising technology, particularly in the food industry. For me this includes technology transfer in all its forms as well as targeted commercial outcomes that can be achieved through licensing or sale of intellectual property or via spinoff companies or joint ventures.
There are many ways to commercialise a technology, and developing the best strategy for the given situation is a challenge I really enjoy.
This is the work that occupies me in my current position as manager, commercial development, for Worldwide Coatings IP Pty Ltd (trading as TAG Technology). In addition, I have an adjunct position at the University of New South Wales working with the Innovation Management program. I am also an artist (stylised collage using metal that has been treated so as to have a patina) and exhibit using my married name of Laird in galleries in Sydney. I am married with two children, Jaime 10 and Ben 8.
Where to from here?
Some priorities in my view are:
Improved grain varieties for international markets, more productivity and surviving the rigours of the Australian environment. Drought resistance is, of course, at the forefront of our minds and a grower recently commented to me that if they were still using the wheat varieties of 20 years ago, there would have been no crop whatsoever this year. Tolerance to salt, resistance to disease and pests are also important as are the qualities of the end product such as protein content.
The latter I believe will become increasingly important as consumer demand for particular food types (such as functional/health foods and nutri-ceuticals) increases. The GRDC has foreshadowed a leadership approach to these issues in its value chain program. One goal I have is for the GRDC to actively develop relationships with end-user companies to ensure R&D is targeted to meet future opportunities in these rapidly growing international markets.
Although the potential benefits of GMOs include higher productivity and increased resistance to disease, pests, drought and salinity, as well as reduced use of herbicides and pesticides, it seems that significant triple bottom-line outcomes are some way off due to consumer concerns.
It is interesting to note the changing attitudes towards GMOs and the differences between nations. The Europeans are relaxing their regulations somewhat while the consumers of the USA are really only starting to raise the issues. In parts of Asia the situation is different again with a far more positive attitude to GMOs and a focusing on the advantages. Ensuring truly informed debate takes place is an area where I see the GRDC assisting Australia to move forward on this issue.
Technology transfer/ commercialisation
Technology transfer and commercialisation are areas of particular interest to me. There are a number of issues to be considered and balanced in commercialising outcomes from a body such as the GRDC. These include ensuring the technology is available, and this may require setting up companies in some instances. The challenge is to develop strategies where growers will be assured of maximising their benefits from the R&D while minimising risks associated with any commercial enterprise.
Financially, environmentally and socially the benefits of maintaining our soil quality are enormous. Databases that can be used to predict the best management for a given situation are of value and their continued improvement and updating with results of new solutions will improve their usefulness over time. Research into crop management and rotations to improve deep drainage is likely to yield some benefit in the short term, while investigation of potential engineering solutions in areas with major problems such as WA may provide long-term benefit.
DIRECTOR: Dr Cliff Samson, government director
CLIFF SAMSON is a government director with a wealth of experience in policy development, public administration and corporate governance. As head of Field Crops, Food and Agricultural Business within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (AFFA), Dr Samson is responsible for domestic and international policy on broadacre crops including grains, sugar, cotton and rice. Prior to his current role at AFFA, Dr Samson was the head of corporate services in the Australian Geological Survey Organisation and was the International Marketing Business Manager in the Federal Department of Administrative Services.