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Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry
29/01/2016
Agricultural innovation

FORREST, Dr Susan, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Genome Research Facility

LANGRIDGE, Professor Peter, Emeritus Professor, University of Adelaide

LEWIS, Professor Robert, Board Chair, Australian Genome Research Facility

LOWE, Professor Andrew, Deputy Dean, Faculty of Sciences, and Chair, Plant Conservation Biology, University of Adelaide

CHAIR: I welcome the representatives of the Australian Genome Research Facility and the University of Adelaide. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. I invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will move on to questions.

Dr Forrest : Thank you to the committee for the opportunity to present today and complement our submission that we have already made to you. With the colleagues that we have present today, we have Andy Lowe's expertise in environmental genomics; we have Peter, who has been heavily involved in international activities in the agricultural sector and was previously the CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics; and we have Rob's extensive background in industry, aquaculture and engagement in the agricultural scene. My background is in human molecular genetics. So we have an excellent cross-section to talk to you. I have given out a summary page to outline what we would like to discuss today. I would like to go through a few of the points to position them for you and then open up for discussion at the chair's leisure as we go through.

We really wanted to position the value of genomics, particularly for agriculture and industry today, in our presentation and start off by looking at this from the perspective of the challenges both for Australia and globally that are currently faced at the moment. Many of you would be well familiar with these anyway, but I will re-emphasise. What we are really talking about is the future of global food security, how the future depends on low-input production systems and what genomics can do to facilitate that type of management. I emphasise that we already excel in these particular areas and we believe that genomics can certainly impact on what we can deliver in these areas.

Genomics has really advanced, particularly in the last few years. Just to give you an example, and to cover off on the basics of genomics and what we mean by a 'genome', when the human genome was first sequenced it took about 15 years with the technology that was available then. It cost over $3 billion and, as there are three billion bases in the genetic code for humans, it was $1 a base. That was a 15-year program to lay out the blueprint without necessarily understanding what all the genes do and how we can possibly interpret all of them as we go forward. I am sure you are well aware there have been a number of advances in health and medical research since then.

The challenge for the non-human sector is there are numerous genomes that need to be studied to the depth and knowledge that we have of the human genome. The agricultural sector in particular is really just starting to better enable its use of genomics and genomic information, and that is really what we want to emphasise today in our discussions with you—how the time is ripe now and how it can be better facilitated.

We have described it as a critical enabling technology, and we certainly believe that. Unfortunately, I was not able to present copies of all of these for you, but some of you have attached to your proformas the outlines, a summary of the rapid advances in knowledge that genomics and genomic technology are generating. It shows how much faster—which is the green line in here—and how much cheaper we can sequence a genome to create genetic information compared to five years ago, compared to 10 years ago. The speed is even faster—so much faster—than the growth of computing capability. So we need to manage the knowledge and we need to generate the knowledge. We are at a time now when we can do both very cost effectively and efficiently and we are able to then utilise genomics in a much better fashion.

So what is clearly the case is that it is a game-changing stage. Genetic technology is really going to underpin production and efficiency gains in crops. We in Australia can really make that happen at a much more efficient rate than we are currently doing. We want to see how we can expand the way that we are working with these genetic resources and look at developing new crops. That will be an area to discuss in a bit more detail. From the biosecurity angle, we can enable more rapid screening for pests and diseases both for products coming in and to ensure we have a quality product leaving the country. We will also be able to track and manage the produce that comes from Australia by being able to code and identify it as a particular product from Australia, giving the provenance of where it actually comes from.

If we start off with just the genetics and the genomics, what is the next stage of the layer? What do we add to that to help us understand the biology of the systems and what is happening? We have to add what we call the phenotype—the actual physical presentation and the biology of the plant, the sheep, the human et cetera. How do they look? How do they differ? How do we collect that information? The ability to combine both the genetic or genomic information and the phenotypic information is the next layer that is being enabled now, which is really exciting. So we can really use genomics to add value to these large biological datasets that already exist, be they breeding populations, seed banks or other things that are already established around the country. Being able to automate that collection of data about crops on farms or animals in the wild—in the actual agricultural situations—will be something that we will see more and more of as we do that.

Then we have to put them together. So we have the genetic underpinning and the information that we can collect more and more of, then we have looked at how the animal or the crop actually presents in a particular situation in a particular environment, and pulling that together to enable enhanced farm management, crop production and species management is this link between the genome, the phenome, the presentation and the management of the environment and the presentation around it.

