Tag Archives: agribusiness

Making innovation work

The ubiquity of the term, ‘innovation’ in the Australian political, business and social lexicon risks diffusing its meaning and, worse, its broader uptake in the national interest. Identifying the true meaning and value of innovation requires we significantly rethink the way we approach the generation of ideas and their application into society.

The current transactional approach to innovation in Australia generally eschews direct supports in favour of tax incentives which, unusually in a global context, comprise roughly 90% of government expenditure on innovation. This is like a vending machine approach to innovation, one in which all attention is focused on the end product and little or no concern is directed towards understanding, or better still, enabling and improving the mechanics of its delivery.

If we are to be more expansive and impactful in our approach to innovation then we need to engage it in its fullest sense and not just concern ourselves with input and output triggers. This requires we focus on identifying the factors that both comprise and, more importantly, help create successful innovation ecosystems.

making innovation work
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits Western Sydney University’s LaunchPad – an initiative to support startups and technology based businesses in Western Sydney. Credit: Sally Tsouta

Strengthening literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines from a very early age affords us a bedrock on which to build workforce capacity and the intellectual capital necessary to generate and sustain innovation. Existing educational structures will need to adapt and change in a way that both responds to and supports the highly fluid and dynamic features of a thriving innovation ecosystem. Adjusting curriculums or modifying our expectations of graduate attributes, while important exercises, will not get us to where we need to be.


“The development of the skills-base required to drive sustainable innovation will both depend on and necessitate a very deliberate blurring of the borders between business, industry and education.”


According to last year’s ‘New Work Order‘ report by the Foundation for Young Australians, “70% of young Australians currently enter the workforce in jobs that will be radically affected by automation”. Add to this an expected average of 17 job changes for each of these new workers over the course of their working lives and it is clear that career narratives within the mooted ‘Ideas Boom‘ will be conditionally diverse and non-linear.

Disrupted, diverse and adaptive career pathways demand innovative responses from business as well as the education sector. The development of the skills-base required to drive sustainable innovation will both depend on and necessitate a very deliberate blurring of the borders between business, industry and education. The key to making this work is not so much an exercise in imposing demarcations on the role each of these groups perform collectively, rather it is centred upon letting go.

When circumstances conspire, Australia’s public research entities and business can produce remarkable innovations, as is evidenced by world leading inroads in, for example, solar technology, quantum computing and medical research; but we need to rely on more than circumstance and a dwindling linkage and research infrastructure funding pool.

While it is early days, universities and business are – in incubator, accelerator, and shared strategic (precinct) spaces – forming the beginnings of the deliberately diffused collaborative relationships needed to build sustainable innovation ecosystems. Encouragingly, the policy and funding frameworks put forward by the National Innovation and Science Agenda offer much to support this process.

The real determinant of our success in innovation will be the aspirations and behaviours of the emerging generation of workers. Diversity in career experience will be the attractor to study STEM disciplines, not curriculum reform. If we get it right, STEM skills will be seen as essential navigation tools in an as yet unknown adventure through a thriving innovation ecosystem where business, industry and universities coalesce to disrupt, diffuse and diversify in the interest of ideas.

Professor Barney Glover and Dr Andy Marks

Vice Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University Assistant Vice Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University 

Read next: Dr Cathy Foley, Deputy Director and Science Director of CSIRO’s Manufacturing Flagship on the Path to a ‘right-skilled’ workforce.

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CO₂ cuts nutrition

CO₂ cuts nutrition

Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.

Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.

Researchers at the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre (PICCC), a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources in Victoria, are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of CO₂ on grain yield and quality to reveal how a more carbon-enriched atmosphere will affect Australia’s future food security.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
An aerial view of the Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE) project, where researchers are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide on grain yield and quality.

Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.

“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

According to Fitzgerald, the research being carried out by PICCC, referred to as Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE), is also being done in a drier environment than anywhere previously studied.

“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”

The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Horizontal rings injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as part of the AGFACE project. Credit: AGFACE

“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.


Pests and disease

While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.

Scientists at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources have been researching the impact of elevated CO₂ levels on plant vector-borne diseases, and they have observed an increase of 30% in the severity of the Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV).

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Higher CO₂ levels are linked with an increase in the severity of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus.

Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.

“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.

“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”


This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.

With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.

But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.

The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.

“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.

“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”

This micronutrient deficiency, referred to as “hidden hunger”, is a major health concern, particularly in developing countries, according to the International Food Research Policy Institute’s 2014 Global Hunger Index: The challenge of hidden hunger.

There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.

The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.

For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.

– Carl Williams

www.piccc.org.au

www.pbcrc.com.au