SURVIVING the ‘valley of death’ to commercialise innovative new farm products and more scientists speaking out to better-inform the public about complex food production issues are two core recommendations in a new and strategic agricultural-science report.
“Grow. Make. Prosper. The decadal plan for Australian Agricultural Sciences 2017–26” is being released today by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Committee of the Australian Academy of Science.
The Committee chaired by Dr Jeremy Burdon includes a host of leading agricultural scientific practitioners, as does the report’s review panel, like global weed resistance expert Professor Stephen Powles and Charles Sturt University’s agricultural science researcher Professor Jim Pratley.
The 10-year strategic plan will be launched by NSW Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker, representing Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, during an event at Parliament House in Canberra today and makes five core recommendations in total.
The leading recommendation calls on the Australian government to establish a national agricultural research translation and commercialisation fund, to invest in promising agricultural discoveries and fast-track commercialisation into new and improved Australian products and services in domestic and international markets.
The report suggests the Fund be modelled on the Biomedical Translation Fund; selecting appropriately qualified and experienced fund managers to stimulate private sector investment at the early stage of agricultural research translation.
It said the fund must be governed by a priority-setting cycle that “keeps pace with the rate of change in the sector, but that provides the stability necessary to undertake large-scale endeavours”.
“The fund should address the most pressing gaps in the innovation system that present barriers to uptake at the time,” the report said.
“It will not diminish the essential existing roles of current research agencies or reduce the need for them, but rather reinforce them all by strengthening the system in which they all operate.”
Dr Burdon said the agricultural translation fund would essentially help novel innovations and ideas cross the “valley of death” that occurs during the often lengthy and expensive development and commercialisation of a new product.
“We hope the federal government will see it as an opportunity to take further leadership in the area and may be able to put in a modest amount of say $100 million,” he said.
Dr Burdon said it may be mechanical products or even germplasm but it was critical the projects were helped across “this valley of death - because so often things stutter and take much longer than they should do, to contribute to the productivity and profitability of farmers”.
He said scientists and technologists may have a good idea, but after some basic fundamental research, almost at the proof of concept stage - to actually make the product commercially viable - they then need the commercial world’s interest
But at that point, the commercial operators want to de-risk the process and preferred researchers took on that risk which can often be expensive, he said.
“For example if you intended to try and increase the oil content of a plant, in the idea that it may be useful for biofuels, or if you were aiming the oil at a speciality market where the value was high, industry would say, ‘that sounds great, can I have 500 litres of this oil’ or something like that,” he said.
“But going from a little field pot trial to making 500 litres is a very big transition and it’d be the same for a novelty grain with a novel attribute.
“A baker may be interested but obviously they’d want to play with the grain first to see if it works and may ask for 20 tonnes of the product but if you’re working at that stage on small sized plots, to suddenly find 20 tonnes you need additional resources to put it into the field and to make it work.
“If you need a pilot plant for example, if could cost several million dollars but that’s the point where many projects or potential products can slow down or fail to see the light of day.”
More scientists need to speak out to help maintain farm production social license
The report also recommended all agricultural sector organisations do more to understand and effectively engage with the general public on social acceptance of agricultural science and the enterprises it supports.
“This also applies to understanding that agriculture reaches far beyond the farm gate,” the report said.
Dr Burdon said encouraging scientists to engage with the community to help protect agriculture’s “social licence to operate” extended to issues like Genetically Modified crops, the use of certain pesticides, live animal exports and animal welfare, climate change and water use, in areas like the Murray Darkling Basin Plan.
“We need to help the community understand what’s going on so they can be more comfortable about what scientists and farmers do and where their food comes from,” he said.
“There are many areas where people do feel strongly about food production issues and rightly so but the scientific community really does need to engage more directly with the community as a whole.
“At times it’s hard – and I’ve’ been in the debate on GM – but it’s not something we can afford to shirk from.
“It’s perfectly legitimate for people to ask questions and challenge assumptions and I’m not going to challenge or defend the GM issue here – but at some stage, it does come down to the best minds being applied to these issues.”
Dr Burdon said scientists can provide timely, factual and pragmatic information to help inform community debates on issues of social licence but he wasn’t expecting them to go out in the media or other forums to become advocates for multinationals.
But he said they could “Clearly” explain why products are produced in certain ways and highlight positive scientific advances like GM cotton which, since its introduction in 1996, has reduced the use of pesticides in that industry by well over 80 per cent.
At the same time, genetic advances have helped to increase water use efficiency by more than 50pc for cotton “so you get twice as much cotton for the same amount of water than you did 25 years ago”, he said.
“Cotton has gone from being an industry that was in a very bad position to being a shining light in the application of farm technology, so it’s about helping people to understand where their food comes from, the processes involved in that and why certain practices are better,” he said.
“It’s the same sort of issue with the production of eggs for example.
“I’m not advocating that I like using eggs from chickens squashed into cages but consumers also need to understand that at the other end of the spectrum, free range chickens are exposed to threats that they’re not exposed to, if they’re kept in a barn.
“In fact, they have a higher chance of catching something like avian flu for example because they’re exposed to wild ducks and so forth that can carry the disease naturally.
“It’s like many things in life; there’s no absolute shining bright ‘yes’ or shining dark ‘no’ and facts need to be balanced and provided in all cases.
“Most scientists shy away from speaking in public but you’ve got to get used to it and it’s a case of being open and honest and not trying to defend the indefensible or trying to speak in areas where you don’t have the right expertise.”
More cohesive strategic priority setting needed across industry
The report also recommended the academic, industry and government sectors partner to create a doctoral training and early career support centre for the agricultural sciences.
It also calls on the agricultural research community to engage strongly with infrastructure planning processes at all levels to enable agricultural research to benefit from, and contribute to, shared national capabilities.
It also recommended the Australian government consider reviewing and updating arrangements for national coordination of agricultural research and innovation in Australia.
“One option would be to establish an organisation that provides a central point of coordination for agricultural research and its applications,” it said.
Among its functions would be to; coordinate the priority-setting exercises of all publicly funded research organisations and funding agencies and coordinate Australia’s involvement in international research programs, to align programs where appropriate, and to address any fragmentation of international engagement effort that may be found.
“The organisation could take the form of a national agricultural research and innovation council or any equivalent body with a national perspective of the whole agricultural sector and its research needs,” it said.
Dr Burdon said in moving away from the recommendations as a whole, the importance of changing the agricultural science sector’s mindset away from competition and towards collaboration also struck him as being important.
“Part of the reason behind that is the availability of funding – we always have more ideas than there is money to go around,” he said.
“But we do tend in Australia and elsewhere in the world to jump on novel ideas and everyone wants to be involved in doing projects like molecular work for example.
“However, one has to question whether it makes logical sense to have all of the universities doing it, the CSIRO and state departments too, and whether we can’t come up with a more collaborative arrangement.”
Dr Burdon said he hoped farmers saw that the reported indicated and reflected “the real interest” of scientists to take their concerns seriously and not do just pure science but do science with practical application and impacts.
He said the research process for the report involved about 12 meetings throughout the commonwealth, attended by about 150 scientists – but no farmers.
“But we do understand it’s all about profitability and there’s been a shift in the industry from talking about productivity in the past, to now talking about profitability, because it’s essentially about how you produce and get the most profitability out of the system and keep farmers in play,” he said.