Some of the exciting things we are able to do and start to look at are things like in crops or in vineyards, for example, not just looking at the species itself but looking at the soil around it and starting to look at the whole population of micro-organisms that are in the soil and why farmer A, who is 500 metres down the road from farmer B, would be able to grow something really well and the farmer down the road would have a lot more difficulty. It is not just the plant and whether they get the rainfall but understanding the microenvironment that is around them. This whole area that you will start to hear more about called the microbiome or the microbiological environment is adding so much more. We are building up this layer of information and knowledge as we go through. How can we use that to get better ideas about how to do crop rotation? How can we possibly substitute some of the microbiome to enhance crop outcomes? These are the exciting questions at present.

We see that the international engagement side of things is extremely important. We have problems in Australia that are of global significance and, therefore, it would be naive to think that we can sort everything out ourselves. Global engagement—and enhanced global engagement—has to be part of an overall package of knowledge of genomics and phenomics that is being managed. If we look at how we can engage in international programs, it is so important to have this seat at the table because we get early access to information that will help us understand our own genetics and genomics. If we are not there, if we are not present and if we are not given an opportunity to take the lead on particular ventures, then we will not have the capacity building and downstream industry benefits that it would be excellent to have.

Finally, towards the end of our session, we will also, hopefully, present to you our concept of Genome Australia, which is a work-in-progress initiative that has already been supported by a large number of researchers and industry partners around the country. This is really the first outing that it has had to our political colleagues. We see that there are a number of really important points, but in order to manage and interpret genomic information we have to ensure that we can integrate both the ethical and social side of things into how genomics is applied as much as the outcomes that genomics can deliver. We want to have a forum where Australian scientists and the Australian science community around genomics can develop both policy and strategy. They can also develop discussions around ethical, legal and social issues—this is extremely important.

The essence of Genome Australia is certainty to coordinate and direct how we utilise genomics information and genomics in Australia and to deliver benefits to industry for the country. What I have taken you through is the series of steps that we see that are building up. We are at stages in different agricultural crops, species et cetera. They are at different stages of this procedure, but certainly genomics is the underpinning area.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Are you from Adelaide uni?

Dr Forrest : I am from AGRF. Andrew and Peter are from the University of Adelaide.

CHAIR: As far as the Adelaide centre goes, and Australia generally, where are we sitting in the eyes of the world at the moment? You touched on it, Susan, because you said that it is important that we be in there at least competing on an equal footing so that we can benefit from the bilateral relationship. How many institutions in Australia are in this space?

Dr Forrest : In the space of the concept around Genome Australia, we have over 120 supporters at high level looking at how a Genome Australia initiative can come together. In terms of capability—physical capability—we have large-scale initiatives with ourselves to service the country and a very large-scale initiative in Sydney to look at human genomics. But I think that much more broadly, in terms of where we have engagement at the discipline level, I would turn to my colleagues to pick up on international and national positioning—Andy and then Peter, maybe.

Prof. Lowe : There are large capabilities in the agricultural genomic space within South Australia, within Victoria of course, within Queensland and within WA and also New South Wales—so most of the major Go8 universities. That is where the main research strength lies. Peter, I think you are probably well versed to gauge our expertise against the international yardstick.

Prof. Langridge : Yes. I suppose my feeling is that we are very good in certain areas of agricultural research in Australia, particularly the low-input agricultural systems and a lot of the technology related to how you deliver technology to breeding programs and to farmer groups. We have a very good structure. In terms of action on the development around the technologies, we are probably a fair bit off the pace internationally, I would say at the moment. There has been a lot more investment and a lot more focus on technologies, particularly in Europe and North America, where there are some very strong programs. So I think we have a particular set of skills in Australia which are to some extent unique, and I think we are world leading. In the genomics area, I think we have drifted a little bit off the real lead in the last few years.

CHAIR: Do you want to touch on the reasons for that—whether it is financial? We have heard from a number of other groups, and even this morning, about the regulatory field being uneven in Australia.

Prof. Langridge : Yes. I do not know that the regulatory issues are such a significant problem. Certainly in terms of some technologies, like GM technology—coming from South Australia—we have a problem. But let's not go there any further. Overall, the regulatory framework in Australia, I think, is extremely good. I think we have one of the best regulatory systems in the world, and I think it is recognised internationally as being extremely good. So I do not think we can blame the regulatory system for a lot of the issues and problems we have. There is also very good investment in very applied agricultural research through the rural R&D corporations, and there is good investment in the very basic area through the Australian Research Council. It is the area in between where we seem to be missing, having a responsive mechanism that allows the applied researchers to tap into new technology and to use the new technologies, develop them and apply them in the most appropriate ways. I think a lot of the overseas groups—you can look at some of the schemes in Europe in particular—have very good funding models that allow that interaction to occur. So I think we are missing that area in Australia.

