Will the Australian agricultural innovation system remain competitive in the coming decades?

In May, the Australian Farm Institute held a two-day conference, ‘Australian Agricultural Innovation Systems at the Crossroads’, where numerous industry and government representatives spoke on the future of research, development and extension (R,D&E)  in Australian agriculture.

Topics covered throughout the two days included: is R,D&E meeting the needs of farmers?; the future role and existence of agricultural extension; and the future roles of government and Australian universities in agricultural innovation.

Over 100 people attended the conference, with each delegate asked to complete an evaluation form at the end, and answer two questions on confidence in the future of Australian agricultural innovation.

Figure 1 shows that nearly 45% of attendants, after listening to all presentations, believed that Australia’s agricultural innovation system will keep Australian agriculture competitive in the coming decades. Many of the ideas presented by speakers at the conference were practical, motivated attendees, and gave a clear call to action to the many industry leaders in the room.

As illustrated in Figure 1, approximately 87% of respondents indicated that they felt at least moderately confident about the future of Australia’s agricultural innovation system. The combined responses of all survey participants indicated the innovation system’s potential, and the significant role that it plays in building the competitiveness of Australian agriculture.

Figure 1: Delegate confidence in the Australian agricultural innovation system.

Source: Australian Farm Institute.

Respondents were asked in the second question to identify one action that could be taken to improve agricultural innovation. The Institute received a range of replies but one often repeated suggestion was the need for collaboration across the agricultural sector. Respondents also identified the need to support and reward those agencies and people who are currently collaborating. In recent years there has been a lack of collaboration, not only between public and private sector agencies, but also between those who communicate R,D&E information and those who discover the science. One respondent identified that the industry needs to be doing all things well – not just one thing - ensuring that as an industry we are not just discovering science, but are discovering science that meets the needs of farmers.

Some respondents said that the industry needs to engage more with the private sector. This is a result of funding cuts and the weakened role of the public sector in R,D&E. Respondents proposed the need for further leadership in agriculture, and increased funding to help facilitate and develop cooperative partnerships between private and public sector providers.

The current agricultural innovation system is complex and the industry needs to identify priorities and be clear about the desired outcomes. Respondents also indicated that the industry needs to better define innovation, including defining the roles of farmers and scientists.

A formalised national R,D&E framework was suggested and respondents advocated using a scoping paper for such a framework.

Accreditation was another issue raised. A few suggested that the industry needs to have appropriate accreditation and training for staff providing extension. Many also said that the skills of private sector advisory staff need to be improved, with better training on how to recognise the difference between explicit science and on-farm decision-making.

Lastly, the issue of better communication models between stakeholders (taxpayers, lobbyists, media and the public) was mentioned. It was suggested that an improved public perception of agriculture is essential for the Australian agricultural innovation system to successfully keep Australian agriculture competitive.

Images:  EU, USDA

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