Ground Cover West : Ground Cover 047 November-December 2003 - West
On a recent visit to the Plant Research Centre at the Waite Campus in Adelaide, John Lovett lingered in a glasshouse overlooking the site where the $55 million Australian Plant Functional Genomics Centre is under construction. The new 'high-tech' centre, in which the GRDC will invest $10 million, over five years, will have a strong influence on the future of plant breeding, and it encapsulates the enormous structural change that has taken place in Australian crop research over the past decade. For Professor Lovett, who has been with the GRDC since its inception 13 years ago, the genomics centre embodies a decade of extraordinary development -- including new gene technologies and fundamental changes to the way crop research is managed, and resourced, in Australia. While Australia's state departments, universities and the CSIRO are still major recipients of GRDC investment, there is a shift away from conventional research agreements with public sector providers towards joint ventures such as the Cooperative Research Centres, and commercial companies such as Australian Grain Technologies Pty Ltd. The nature of farm extension is also changing, with public sector agencies being complemented by self- starting grower groups, such as the Birchip Cropping Group in Victoria and SEPWA in Western Australia, as new avenues for technology delivery. On the eve of his departure after more than nine years as the GRDC's managing director, John Lovett can reflect on a decade in which science has helped the grains industry meet significant economic and environmental challenges and quadruple in value from $2 billion to $8 billion. On joining the GRDC's first board in 1990, as deputy chairman, John Lovett left a successful academic life in which he had held two professorships: Agricultural Science at the University of Tasmania, and Agronomy at the University of New England. He recalls how the first board's immediate priority was to tackle the GRDC's mandate to replace fragmented state-based grains research with a coordinated, national program: "The board had the challenge of delivering against 14 annual operating plans that it had inherited. "That first board had to be very hands-on as it developed the first five-year strategic plan, 'Tomorrow's Harvest', released in 1992. "The second board had to find the best way to organise research at a national and regional level. Moving away from the former state emphasis, the industry supported the establishment of three regional panels. The third board launched the second five-year plan, 'Partners for Profit', and gave the GRDC an international perspective. The fourth board supported management's diversification of the corporation's business models and brought down the third five- year plan, 'Driving Innovation'. This theme has been embraced by the fifth board, which came to office in October 2002." Since its start on 1 October 1990, the GRDC's budget has quadrupled from $30 million to $120 million, mirroring the growth in value of the industry. Market research shows much of this growth has come from the industry adopting the outcomes of research in which it invests. One example Professor Lovett cites is increased crop diversity: "Thirteen years ago canola was a gleam in the industry's eye. But within 10 years that new crop was delivering gold. It had become the GRDC's second biggest levy earner. "There has also been diversification in a more familiar crop, wheat. Through the 1990s we saw wheat being used for a range of previously unfamiliar Asian food products." But as much as the past decade might be perceived as a heady ride, Professor Lovett believes it is just the beginning. "The industry is beginning to see itself as part of the Australian agrifood industry rather than just as a grain producer -- and if the grains industry is worth $8 billion, agrifood is worth $75 billion. "But the horizon is even wider than foods. Future research is going to uncover many more uses for grain. We're starting to exploit the concept of biotransformation -- the plant being a factory not just for food but for products like new pharmaceuticals, plastics and fuels, such as biodiesel." Not so long ago such notions would have been 'pipe dreams', but the avalanche of knowledge being generated by gene technologies is changing the whole perception of what is achievable. In agriculture this is likely to be further enhanced by a shift that has occurred in the relationship between the GRDC as investor and the scientific community: "When the GRDC was established it was dealing with a 'science push' culture. Today it's increasingly a 'market pull' culture." A reflection of this is the GRDC's determination that investment in research produces outcomes, and that these outcomes are adopted. Another factor influencing the changing research structure is the diminishing capacity of government bodies to undertake R&D. "When the GRDC started, most R&D was done by the public sector and for many years about 60 percent of our expenditure was going to state departments, about 20 percent to universities, about 10 percent to CSIRO and about 10 percent elsewhere. "Now, pressure from sectors such as health, law and order and education have put public sector agriculture budgets under increasing pressure." Professor Lovett sees information technology as another source of change and opportunity: "Farmers are hungry for information and, increasingly, are prepared to get it online. Combine this with grower groups that are actively sharing information and experience, and you have a powerful new on-farm force -- knowledge. "Grower groups, typically, have enthusiastic leadership and highly motivated members. Often, they employ professional staff. This combination provides an opportunity for the GRDC to deliver information direct to grower groups with the potential to increase the speed of technology adoption out of sight. You can only speculate on how far it's going to go," he says. Professor Lovett places a high priority on promoting research outcomes among growers and is widely known for the Crop Doctor column, syndicated in rural newspapers. On the international scene, the GRDC recently concluded a new agreement with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), a key centre in providing genetic material to Australia. Engagement with multinationals, like Syngenta, through the Graingene joint venture is also occurring. Professor Lovett says such collaborations are essential for the Australian industry to make use of Australia's small, but high-quality, science capability and to gain access to global technology. Looking ahead, he sees gene technology as providing the next 'step change': "It's opening enormous opportunities, from alternative means of dealing with pests, disease and weeds, through to subtle modifications to products. Canola is, again, a good example. Through genetic engineering the oil can be tailored to meet an array of requirements. "But there's another step change to add on to that. There are new players in world markets -- the Black Sea countries, in particular -- and their potential is enormous. That says to me that we have to reappraise our market strategies and examine all alternatives. That's a question we face right now -- how to broaden our product base and continue to add value?" It is a future scenario that holds the prospect of more challenges and change for the Australian grains industry, but it is one that Professor Lovett anticipates with relish. "The dialogue between growers, users and scientists, and the understanding of technology is so much better than in the early days of the GRDC," he says. "We are in a very healthy position from which to meet this future." As for his own future, Professor Lovett has been appointed chairman of the CRC for Greenhouse Accounting from early 2004. MANAGEMENT PROFILE 30 NOVEMBER 2003 DEPARTING GRDC MANAGING DIRECTOR JOHN LOVETT l By BRAD COLLIS Leading the growth strategy Scientist and manager: John Lovett at the SARDI facility in Adelaide. The thoughts of John Lovett. . . On the grains industry: "The industry is beginning to see itself as part of the Australian agrifood industry rather than just as a grain producer --andifthe grains industry is worth $8 billion, agrifood is worth $75 billion." On grower groups: "Grower groups, typically, have enthusiastic leadership and highly motivated members. Often, they employ professional staff. This combination provides an opportunity for the GRDC to deliver information direct to grower groups with the potential to increase the speed of technology adoption out of sight." On gene technology: "It's opening enormous opportunities, from alternative means of dealing with pests, disease and weeds, through to subtle modifications to products."
Ground Cover 048 February-March 2004 - West