Growing collaboration and innovation within rural research and development

Bruce Finney

Executive Director, Cotton Research and Development Corporation

The vision of the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) is to power the success of Australian cotton through world-leading research, development and extension (RD&E).

In creating future success, our challenge is to deliver better outcomes faster each year through our investments in RD&E. Growing collaboration and innovation are key strategies, for CRDC and our RDC colleagues, in sustaining and driving greater impact from RD&E investment.

These strategies are creating change within rural RD&E and are undoubtedly important factors for consideration in a current Council of Rural RDCs project developing a vision for the future of Australia rural research and development.

But first some history and context to these changes.

The RDC model

CRDC is one of 15 organisations established under the RDC model by the Australian Government in the late 1980s. Since then, and in response to industry sector demand, the RDCs have transitioned into 10 industry-owned companies and five statutory authorities. This stable model of partnership between industry and government is unique across the world. Long-running RD&E investment by RDCs is seen as a key factor in ensuring world-class research capacity, and is a major contributing factor to long-term productivity growth.

Industry contributes through levies on production which are compulsory once established under legislation, but the existence and rate of the levy is determined by industry. The Australian Government also contributes funding, and matches the RD&E levy up to 0.5% of the gross value of production for the commodity involved. Some industries, such as grains, have elected to be levied at a rate higher than the 0.5%. Others have voluntary contribution mechanisms that enable them to accept additional funds from industry on a case by case basis.

Each RDC is overseen by a skilled and knowledgeable board which incorporates industry experience. The boards aim for balance in addressing immediate and future needs, and the delivery of positive impacts for producers, communities and the environment in line with agreed strategic plans.

Industry and government are both involved in the processes to identify and establish funding priorities for the RDCs. The combination of industry contribution through funding and priority-setting, coupled with ongoing stakeholder engagement, provides for strong ownership by producers and a keen focus on delivery for the RDCs. Engagement with industry and research end-users increases the likelihood that research will be well-targeted and ultimately adopted.

Australian and international reviews confirm that co-investment by government and industry in rural RD&E delivers substantial benefits, and that the RDCs themselves have strongly contributed to the success of our rural industries. The policy rationale for providing support for rural research in Australia includes that:

  • small producers are generally unable to capture sufficient benefits from self-funded R&D, leading to under-investment particularly in sectors with large numbers of small enterprises
  • the collection of compulsory levies avoids free-riding by some on R&D provided by others
  • there are spill over benefits to the wider community that are not captured by the immediate industry.

For the Australian cotton industry, the RDC model has proven to be a key ingredient to growers being able to successfully compete in a world where more than 70% of cotton production is directly subsidised by governments. For example a 2002 study estimated that RD&E investment in the cotton industry’s plant breeding program up to that time had produced an incredible return of $86:1, or $5 billion, to the industry and the nation. Australian cotton yields are now averaging more than three times the world average (Figure 1).

 


Figure 1:  Australian cotton yield.


The RDCs act as brokers positioned between industry, government and the research community, investing strategically to address agreed industry and government priorities. They engage in every stage of the rural innovation pipeline and operate as independent investors in RD&E. The RDCs work as an integrated funding arrangement between industry and government, reflecting the fact that rural industries are socially, environmentally and economically intertwined activities.

With the exception of Sugar Research Australia, the RDCs do not undertake R&D themselves. This allows them to source expertise from a diverse range of providers to match skills, expertise and capacity to rural sector priorities. These research partnerships are with organisations such as state and territory governments, CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, universities and a range of private consultancies.
Total annual rural R&D funding in Australia is estimated to be in excess of $3 billion, with public and private sources each accounting for around half the expenditure. Collectively, the RDCs invest approximately $600 million each year in rural RD&E; which means that RDCs are the largest industry innovation program in Australia and the third-largest source of competitive research funds after the National Health and Medical Council and the Australian Research Council.

Collaboration

Nevertheless, whilst benefits from end-user focused investment in rural RD&E are readily evidenced, a lack of ‘collaboration’ (as measured by co-investment in research into cross-sectoral issues by RDCs) has long been considered a contentious issue.

