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Dec 20, 2018

Can wool and grapes ever get along?

Australia’s agriculture research and development corporations aren’t known for playing well together, so when word gets out that all 15 RDCs will be in one room in Canberra, anyone in agriculture who loves a brouhaha should be buying a ticket.

 

Wool, wine, grains, cotton, dairy, meat, meat processing and live export, plus eggs, horticulture, timber, sugar and fisheries RDCs delivered their own State of the Nation address last week at Rural Research and Development Corporations’ Vision 2050. This was speed dating for lovers of ag, a quick fix of all your favourite farm commodities and their hopes and dreams, without having to leave your seat.

From forecast to foresight

Thought of the day went to Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Science’s Rohan Nelson who spoke about the shift from forecasting to “foresighting”. ABARES has been forecasting agriculture based on statistics since 1945 and Mr Nelson is an agronomist, but he said it was clear that predicting a true picture of tomorrow meant relying on more than just numbers.

He said evidence-based forecasting needed to transform to consensus-based foresighting, drawing on diverse expertise and multiple perspectives to better plan for “deeply uncertain future market scenarios”. How you capture and calculate for the unknown in ag remains a challenge, but it’s hard to deny the point.

Shared issues call for shared solutions

Collaboration was a central theme but, then again, when is it not? I’d love to see someone stand up one day at an industry gathering and say, “To hell with everyone else, we’re going it alone”.

But those pushing for collaboration had a point. All commodity groups share the same big issues: labour, water, waste, energy prices, market access, technology, data use, animal welfare and regulatory burden.

In particular, all spoke of the shift in consumer behaviours. In the past, three main values drove consumers’ food choices – taste, price and convenience. Now the leading drivers are health and wellness, followed by safety, social impact and experience.

To this end, each group had its own solutions. For MLA it’s the potential of meat snacks, collagen drinks and smart packaging; the grains industry has beer flavours in China and long-chain omega 3 canola oil; and wool is targeting the 400 million people worldwide who don’t use their product but could, notably the 230 million who claim they don’t buy wool because they say it irritates their skin.

Eggs Australia’s Rowan McMonnies explained the animal welfare challenges and the battle with “the outrage machine” of social media, while Forest and Wood Product Australia’s Ric Sinclair talked about the development of off-site precision timber framing for the building industry. In a nice twist, Mr Sinclair said forestry was perfectly placed to provide an environmentally sustainable alternative to concrete when looking to build the 50,000 homes a day the world needs to house its growing population.

Sharing solutions means sharing funds

Late in the day, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research’s Andrew Campbell said when it comes to funding research, perhaps it was time to move away from commodity-specific research in favour of grouped commodities and looking at shared problems.

Wool consultant Paul Swan was quick to point out that care needed to be taken when speaking of such revolutionary upheaval.

“Be careful not to do brain surgery on the RDC model with a sledgehammer,” Mr Swan said. “If we want to make the hose go further, we don’t cut it off at the base.”

And therein lies the real issue. Agriculture is notoriously fragmented, particularly in research, and trying to encourage a wool producer or a tomato grower to send their levies to solve sugar or grain issues is going to take serious diplomacy.

The future of RDC collaboration

That said, the gathering was noted for the honest and open approach with which all speakers discussed their industry’s problems and possible solutions, with most ending their presentations with “if you have any ideas how we can fix this together, here’s my card”.

A shame, then, that more people weren’t in the room. RRDC’s Tim Lester expects to host the event again next year but not so close to Christmas.

I suggest if all 15 food and fibre research bodies are going to be in one room and share their concerns for Australian agriculture, more of those who could be part of the solution should buy a ticket.

For the record, it was free this year and there will be no price increase in 2019.