Profit imperative to drive new grains research era

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A believer in the need to keep the world in focus – Peter Reading at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.
A believer in the need to keep the world in focus – Peter Reading at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

By Brad Collis

There’s no denying that grain growing is throwing up a constant barrage of challenges for farmers and researchers … as it always has.

The issue today for those responsible for addressing research challenges – the usual headaches of weather, disease, soils, weeds and any number of other seasonal hurdles – is that the easy solutions, “the low-hanging fruit”, as retired GRDC managing director Peter Reading puts it, have gone.

The R&D now required to keep farm productivity – and, by extension, profitability – climbing in the face of escalating climate variability, plus the constant pressures exerted by pathogens and pests, is becoming far more complex.

Where once it was enough to change tillage systems, improve crop rotations, or finesse the different chemical regimes, agricultural science is now having to push the frontiers of fields such as genomics, biochemistry, automated biotechnology platforms (robotic systems for genetic screening), bioinformatics and satellite sensing. Researchers are having to better understand and master plant metabolism, create whole new plant-breeding tools and meld productive farming landscapes into an overarching environmental matrix.

So just as the intensity and detail is increasing for agricultural practices, so too for the science.
It is against this R&D backdrop that Peter Reading has been steering the GRDC for the past seven years, until his term as managing director concluded in March.

As the person at the helm of the body responsible for coordinating and funding much of the grains research, development and extension in Australia, he has had a key role in analysing the changes, the shifting research priorities and what all this means for growers.

In an interview with Ground Cover he reflected on the role RD&E has played in maintaining Australia as a premier global grains producer, and how that role is evolving – not just the science, but also who is doing the science, and, for example, the increasing need for private capital to complement and fill shortfalls in public funding.

Climate and other variables aside, the emergence of a commercial R&D and plant breeding sector is in itself a paradigm shift for Australian farmers, but one that Peter Reading argues is now crucial to lifting research to the levels needed.

He believes the grains industry has entered a very different era to what was experienced from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. “This was a successful era: genetic gains still flowing on from the Green Revolution, the new grass herbicides, minimum tillage, machinery advances, innovative growers and a spread of R&D support among state agriculture departments, universities and CSIRO. Science was delivering.”

One stark measure of this is that in Western Australia in the late 1960s the average in-season rainfall was 150 millimetres, producing an average grain yield of 400 kilograms a hectare. By 2002 average rainfall had dropped to 110mm, but average yields had jumped to almost 1t/ha.

“Last year, rainfall across most of the cropping area of WA was less than 100mm yet the state still produced six million tonnes of grain. This would have been impossible 20 years ago,” Reading notes.

The industry’s achievements in that period are also reflected in annual productivity figures, which were running as high as 3.2 per cent from the 1970s to 2000 – which was necessary because growers’ terms of trade were falling sharply. Today, however, the industry is experiencing declining productivity and the pressure on science is mounting … not just in Australia, but globally.

“At the turn of the century we hit one of the driest decades on record at the same time as government support, around the world, for agricultural RD&E was in decline. Exacerbating that in Australia was the delayed introduction of GM technologies which, with other biotechnologies, could be crucial to resolving some of the really complex issues undermining productivity … heat stresses (both drought and frost), salinity, herbicide resistance in weeds, diseases like crown rot, and so forth.

“These take us into some complex areas of science. And added to this is the need to help growers develop the skills required to adopt technology as it becomes available.”

Peter Reading says the challenge for a research manager such as the GRDC has been to understand the changes taking place and to make sure strategies are put in place: “Integral to this has been the effective identification and prioritisation of research issues and translating these into appropriate RD&E strategies. Successfully implementing these strategies requires strong change-management and relationship-management to ensure our stakeholders – government and growers – and our research partners are closely involved.”

Even this is not as straightforward as previously, with the need now to form partnerships between traditional public research institutions and private enterprise research.

Reading’s approach was straightforward: to welcome in private capital wherever it was available: “… because it’s not just helping to make up for some of the lost public investment, but these companies bring skills and access to technologies that we couldn’t otherwise even hope to have.

“So you need strategies for bringing in private capital, just as you must have strategies for setting core RD&E priorities and for pursuing value-adding and new product opportunities.”

The GRDC’s approach to this, often a complicated balancing act, has been its five-year plans. These provide a framework for understanding where the grains market is headed, the influences driving this, and the consequent RD&E priorities, then seek to put in place appropriate programs and portfolio balance and research relationships.

This continues to underpin its approach, although looking ahead, Peter Reading believes the National Grains RD&E Strategy finalised last November will lift this to a higher level because it introduces a more national and better coordinated approach to the way RD&E will be conducted across Australia. The strategy was developed with input from state departments of agriculture, CSIRO, universities, the Australian Government and growers. The National Grains RD&E Strategy builds on existing cooperation and uses improved processes for identifying and prioritising industry RD&E issues and evaluating research outcomes and how these flow through to grower profitability, productivity and sustainability.

The way RD&E is done will also change, with an increase in the number of national research programs and agencies that will take on different leadership roles based on their particular competencies. Peter Reading says these will include five national centres of research capability, three of which already exist – CSIRO, the Centre for AgriBiosciences (AgriBio) at  La Trobe University (Victoria) and the University of Adelaide’s Waite Campus. To these it is hoped will be added a new centre in WA to be called the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre, and a yet-to-be-named summer crops breeding and pre-breeding centre in the northern grains region.

A national skills capability plan will be developed, plus the strategy also recognises the need to improve the increasing public/private interface in research, development and extension.

Supporting this is what Peter Reading believes has been one of the most important developments in grain in this country in the past 20 years: the move by the international life bioscience companies to invest in plant breeding here. “Instead of waiting for 15 years like we did for GM canola, Australian growers will now get access to advanced technology at the same time, or even earlier, than other grain producers,” he says.

He predicts the other big change already unfolding is in development and extension (the D&E of RD&E). Traditionally this has been a linear government-run progression: research scientist, research station and district agronomist. “Now it’s a highly diverse public/private mix … public sector researchers, private sector researchers, grower groups, farming systems groups, consultants, private breeding companies, etc – and often working across state boundaries.

“And added to that are expanding value-adding opportunities beyond the farm gate, such as the GRDC’s investment in synthesising omega-3 in canola and high amylose in wheat.”

Peter Reading believes this new, interlinked, national approach will consolidate the national research effort and drive the industry forwards for the next 20 years. “It maximises the combined efforts of public and private sector research, maximises the chances of setting the right RD&E priorities, will drive productivity harder and harder, and ultimately will make grain growing more profitable.”

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