Whereas RDCs and research partners have established ways to improve knowledge-sharing and coordination to avoid duplication, the identification of adoptable cross-sectoral collaboration research outcomes has proven to be much more difficult and resource consuming. In part this is not surprising, given the emphasis placed on addressing end-user research needs within each sector and the yawning differences between rural industries, regions and production systems, markets and financial returns. And yet, contrary to popular wisdom, cross-RDC collaborative arrangements have been a feature of the RDC world since the very beginning.

The first well-documented example of RDC collaboration is the Climate Variability in Agriculture Program (CVAP) which was established in 1992. Then headed up by the Land and Water Resources RDC, this collaborative work continues today through the Managing Climate Variability Program (MCVP) hosted by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) with RDC partners AgriFutures, Sugar Research Australia, Cotton RDC and Grains RDC. CVAP and MCVP have also been important precursors to the current Climate Research Strategy for Primary Industries with its 22 partners.

For the cotton sector two, key early R&D collaborations have strongly influenced the industry and its ongoing approach to research and production. The first was in 1993 – Land and Water Resources RDC, CRDC and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission established a research program called ‘Minimising the Impact of Pesticides on the Riverine Environment’. This research, conducted some 26 years ago, focused on the impact pesticides had on the river systems and how best to minimise contamination and run-off to the natural environment.

This research led to and has underpinned the cotton industry’s widely adopted myBMP (Best Management Practices) program, and delivered significant reductions in pesticide movement off-farm (Figure 2). MyBMP has helped deliver a responsible Australian cotton industry that is today regarded as maintaining the world’s best practices and is seen as a model for change by other sectors of Australian agriculture.

 


Figure 2:  Endosulfan concentrations in the Namoi River.

Source:  NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation.


The second collaborative research effort started in 1994 when the National Program for Irrigation Research and Development was established, later to become the National Program for Sustainable Irrigation (NPSI). At one time the program had 15 collaborative partners across government and industry sectors, and was responsible for improved irrigation scheduling and application techniques. The program finished in June 2012 and assisted a range of irrigation enterprises – such as rice, grain, cotton (Figure 3), vegetables, tree fruits, nuts, grapes, sugar, dairying and livestock production – reduce their water use by up to 40% over the last 20 years without loss of production.

 


Figure 3:  Australian cotton industry water use efficiency.


New national approaches

Further evolution of collaboration for rural R&D occurred in 2005, when the then Primary Industries Ministerial Council (PIMC) endorsed the development of the National Primary Industries RD&E Framework. Its purpose is to facilitate greater coordination among the governments, CSIRO, RDCs, industry and university sectors to improve the way they work together and maximise net benefits to Australia.

National RD&E strategies were developed for the following primary industry and cross-industry sectors:

  • beef, cotton, dairy, fisheries and aquaculture, forests, grains, horticulture, pork, poultry, sheep meat, sugar, wine, wool, and new and emerging industries
  • animal biosecurity, animal welfare, biofuels and bioenergy, climate change and variability, food and nutrition, plant biosecurity, soils and water use in agriculture.

The cross-industry sector strategies have been generally successful in the difficult task of identifying and prioritising research needs and aligning sector interests which is essential to cross-sectoral collaboration.

A further boost for cross-RDC collaboration came with the Australian Government’s Rural R&D for Profit Program. This program started in 2014, and over eight years will make $180 million in funds available to supercharge cross-sector R&D. Already the program has contributed to major investments in projects such as Accelerating Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture (P2D), Smarter Irrigation, and Biosecurity Surveillance.

P2D is the first project of its kind in the world: bringing together an entire industry sector – including all 15 RDCs – to take a national, coordinated approach to driving digital transformation. This project responds to the global business challenge of how to rapidly adjust to the digital age. Here in Australia, the agricultural sector has joined forces through the P2D project to tackle this challenge head-on.

Cotton is a leading industry user of digital technologies in agriculture, and CRDC has led the P2D project on behalf of all the RDCs. Australian cotton growers are the most connected on-farm and are early adopters of the Internet of Things technology. Equally cotton producers are also the least satisfied. The adoption of technology on farms and across industry value-chains comes with complexity that this project sought to understand. Highlighted barriers include a lack of critical connectivity infrastructure, and a generally low level of digital literacy and skill within industry.

