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No let-up in drive to unlock profits-targeted innovation

Steve Jefferies, Managing Director GRDC
Photo: GRDC

Over the past two decades, the gross value of the Australian grains industry has tripled to more than $15 billion.

I've talked recently about the success of RD&E investment over the past two decades. Over this period the gross value of the Australian grains industry has tripled to more than $15 billion. New high-value industries have been created including canola, chickpeas, lentils, mungbeans and more. The water use efficiency of wheat has more than doubled and we have provided growers with tools to manage constantly evolving issues such as herbicide resistance and new pests and diseases.

Despite this success, grain growers continue to face declining terms of trade, a changing and highly variable climate and a highly volatile global trading environment. Australian grain growers need science to deliver even more than it has - a massive challenge that GRDC is acutely aware of and towards which GRDC is prioritising all of its decision-making, research partnerships and management.

Through the implementation of our new five-year RD&E Plan we are looking to continuously lift grower profitability through technologies and solutions that can overcome even the most onerous production and market constraints. As part of this process we are undertaking a detailed analysis of our 30 key investment targets as part of the new RD&E Plan. Complementing this are three novel programs for fostering even higher levels of industry innovation - GrainInnovate, Growers as Innovators and Machine Learning.

GrainInnovate, launched earlier this year, is a $50 million venture capital fund aimed at drawing out the best and brightest tech start-ups from across the globe to focus on innovative solutions for growers' hardest-to-solve problems. GRDC has partnered with Artesian, Australia's largest and most active early stage venture capital firm. To stay competitive we need new innovations, new technologies and brilliant ideas from Australia and around the world. This initiative is unique in that it is focused solely on the Australian grains industry. It is a beacon to attract world-class agri technologies to our industry.

Growers as Innovators is a program built around the fact that Australian grain growers are some of the most innovative in the world. GRDC has partnered with Farmers2Founders Pty Ltd (F2F) and four other RDCs to deliver a program of workshops, training and networking opportunities to help growers develop smart new ideas into practical solutions. There are six grains-focused workshops being held from June to September 2019, with two in each GRDC region. Under this program, there is the potential for grower ideas or innovations to be assisted through incubator or accelerator programs and possibly into the GrainInnovate program.

The third novel approach is a pilot investment aimed at improving grower outcomes by engaging the machine learning community to develop innovative solutions for grain production issues. Machine learning is the automated creation of algorithms for pattern-recognition, classification and prediction from input data. It is a promising 'big data' analytical method that enables insight and extraction of usable information from large and unstructured datasets. Use of machine learning in industries such as engineering, defence, manufacturing, transport and logistics, as well as finance, has been very successful. This program aims to develop capacity for the Australian grains industry by facilitating the establishment of research partnerships between machine learning and grains RD&E expertise, and by generating a pipeline of machine learning outcomes that address grains industry issues.

Some of the initial targets for the new machine learning platform are aimed at improving grower decision-making by helping provide more accurate weather forecasts. Another aim is to gain new insights from crop and soil constraint data. A wealth of field-mapped data layers is becoming available including paddock yield, multispectral, topographic, electromagnetic, electroconductive, and weather data. Machine learning models could be developed that are better able to account for spatial variability and greatly enhance the benefits of precision farming as well as other outcomes.

While we expect the majority of research impacts to come from investments made under the five-year RD&E Plan, we are excited by the prospects of these three innovation programs and their potential to strengthen GRDC in its primary objective - improved, sustained, grower profitability.

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