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Why it is important for GRDC to invest in discovery

The Herbicide Innovation Partnership is one of GRDC's largest single investments.
Photo: Brad Collis

A significant feature of the GRDC-Bayer Herbicide Innovation Partnership (HIP) is the fact that it deliberately targets the ‘discovery’ end of the long (and expensive) herbicide chemistry development pipeline.

As a research and development corporation, GRDC has discovery enshrined in its mandate. This is expressed through numerous investments in knowledge and innovation, from investigating pests and diseases to advancing improved crop cultivars.

However, sponsoring the creation of new herbicide mode of action chemistries goes beyond simply supporting growers through research. It delivers a herbicide development pipeline that is tailored to the needs of Australian growers.

Limited options for Australia

There are relatively few investment opportunities that can exert influence over the development of a new herbicide molecule. Post-commercialisation investments might seem low-risk but are limited to sponsoring field trials that confirm or refute an already-defined product’s performance.

The opportunities at this ‘safe’ end of the pipeline are also limited.

While the worldwide rate of new herbicide chemistry patent registrations is currently less than 50 per year, GRDC manager of chemical regulation Gordon Cumming says 20 per cent of new herbicides that enter the global industry were never made available to the Australian cereal market.

“Those that do reach Australian growers are usually introduced three to five years after their European or American certification,” he says.

“There is no guarantee that a molecule that is theoretically or even demonstrably successful in Europe, North America or China will perform the same way under Australian broadacre conditions.

“The mode of action may or may not be effective against Australian weed species and their resistance mechanisms. Performance can also be affected by the differences in soil type, sunlight intensity, temperature, humidity and application techniques.”

Ultimately, investing in evaluation can do little to affect the diversity of herbicides available to Australian growers and nothing to influence their suitability.

Who pays the piper calls the tune

Globally, Australia’s annual grain production is relatively small and its needs have been given low priority in the consideration, communication and distribution of new herbicide molecules.

Supporting discovery changes this.

GRDC senior manager of biosecurity and regulation Dr Ken Young says chemical research is essentially a numbers game, where scientists will explore tens of thousands of molecules in the search for a single promising candidate.

“By investing in new herbicide discovery, GRDC has ensured Australian data is now part of the assessment process that decides whether a new molecule will progress or not, and ensures the Australian industry receives the same early advice as Europe and the Americas regarding new developments.”

So, while research and development are riskier than evaluation, being able to influence the conditions and weed species a molecule is developed to target will vastly improve the chances of it meeting the Australian efficacy and registration requirements later on.

Value for money

In dollar terms, the $90 million invested in HIP is substantial. It is one of GRDC’s largest single investments, alongside National Variety Trials and strategic partnerships with Australian research organisations.

Over the partnership term, however, the average investment of $9 million per year is proportionate.

GRDC’s total research, development and extension investment for the 2022-23 financial year was $176.9 million. Meanwhile, weeds are costing Australian grain growers more than $3.2 billion in lost production per year.

“The chemical industry recently estimated the cost of putting a single new molecule to market at US$301 million,” Dr Young says.

“In comparison, GRDC’s co-investment to potentially develop multiple new chemistries specifically for Australian conditions is at the least costly end of the scale.

“When you add the long-term benefits of more than 55 postdoctoral research positions in Bayer laboratories, most of which are being filled by Australian and New Zealand scientists, and GRDC’s share in any global herbicide royalties are also considered, the investment in development offers a substantial and well-targeted rate of return.”

How is HIP contributing to the Bayer pipeline of herbicides?

The HIP has significantly increased the amount of work being done at Bayer on herbicide research – for the first time with a dedicated focus on products tailored to the Australian market.

Thanks to this partnership, the number of researchers who are designing and developing the next generation of herbicides to safeguard agriculture’s efficiency, productivity and sustainability has increased significantly.

Bayer’s head of chemical classes Stefan Lehr says the team has discovered and worked on more than 10 new herbicide modes of action since the HIP program began in 2015.

“It’s not a given to identify and work on 10 new modes of action within that time. However, finding chemistry that is a new mode of action does not necessarily mean it will make it to the finish line and reach commercialisation.”

