Rural R&D wastage and cross-over needs addressing – Norton

Terry Sim, September 17, 2018

MLA managing director Richard Norton

AUSTRALIA’S search for a new rural innovation vision should address wastage, cross-over in research and development spending and ‘patch protection’ in the nation’s food and agriculture sectors, according to Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton.

Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud last week said he has commissioned Ernst & Young to develop a strategic vision for the future of Australia’s rural innovation system.

Mr Littleproud pointed out that the vision development process was not a restructure of Australia’s rural research and development corporations.

But Mr Norton believed the rural innovation review could help inform any future restructure of Australia’s rural RDC structure.

“The (RDC) model is 22 years old, it is time for a full and thorough review.”

Mr Norton said Australia had various government departments, rural RDCs, universities and co-operative research centres all running separate R&D agendas.

“At the moment there are probably eight different entities public and private, that I know of that are all looking on how to solve food traceability issues, such as identifying that Australian red meat is Australian red meat when it gets to China.

“Everyone is just fighting for money and therefore jobs, and therefore they are fighting for the protection of their patch,” he said.

“I see that right across the whole of agriculture, the lack of vision being put out by government across the food and agriculture sector just means that money gets wasted.

“If there was one national program that attacked food traceability either from farm or from processor, but even just in end-markets…we’ve also got cross-over among some CRCs in this area,” Mr Norton said.

“There is not just RDC waste – the whole issue of the vision within the agricultural and food sector should be addressed.”

Mr Norton said the rural innovation vision review should also address the issue of two RDCs – MLA and Australian Wool Innovation – working in sheep R&D.

“Who is doing footrot? Who has solved the mulesing debate, now that New Zealand has banned it, even tail stripping has been banned … what’s our solution, all that type of thing?

“My point here is that I see that right across the whole science food and agricultural – this doubling up of projects and patch protection,” he said.

“And I think this (vision) review needs to go further than RDCs – I think it needs to go across the whole issue of how public funding is spent on food and agriculture.”

Mr Norton believes the vision review process should also extend to a comparison of the income of RDCs, how much of that was spent on marketing and R&D, versus on RDC operating costs.

“I know with mine (MLA), for every dollar that we get in, we spend 90 cents on the actual projects, so around 10 cents is cost.

“I think that is a very basic place to start with rural RDCs,” he said.

“And if you are a $20 million RDC with $5 million worth of costs you are never going to have a long-term impact on anything.”

Mr Norton said there should be a certain percentage of research and development that generates royalties or income for the RDC for the levy payers.

Growth in Merino wool cuts an opportunity

At the Lambex 2018 conference University of Western Australia’s School of Agriculture and Environment’s Livestock Science chair Professor Graeme Martin showed a slide comparing the growth in French milk sheep production versus Merino wool cuts over the past 30 years. Professor Martin was demonstrating the power of genetics and the need for further research on gene editing. Click here to view the slide.

Mr Norton highlighted the incline in sheep milk production versus the “flat line” in Merino fleece cuts over the past 30 years as illustrating what gains could be made through investment.

“It’s a clear example of lost opportunity … that ultimately what Australia needs is the dual purpose sheep that is producing meat and wool.”

Mr Norton said undoubtedly the mandatory levy structure has placed Australia as a global export leader in the red meat sector.

“What can be reviewed, in terms of structure change, is how to ensure that the maximum amount of levy is actually spent on programs and not on costs to run the program.

“And from a government point of view that government funds are not being duplicated across very departments, or various CRCs and RDCs,’ he said.

“I see cross-over between government departments, CRCs, Food Innovation Australia and RDCs.”

Mr Norton said as a managing director of an RDC and as a levy payer he had an enormous passion for what the Australian agricultural sector can achieve.

“I just don’t want to see wastage, cross-over and patch protection.

“I just want to see the best outcomes for Australian agriculture and I just think a (vision) review in the right format can achieve a lot of these outcomes.”

Council of rural RDCs also welcomes innovation review

The Council of Rural RDCs has welcomed the project to develop a shared vision for Australia’s rural innovation system.

Council executive officer Tim Lester said research, development and innovation have played a critical role in driving long-term growth and prosperity, sustainability and international competitiveness of our rural industries.

“Research, development and innovation creates value for our industries, communities and the nation through the discovery and application of knowledge, delivering better ways of doing things, and better products and services.

“Australia’s RD&I ecosystem involves an estimated $3 billion a year and broad mixture of public and private investors and providers. The system includes universities, state and territory governments, CSIRO, corporations, start-ups and entrepreneurs, private research organisations and the RDCs,” he said.

“We also know that the world is rapidly changing, with new challenges and new technologies coming through all the time.

“R&D helps us anticipate and adapt in the face of these changes and in the context of Australia’s particular circumstances and characteristics,” he said.

“Ensuring that our system is fit-for-the-future will help us maximise opportunities and respond effectively and appropriately to challenges.

“We acknowledge the leadership shown by the minister through this initiative.”


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  1. Stuart Robinson, September 17, 2018

    Richard misses the fact that those wrinkly poorly reproductive, but heavy-cutting sheep of 30 years ago have been replaced by sheep of similar wool cut, plain-bodied, about two microns finer, much better survivors and no need for mulesing. I know, I had one, now the other. The genetic advancement in Merino sheep where breeding is for productivity has been amazing. Wool cut exclusivity is old school and Richard needs to modernise and get with it before spouting off in the hope he may get to control more funds. Editor’s note: Mr Norton drew attention to the UWA graph to highlight the gains possible with investment and was not necessarily arguing for research to focus on wool cut alone.

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