The purpose of the P2D project has been threefold: to facilitate the development of digital technology in Australian agriculture; to foster the establishment of appropriate legal frameworks, data systems and access to critical datasets; and to identify the data communications systems required to deliver the benefits of digital agriculture to the farm and agribusiness sectors.

Analysis through the project shows that with better support and delivery digital agriculture could unlock opportunities worth $20.3 billion for Australian agriculture, a 25% increase on production from 2014–15. You can read more about this and other key findings in the summary report ‘Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture: Enabling digital agriculture in Australia’. This report and a series of detailed technical reports can be found on the Australian Farm Institute and CRDC websites.

Still, Australia lags behind international competitors in utilising data and digital advancements. To lift our game we will need leadership, new data policy, the development of digital strategies and investment in data assets and digital literacy.

The research shows that we have much work to do to bring Australian primary producers fully into this fourth industrial revolution, and the P2D project puts the sector on the front foot as a whole through its collaborative approach. The RDCs are committed to continue working together in collaboration with government in delivering the benefits of digital agriculture to producers.

A powerful tool

Collaboration is a powerful tool and, as the past and recent project examples demonstrate, issues of shared strategic importance will bring all RDCs and other industry participants together.

Of note the RDCs have established three new pathways to support increased cross-sectoral co-investment in recent years, including:

  • The Council of RDCs collaboration forum to facilitate communication, planning, measurement and reporting of collaboration activity.
  • AgriFutures Emerging National Rural Issues Program to drive identification, prioritisation and RD&E investment in issues such as trade policy, markets, animal welfare, technology, workplace health and safety, building capacity.
  • Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative to drive identification, prioritisation and cross-sectoral RD&E for Australia’s plant biosecurity system.

From simple knowledge-sharing and learning, through to increasingly large multi-party co-investment programs that cut across industry and regional boundaries, the RDCs are adapting their business strategy for collaboration. Positively, RDC involvement in cross-sectoral research initiatives minimises the risk of conducting publicly funded research that is not focused on end-user needs or its adoption.

For CRDC this endeavour has supported a doubling of cross-sectoral research in the last five years to now some 40% of its annual investment portfolio. This delivers better results for levy and tax payers. We have aligned with a strategy to grow and diversify our research partnerships in order to engage with new ideas, talent and capacity within the public and commercial sectors, domestically and internationally. Our strategy to increase private-sector engagement also responds to the circumstance of increasing pressure on government budgets and resources for funding of public research.

Innovation

Research and innovation go hand in hand. With really strong foundations in research and technology adoption, the CRDC and the cotton industry are well placed to take advantage of emerging opportunities. A key opportunity now upon us is the revolution underway with new technologies that are being applied across physical, digital and biological spheres.

Breakthroughs are occurring in robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, 3D printing, automation, blockchain and the Internet of Things, fundamentally changing production, supply chain and management systems. This is now certainly the case for agriculture. More than $3 billion was invested globally in agtech in 2017.

The investment in agtech is coming from global agribusinesses like Monsanto, Bayer, John Deere, and Bosch, as well as through a strong start-up business community. Climate Corp, Blue River Technology, and Indigo Ag have emerged from this environment. In fact, start-ups are now a worldwide phenomenon, with Silicon Valley joined by major entrepreneurial centres in most countries. In Australia we have seen a rapid rise in the number of start-ups and support systems for them. Accelerators, incubators and venture capitalists are all seeking to play a role in enabling successful new technology products and services.

CRDC began exploring the potential of entrepreneurial skills and the capacity of start-ups in 2016. Since then we have invested in a number of pilot projects to experiment and learn. We’ve run start-up bootcamps to train our staff and researchers, and have supported 20 start-up teams through this training in partnership with start-up experts, X-Lab. We have invested in FluroSat, an agtech start-up focused on helping growers understand cotton crop nitrogen status. FluroSat emerged through a mentoring program with X-Lab. This year we have sponsored participants in the AgCatalyst international exchange and the MIT Bootcamp which involved more than 100 talented participants at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane.