Bayer’s HIP project lead Dr Hendrik Helmke says HIP represented a significant investment into Bayer’s weed control research capabilities. “Not only in terms of the workforce, but also in overall ability,” he says.

“It helped us to refocus on the relevance of the Australian cereal market.

“Australia has grown into the single biggest cereal market for Bayer and one of our most important single-country markets in the world. That scale means it is a market that should be front of mind when it comes to herbicide development.”

ken young discussion

Candidates from Australia and New Zealand attending a workshop with Ken Young presenting an overview of GRDC and its
contribution to the HIP. Photo: Swantje Behnken

Dr Lehr says HIP had allowed the company to broaden its discovery program.

“We certainly looked at a few new modes of action that were at hand when HIP started – we’ve intensified that work – but we also had the chance to invest more into exciting chemistry and start in new directions,” he says.

“HIP gave us a chance to speed up our research into promising modes of action.

“It also gave us a chance to be brave enough to pursue higher-risk approaches. That’s where we are most likely to find the breakthrough technology we’re looking for. It’s high risk, and it might need a little more time, but it could also be far more rewarding.”

Bayer Crop Science Australia and New Zealand head of sales Tony May says the work reflects the significance of the weed resistance issues faced by growers.

“Widespread weed resistance is a major concern of modern agriculture,” Mr May says.

“Weeds have evolved resistance to 23 of the 26 known commercial herbicide sites of action.

“When a weed becomes resistant to one herbicide, it may also become resistant to many (if not all) other herbicides with the same mode, and sometimes even to herbicides with different modes of action.

“Until now, farmers have dealt with this problem by combining or rotating herbicides with different modes of action and integrating this method with non-chemical strategies where possible to reduce the threat and impact of weed resistance.

“Bayer continues to invest in HIP because we recognise the project has real potential to mitigate the ever-evolving ability of weeds to adapt to our existing herbicide modes of action.”

What are we doing in Australia as part of HIP and why is it important?

For the first time, herbicides are being optimised for Australian grain growers in the earliest stages of discovery and throughout their development phases.

This goes along with increased opportunity for Australian students and in-country research.

The Herbicide Innovation Partnership (HIP) has seen Australia promoted to a ‘priority one’ country in Bayer’s global herbicide development program.

Bayer’s head of chemical classes Stefan Lehr says new molecules targeting cereals as the major Australian business segment will now only be progressed if they work in Australian conditions.

“Whenever there is a development decision taken and there is a fit to Australia, we’re going to develop it at full speed in Australia, which was not the case before the inception of HIP in 2015,” Dr Lehr says.

In the past, when Australia was a priority two or three country, it only had access to molecules that had been selected due to fit for European and North American markets.

“Australian researchers and product developers then had to make the best of those molecules and develop products that also worked in Australia,” Dr Lehr says.

“With the changes brought by Bayer’s partnership with GRDC promoting Australia to a priority one country, we now look for efficacy in Australia as an integral part of our research and development process in Germany.

“We look for products that fit to Europe, North America and Australia. Looking forward, this is a huge win for Australian growers.”

We get first-hand results from Australia, which hasn’t been the case before.

Bayer’s HIP project lead Dr Hendrik Helmke says the elevation to priority one status has aided in-country research, with extensive trials conducted at a dedicated long-term research site near Horsham, Victoria.

“We get first-hand results from Australia, which hasn’t been the case before,” he says.

The partnership also benefits a cohort of at least 11 postdoctoral researchers every two years through the opportunity to live and work in Frankfurt, Germany, on Bayer’s herbicide research programs.

GRDC senior manager biosecurity and regulation Ken Young says young Australian and New Zealand chemists and biochemists are invited to apply for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship working with the herbicide discovery team.

“These graduates are involved in core work to develop new molecules,” Dr Young says.

“Then, if they decide to return to Australia after working abroad, they will bring that experience and knowledge with them.

“These are people who have recently completed their postgraduate degree and been conferred a PhD. In many cases, this postdoctoral opportunity will be their first experience of working in a role supporting the agriculture industry.

“It opens their eyes to agriculture. Through HIP we hope to show them ways in which they can apply their skills to support agriculture and, ultimately, food production in Australia.”

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