CHAIR: I do not want to get bogged down on GMs.

Prof. Langridge : Nor do we.

CHAIR: But the point has been made to this committee that the uneven stance on GMs across Australia is actually costing us investment at the moment. Would you concur with that or not?

Prof. Langridge : It has, yes.

Prof. Lewis : It is a complication. For the research community, it is a complication we have to deal with.

CHAIR: Yes, and I do not know how we deal with that issue with the public at large. The dairy industry are talking about some good pastures they have in the pipeline that they are reluctant to use because of the campaign being run against them.

Prof. Lewis : Can I just answer that question from a different perspective, and that is about remaining competitive. We are very competitive in our science. We are up there with some of the best in the world, but genomics is a technology which very rapidly changes. You saw from there that it used to cost billions of dollars to sequence the genome; you can do it now for a couple of thousand dollars et cetera. So we have to be able to adapt and adopt it. Secondly, up until now, we are running out of what I call the genetic plasticity to be able to continue to improve our animals, our plants et cetera, and we have been dealing with individual species—different varieties and different plants. We now have the capability, and the jargon is we have metagenomics, where you can actually look at all the communities.

CHAIR: Yes, you are saying we have stretched the in-built variations and selected to the point where there is limited benefit left.

Prof. Lowe : That's right. A number of those crops and breeds were also developed for the northern temperate regions, so they have been co-opted and re-bred under Australian conditions. If we started again with some new varieties, some new species, bred in some new adaptive types, we might actually get better varieties specifically for Australian conditions. If they are good for Australian conditions, they are also going to be very, very useful for a range of other really degraded or semi-arid regions around the world. Australia can actually develop some of these new varieties, these new breeds, that can then be exported as well. Genomics technology offers that rapid way to develop these new varieties and forms.

Prof. Lewis : Equally, we are saying that we are on the frontier of a new opportunity. When we started off the root disease testing service in South Australia we had to do every pathogen individually. Now we can put 100 pathogens in one test et cetera, and that is expanding exponentially. If you are able to actually handle that huge amount of data and interpret it then you have a much more powerful farm management tool because you are looking at the whole system, not just individual parts of the system. That is what the potential new frontier is for genomics.

Prof. Langridge : I can maybe give you some specific examples. If you have something like wheat, the genome of wheat is over six times larger than the human genome. A good sequence was assembled for wheat only a few weeks ago. For the first time it was reported. I was looking at a quote to get the whole thing sequenced in the middle of last year, and they said for 25 million euros they could do the assembly. An Israeli company came up with a new bioinformatics tool and for $700,000 they were able to do the same thing. So, in six months, the price dropped a huge amount for doing something like that. The other thing is that for a crop like wheat we know that only about five per cent of the genetic variation that is available in the germplasm pool, in the genetic resources of wheat, has actually been captured in breeding programs. There is 95 per cent out there that we have not been able to use because we have not had the technologies to both analyse it and deploy it effectively, and that is where some of these new technologies become so important.

So the scope of breeding has changed dramatically. As Andy said, if you look at what has happened in crop improvement and animal improvement over the last 50 or 60 years, when we started systematic modern technology, we have seen a spectacular improvement. Over the last decade it has almost slowed or slowed almost completely, but we have been able to maintain that growth because we have been able to pick up and adopt new technologies. Australia has been world leading over that period in picking up new technologies, applying them to address practical problems and practical situations. We have not necessarily been so good at developing the technologies but we have been good at the applications. That is where I think the real opportunity lies now.

We have a really difficult production environment in Australia, as we all know—a miserable environment. On the opportunities to expand production: there is a lot of the talk about going into Northern Australia but almost no research has been done on crop development for the arid tropics, because the arid tropics are by and large miserable parts of the world that are very poor and have no money for research but are the areas of the world where there is probably going to be the biggest demand for agricultural production going forward. We have an enormous area in Australia but there are no crops. Nobody has invested in that area for technology development. We are now in a position with a whole set of new tools to start tackling some of these problems, which we just could not do before. From a scientific level, it is a really exciting period that we are in at the moment.