CRDC will continue to grow agtech investments through novel products, imagery analytics, sensors and automation technology, addressing production, processing and biosecurity challenges. Beyond P2D, CRDC is working with QUT to data-mine the 1400 research projects in our publication library. This extensive research library undoubtably holds many insights on industry sustainability and productivity. We are also doing a seminal piece of work to map all the decision points within cotton production and the supply chain, with the goal of identifying and collecting all of the data needed to improve key decisions.

Most recently CRDC has partnered with NSW Department of Primary Industries, SparkLabs and Hort Innovation to create The GATE (Global Ag-Tech Ecosystem), a collaborative research and technology facility to support start-ups and fast-track the development and adoption of agtech.

In addition, CRDC has partnered with X-Lab and the Australian Cotton Conference to deliver Start-up Alley at this year’s event: a new initiative to showcase 12 innovative start-ups to the cotton industry, and to give them the chance to pitch their novel ideas and innovations to a panel of experts, including Queensland Chief Entrepreneur and Shark Tank investor, Steve Baxter.

Our RDC colleagues are actively exploring similar innovation opportunities. Meat & Livestock Australia is leading the way in terms of the scale and scope of its investments in on-farm and supply chain innovation, and AgriFutures Australia will be hosting the inaugural Asia-Pacific region agtech conference through the evokeAG event in Melbourne next February. In addition, CRDC and other RDCs are also applying the learnings of entrepreneurship internally to improve the speed and likelihood of bringing new R&D-based products and services to the market.

For CRDC these seeds are informing a new innovation strategy, and we see potential to further accelerate and magnify the benefits of RD&E. What if we could create powerful synergies between the 28 years of knowledge and capacity developed through RDC investment in world-leading research, with our public research partners and harness the emerging private sector with their energy and focus on creating new business products and services around agtech?

That combination of diverse thinking, skills and resources has huge potential to unlock new opportunities and resolve big challenges facing Australian agriculture and cotton.

Creating alignment of incentives across these different organisational cultures to achieve increased agility, customer and impact focus will be critical; as will concerted leadership and support for change, including training, new processes and resources to develop capacity and build trust for all involved.

This strategic awareness and experience has strongly informed the future direction for technology-based solutions and innovation opportunities within CRDC’s new Strategic RD&E Plan 2018–23, which came into effect on 1 July.

The plan is unashamedly ambitious. Our aim is to contribute to creating $2 billion in additional gross value of cotton production – for the benefit of Australian cotton growers and the wider community – through our investments in RD&E over the next five years. To help achieve this, cotton growers and the Australian Government will co-invest $125 million into cotton RD&E over the five years in collaborative projects with over 100 research partners.

This investment will be split across the five key focus areas of the Plan:

  • increasing productivity and profitability on Australian cotton farms
  • improving cotton farming sustainability and value chain competitiveness
  • building the adaptive capacity of the Australian cotton industry
  • strengthening partnerships and adoption
  • driving RD&E impact.

The Plan recognises that new technologies and the industry’s ability to innovate will help drive increased productivity and profitability. Our investments in RD&E under this Plan will ensure that the cotton industry benefits from the development and adaption of transformative technologies, and that cotton growers are supported to increase their on-farm use of digital and emerging technologies.

Our investments will also strengthen the science and innovation capacity of Australian cotton, ensuring we’re strategically ready for a changing and digital future. We will tap into the depth and diversity of industry knowledge and ability to unearth opportunities for problem solving and innovation, and we will provide opportunities to develop and advance innovation skills. And, our investments in strategic foresighting will enable our industry to be prepared for possible future eventualities.

These investments – combined with internal innovation to ensure CRDC is fit for purpose now and into the future – will help us maximise the opportunities afforded by the agricultural technology revolution, and deliver better outcomes faster through RD&E.

About the Author

Bruce Finney is the Executive Director of the Cotton Research and Development Corporation. He has extensive experience in the agricultural research and corporate agriculture in management and agronomy roles in Australia and in an advisory role in Argentina. Bruce is a member of the Agriculture Senior Officials Research and Innovation Committee, the Council of Rural RDCs Executive Committee and a board member of The GATE (Global Ag-Tech Ecosystem). He is a past member of the Advisory Board Qld DAF program on Agricultural Robotics at QUT, Chair of the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association and Director of the Cotton Catchment Communities CRC and the Irrigation Association of Australia.

Image:  Kimberly Vardeman