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The new mindset driving Australian agrifood research

Australian agrifood research is undergoing a renaissance, as industries look further afield to collaborate to address cross-sectoral challenges. By harnessing the visibility which growAG. provides, Research & Development Corporations like Sugar Research Australia and Hort Innovation are shifting gears and entering new territory.

Researcher in a white coat in a lab
Words by Casey Dunn

Australia’s agrifood sector has a long, proud history of innovation. Our constant drive to improve has delivered productivity and profitability gains that position Australia as a global leader in agricultural production.

To facilitate the cross-industry collaboration needed to manage the unprecedented – and shared – challenges the future presents, from climate change adaptation to an increased consumer focus on sustainability – growAG. has become the go-to platform, enabling the cross-pollination of research and acceleration of meaningful solutions.

With growAG. giving greater visibility to the depth of Australia’s agrifood research, industries are embracing the ability – and imperative – to collaborate to solve not just the shared problems, but inject new ideas for solving their own. It’s a new paradigm that’s positioning Australia to harness opportunities, mitigate risks, and maintain our place as a global leader in agrifood production.

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“Not everything has to be invented here with us.”

Sugar Research Australia (SRA) is one of Australia’s 15 Research & Development Corporations embracing this new mindset. CEO Roslyn Baker explained, “We’re moving away from a discipline-led, project-based approach to a [more holistic] problem-based approach centred around solving the real challenges that growers face. That means immersing ourselves so deeply in the problem that we understand it really well at the industry level; and then being very curious about who shares this problem with us, to discover if they’ve got an idea or innovation that we can leverage to solve our problem.”

“That’s where growAG. can help,” said Roslyn. “It has so many opportunities for our researchers to mine the knowledge that's been created across the rural research sector. Not everything needs to be invented here with us.”

Planting seedlings for Progeny Assessment Trials at Meringa Station

A problem shared is a problem halved

Launched as an RDC collaboration in April 2021, growAG. is an online platform that allows users to connect with all current and recently completed RDC R&D and extension projects, as well as current research, investment and commercialisation opportunities.

While the ‘glamourous’ side of growAG. is in connecting innovators with investors who can bring their commercialisation dream to life, growAG.’s foundation lies in championing the world-leading agrifood research funded by Australian primary producers through the RDC framework.

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And those with an interest in agrifood research have embraced it. growAG. Senior Manager Arianna Sippel explained, “We’ve had really good feedback from researchers and funding agencies right across the sector about how they're using growAG. to inform their next steps. They’re using it to see what problems have already been addressed, who addressed it and what angle they approached it from. They’re getting surprises about research in their field that they just didn't know about, and seeing opportunities to build on existing work, or collaborate with someone new.”

Arianna continued, “We had 2,026 research projects on growAG. at launch, across the wide range of industries represented by the 15 RDCs.” Demonstrating the level of industry buy-in, another 600 more research projects are ready to be published.

With almost 25,000 users from 150 countries, growAG. is attracting a diverse but loyal following from researchers and research funding agencies, producers, agronomists and extension officers looking to see what might be coming down the research pipeline. “And of course, our audience also includes scale-ups and startups looking for opportunities to collaborate to solve challenges or to connect with investors, and corporates and equity investors wanting to fund the next big opportunity,” added Arianna.

The diverse pool of users from within and outside the agricultural sector is helping to amplify exposure of the current research opportunities, enabling collaborations that foster new ways of looking at a problem – and new solutions.

Banana farming

It’s an approach to innovation that aligns strongly with Hort Innovation. CEO Matt Brand explained, “Our focus is on getting results – tangible commercial outcomes that benefit growers. We have 600-odd projects in the pipeline, over one-third of which feature on the growAG. platform so far. There are so many potential and existing investment partners here and overseas who can work [with us] to share their learnings – particularly between locations with similar challenges.”

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“We are excited to be working with a range of partners, including Australian and overseas research organisations, startups and tech firms, plus a range of non-traditional [partners] in horticulture.”

Finding the right partner is what makes growAG. more than just an online repository for information. With a dedicated concierge resource focused on connecting the right partner with the right opportunity, growAG. is providing an invaluable service to facilitate meaningful connections and collaborations that expedite the rate at which innovation is translated to impact.

Arianna explained, “We’ve seen four RDCs connect with new partners for trials, and another 10 groups [e.g. a mix of startups, research organisations and RDCs] advise us that they're now in formal negotiations for their commercial opportunity, either for licensing or investment, or strategic partnerships linked to manufacturing or distribution. And those are with both local and international partners. Considering we only launched in April – and research and investment deals take time – that's certainly exciting. And it will only grow as more people discover growAG. and how they can tap into it.”

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Zofia Ostatek-Boczynski, Principal Technician, Milling Efficiency and Technology, working in the Indooroopilly Chemistry Lab on the Carbon and Nitrogen Analyser. This instrument measures nitrogen and carbon in plant, soil and bi-products such as mill mud, mill ash and biodunder samples for the sugar industry.”

Widening the net to capture the full gamut of Australian agrifood research

The next step for growAG. is to look beyond the RDCs – to capture the breadth and depth of research projects within Australia’s agrifood system. “Being an RDC collaboration, our initial focus was on getting the RDC opportunities on growAG.,” explained Arianna. “But we’re now inviting other research organisations from around Australia – universities, state governments, CRCs [cooperative research centres] and other research institutions – to share their research projects as well. I’m really excited about this next phase, as it will give our users an even greater picture of what's happening in Australian agrifood research.”

Learning from others the key to addressing our shared challenges

Common themes in new growAG. research projects feature waste management and shelf-life stability, and consumer health and wellness – including the nutritional value and sensory experience of food. But looking to the future, Roslyn Baker expects the sector to double down on what she calls its “wicked problem – the need to become more productive and sustainable, simultaneously”.

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“For sugar, the research agenda in the next five years is about chemical use, nutrient management, and water quality. It’s about becoming more resilient under different climatic conditions," said Roslyn.  "It’s about being smarter about biosecurity, so we are monitoring, managing, responding quickly and adapting to threats. It’s considering whether we can create new revenue streams from our product. It’s about technology – finding new ways of [capturing and] organising data to drive information-enabled decision-making. And probably less spoken about, but just as critical, it’s about the skills and capabilities we need to be able to adopt and adapt in an uncertain future.”

“Our problems and challenges aren’t that different to everybody else's,” she said. The solution lies in working together to solve them.

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