Ms McGOWAN: Excuse, Peter, I don't know what arid tropics look like. What do you mean there?

Prof. Langridge : The northern part of Australia—

Ms McGOWAN: In the tropics but they are arid—like the deserts. The Pilbara.

Prof. Langridge : Yes, those sorts of areas; and then if you go across the northern parts of India, central India and through Sub-Saharan Africa—there is a great belt through there—and patches in Central America, in northern Mexico and in Peru. It is a big part of the world. Apart from Australia, it is actually about the poorest part of the world as well. That is why there has been so little investment in development there. There are crops that are grown in those environments, things like sorghum, millets, but there has been almost no research on those. In many cases, farmers are still growing old landraces—no systematic breeding, no real investment in taking those forward.

The other thing is that in Australia we have a whole lot of native species that are very well adapted to these environments. In the past, with the concept of taking a native grass or a native species and domesticating it as a crop, people would run screaming from the room—just too difficult. Now the technologies have changed. We know a lot about the genes and the genetics of domestication. We could actually go in and start playing with some of these things and modifying them. So there are opportunities there that we just have not explored yet, plus it is an exciting—

Ms PRICE: Can I just stop you there. I just want to get the language right. You said, 'From wheat, there is only five per cent of'—what?—'that we know we don't know.' Is it five per cent of its genetics or is it that there is 95 per cent that we do not know? I just want to understand that.

Prof. Langridge : It is a bit difficult to answer. Anyway, as to wheat: we grow domesticated plants. So at some point, in the case of wheat, about 10,000 years ago, wheat was domesticated by farmers in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent, and they then selected a series of landraces. From those landraces, we selected the elite cultivars that we grow now, and, even though there is huge variation in the elite cultivars, it is actually only a very small proportion of the variation that is present in the landraces and in the wild relatives that are still growing in those parts of the world. There are actually wild relatives of wheat that are native to Australia, too, that, with a bit of difficulty, we can cross into wheat and actually use those for our wheat improvement.

Ms PRICE: So we are just really capitalising on a small percentage of the possible genetic material that is still around to make new species or develop new crops, and it is very hard to work out exactly which five per cent we are using but that opportunity is certainly there.

Prof. Langridge : Plant breeding and animal breeding is based upon using genetic variation that is out there, and, by and large, breeders can only effectively use what is in the elite germ plasm pool—so, other elite varieties. The old tradition was: you cross the best with the best and hope for the best, in breeding. But we have gone beyond that now, and we can now start crossing the best with some really pretty wild and woolly material and then recover back useful germ plasm, if we can deal with those deleterious traits that are otherwise a problem.

Prof. Lowe : So you can go back into the pool of 95 per cent of the variation that has been unutilised so far in breeding the elite varieties. For example, here in Australia, there are 5,000 native grass species, many of which were adapted to very specific conditions and have very specific adaptations, whether they be for certain soil or aridity type conditions. If we were able to genomically target those adaptations, identify the genes that are responsible and allow those species to persist and even thrive in some of these very harsh conditions, then you could breed those across into traditional breeding programs. So the power of genomics allows us to screen that variation, identify which variation is potentially useful and then utilise that for producing improved varieties that increase productivity.

CHAIR: I want to come back to some funding issues later, but we will go around.

Ms O'NEIL: It is really helpful to have that explained, about the impact of genomics on specific varieties of crops, and I think we were across what the implications are. Robert, you mentioned something before, though, about systems understanding. What does that mean? So we are talking about the impact of understanding what you just explained.

Prof. Lewis : Take, for example, a wheat crop. Obviously, the production and the success of that relies on the genetics of that wheat in production, but it also relies on the soil and the structure of the soil. It also relies on what we call the microbiome, which are all the other organisms—the nematodes and things—in that soil. It also relies on how much water efficiency they can use et cetera. So we are now getting to the stage where we can actually sample all those soil populations and not just the wheat plant, and build up a model, as part of your farming system, of how it interacts under various conditions et cetera. Until now we had not had the capacity to—again, using the jargon—capture a metagenomic dataset which is across all the organisms. It is like sampling everybody in this room in one hit without going to individuals.

Ms O'NEIL: So on a dairy farm it is the cow, it is the crops, it is—

Prof. Lewis : Yes, and how they all work, and ultimately we have to translate. We find this inherently interesting because we are researchers, but we do realise that ultimately we have to transfer it into a farming system, so that the farmer knows how to do it. You might have drones over the top that can look at it with infrared and other things to work out what your production levels are et cetera, but if you also have a genetic map that is specific to your property, and that is what we are coming down to, then you have a much more powerful tool, and it is not just the genetic map of the plant you are growing; it is a genetic map of the things that influence that plant.

