By Dr. Cami Ryan, University of Saskatchewan
Currently on hiatus in Perth and working on a research project with the Institute of Agriculture at University of Western Australia (UWA), I had the opportunity to the attend Crop Updates 2011.
Crop Updates 2011 is Western Australia’s premier agronomic event and is sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). The event was held this year at the palatial Burswood Entertainment Complex in South Perth, Western Australia. Almost 500 delegates were in attendance including growers, government reps, scientists, breeders and so on. The lobby was a-buzz with people and exhibitors. Even the anti-GM demonstration, organized early on the first day, did little to dampen the mood of the attendees. In reality, the demonstration was quite peaceful; comprised of a handful of, what appeared to be, good natured folks wearing floppy hats and bearing large banners.
Opening the event was the Honourable Terry Redman, Minister for Agriculture and Food. As public-private partnerships (PPPs) in agriculture are my immediate research focus, I was interested in Redman’s statement on the DAF’s endorsement and involvement in PPPs (…and I paraphrase here):
“…[The Department’s] interest to continue to partner with industry rests on its ability to access state of the art R&D, to facilitate better trade negotiations and – of course – to increase the value of WA grain in global markets.”
Redman also informed the crowd of the large shipment of WA wheat that was sent to Saudi Arabia last year. Apparently, this is unprecedented in WA agricultural history. Of note, though, it seems that Saudi climate is well suited to WA wheat varieties.
Additionally, Redman announced the allocation of $30M AU to the establishment of the Grains Export Centre, an independent, commercially focused investment organization. The mandate of GEC Ltd. is to increase the competitiveness of export grains, to facilitate the distribution of market intelligence and to attract interest and leverage connections between the public and private sectors to meet WA crop improvement requirements.
Redman also took note of GRDC achievements. The GRDC (along with partners such as Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organizations (CSIRO) and a number of Australian universities) has established a National Grains R&D Strategy. GRDC Head, Dr. Peter Reading (due to retire at the end of the month and someone that I will be interviewing when I am in Canberra next week) is credited for developing a key R&D delivery model for Australia and for facilitating private investment in wheat breeding in Australia.
Next, Sean Gardner, Global Wheat Lead for Monsanto (US), gave an excellent introductory presentation on Global Trends in Cropping R&D. According to Gardner:
“…advancement in agriculture requires a broad set of tools necessary to increase productivity and address other challenges such as drought tolerance and disease resistance.”
In his presentation, Gardner touted corn as a model crop for wheat. Monsanto got out of the wheat R&D business quite some time ago but has since re-invested due, in large part, to market demands to address diminishing global acres. As the ‘Corn King’ (my term), Monsanto has the opportunity to leverage its efficiencies and advancements made in corn R&D and utilize them in wheat innovation. With that, Gardner underscores the importance of that key ‘set of tools’ in moving forward in wheat development; tools that include conventional breeding, molecular breeding as well as biotechnology techniques. R&D in wheat, for Monsanto, will focus on stress tolerance and increased yields.
In this effort to move into the wheat R&D business, Gardner also talked about the new Monsanto/InterGrain (Australia) partnership. Partnership talks were intiated by a chance conversation when a mutual colleague, recognizing the commonalities in each organization’s key objectives, brought the two entities together. Monsanto has since acquired 19.9% equity in InterGrain.
It is important to note that this past crop year has been extremely difficult for farmers and the agricultural industry, at large, in WA. This past season was one of the driest on record for the State. Thus, it was hardly surprising that many of the overarching themes of the Crop Updates 2011 revolved around topics related to the challenge of drought: managing risk, tillage and soils, variety development and performance, prices, grain quality and market access.
Australia has experienced its fair share of challenges of late… drought, flooding in the eastern states and, most recently, fires in and around Perth (75+ houses lost). Despite these hurdles and hiccoughs, Australia, and its people, maintain a “no worries, mate!” indomitable sense of humour. This was illustrated quite aptly through a presentation on ‘Resilience’ given by Dennis Hoiberg on the first day of the event.
Holberg, a psychologist by trade, characterized the impacts of crisis on the psyche of growers as the BOHICA effect – Bend Over Here It Comes Again!
BIO: Camille (Cami) D. Ryan (B.Comm., PhD) is a Professional Research Associate with the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics in the College of Agriculture and Bioesources at the University of Saskatchewan. Prior to returning to the U of S for graduate studies, Cami worked for AgrEvo Canada Inc. and was part of the team to bring Liberty Link Canola to the market in the mid 90’s. Cami continues her work in the agricultural community, partnering with organizations such as the National Research Council IRAP program, the Institute for Sustainable Development, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, SaskFlax and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.