Time for change; for 'sleeves up' boldness and action

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Image of Dr Steve Jefferies
GRDC managing director Dr Steve Jefferies

The coming months will have critical impact on the long-term prospects of the Australian grains industry. Having spent considerable time consulting with growers and other industry professionals around the country, the GRDC is now finalising its next Five-Year Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) Plan (2018–23) at a time when the industry is at a crossroads.

Over the past 15 years, the gross value of Australian grain production has grown from about $6 billion to $15 billion a year. This growth in value has been driven largely by RD&E. For example, substantial improvements in water use efficiency in wheat – gains of 50 to 100 per cent – have been achieved through improved agronomic practices and breeding. Over this time the GRDC and its research partners have driven the establishment of the Australian canola crop, with an increased value of $1.2 billion per annum; an Australian chickpea crop, with an increased value of close to $1 billion; and a national lentil crop, now worth in excess of $200 million. These crops are now the major profitability drivers in many parts of Australia.

There have also been major investments and pay-offs in maintaining or growing market access and managing the quality of our major crops. These investments have been critical to protecting industry profitability overall.

Yet we still find ourselves at a critical juncture. Growers are still facing declining terms of trade and an increasingly variable climate, and modern cropping systems require growers to put more capital – inputs – up-front. This means greater risk before knowing how the season is going to pan out. The profits in a good season can be high, but the losses in a poor season even higher.

So something has to change. The research outcomes moving forward need to have a transformative impact. The GRDC and its research partners need to think creatively and innovatively, not mechanically.

This is the approach that is shaping the next Five-Year Plan, and has already led to major changes within the GRDC itself. We have modernised our business structures and processes and realigned the capacity and capability of our people. We have also expanded our regional presence and our expertise, including through significant recruitment from the private sector.

So the next Five-Year Plan, and the grains research agenda it embodies, will reflect the heightened focus at the GRDC on achieving transformational change and our need to be bold and visionary. We must anticipate global trends in supply and demand and constraints to profitability. We also need to be quick to respond to changes in the global industry.

The Australian wheat crop will be under increasing pressure from producers such as those in the Black Sea region. Developed countries are consuming more protein and less carbohydrates, although developing countries are moving from rice to wheat, which could offset this. Either way, competition will be tough. We need to continue to increase productivity but also differentiate ourselves on the quality, health, food safety and/or production sustainability of the grains we produce.

Managing these issues will be key elements of the Five-Year Plan. We need more-effective tools to deal with constraints such as heat, frost and hostile soils. We are going to need to farm with fewer chemicals and manage nutrition in a more cost-effective and sustainable manner. We need to create greater value by differentiating our major commodities, and create novel new high-value products such as the omega-3 canola recently developed with CSIRO.

The challenges are clear, as are the opportunities. Global growth in the consumption of protein will create opportunities for our pulse and oilseeds industries. Again, providing more growers with access to more profitable pulses will be a prime research target.

To deliver transformational impact we will also look to partnerships that can leverage advanced global technologies to deliver exponentially more impact locally. We cannot afford to be parochial. We must invest in the best to deliver the most.

The GRDC has redesigned itself to deliver the new Five-Year Plan, which will embody the central objective of delivering enduring grower profitability. We are committed to this task and to our role in building justifiable confidence in the industry’s future.