Ms O'NEIL: That is really helpful. Thank you.

Prof. Langridge : To exemplify that, you can look at something like legume pastures, clovers and so on, where routinely now farmers would inoculate with a bacterium, a rhizobium, in order to set up a nitrogen fixation system. That is an example where we have selected for a microbe and a plant. That is at a really simple level but has an enormous impact on productivity. We can now go to the next level and say, 'Let's look at the whole community of micro-organisms that are interacting and also look at the cropping history too.'

Prof. Lewis : Can I add an additional explanation and go into the medical area. We can only do this now because we have the technology, a really enabling technology, that can rapidly do all this gene sequencing, to use the jargon. It is becoming cost-effective to do it. In the biomedical area, we have a population that has, let's say, diabetes. Almost everybody who has diabetes gets a generic solution. You get a statin, you get a bit of aspirin, you get metformin et cetera. The emerging equivalent of what we are talking about here is clinical medicine, where basically everybody gets a personalised thing. In the not too distant future we envisage that you will go to your doctor and they will say, 'Would you like the normal blood test? Would you like your genome sequenced? You can do it and it becomes a part of it. What we are saying is why the agriculture industry should have a similar thing which they can do.

Ms O'NEIL: That is great, thank you very much. Moving on to the Genome Australia idea, can you tell me a bit more about what is broken in the current system and what this would solve?

Dr Forrest : Just to outline in general, Genome Australia has a cross-disciplinary underpinning, so it is health, human, agriculture, environment. We have so many opportunities to learn from all of those disciplines. In relation to some of the things that are not working, we need to have access to new technology. We are not pretending that in Australia we will be inventing lots of new genomics platforms. We need to have ready access to new technology so that researchers and industry who are asking clever questions can do so in an environment that is funded to support them to do that.

Peter has excellent examples, but we are often challenged to be responsive to international opportunities where we get engaged in early generation of, say, wheat datasets or things where it might not cost us a lot but the benefit is enormous, but there are hurdles to putting those initial investments together. The scale of the types of programs that we are talking about now is outside existing funding mechanisms. So the ARC and the National Health and Medical Research Council support a lot of very important basic research projects and some applied projects, but they are often not at that systems meta-analysis data-size scale. So these are projects at scale that need to be funded to complement existing systems. I do not think we really have enough programs around policy strategy and engagement with the community. comment earlier, we need to do far more about that for the next round of genetic tools and knowledge.

Ms O'NEIL: So there is money problem, by the sounds of it.

Dr Forrest : Yes.

Ms O'NEIL: And then there is—

Dr Forrest : A knowledge problem.

Ms O'NEIL: Social issues, management of the public—

Prof. Lewis : It is a question of scale. I think there are some incipient developments in those areas. An initiative of this scale would allow those to be brought together in a kind of cohesive framework. So I think it is integration and scale which are the important parts of this initiative. I am not specifically criticising some initiatives that are already underway. They are good starting places. But I think the potential with genomics can be recognised and realised through this type of initiative.

Prof. Langridge : Part of the issue is related to the whole dynamics of the area. It is moving so quickly. As Sue was referring to earlier on, we were invited last year to be involved in this new wheat sequencing program. I talked with various funding agencies in Australia. They were all very supportive, but no-one actually had a mechanism to make a decision within the time frame that was needed. So, in the end, the project went ahead. Now it means that basically Australian researchers will have to wait a year before they can access that technology. It was simply because we did not have a mechanism or process in place. There was no problem with support, but there was no mechanism. So we need to be more responsive and to be able to make decisions more quickly because things are changing so quickly.

CHAIR: Who was trying to make the decision?

Prof. Langridge : That was the problem—to make the decision.

CHAIR: It was nobody's decision. Is that what you are saying?

Prof. Langridge : It was nobody's decision. I contacted various people in the funding agency and they said: 'Yes, that's really good. We really need to support this. Let me see what I can do and what I can find out.' They said: 'Well, I've talked with this person and this person and they need to go here and they need to go there, and they need to do this,' and all the rest of it. So no decision was ever reached. In the end, I told my colleagues: 'Don't wait for us. You have to go ahead.'

Dr Forrest : So you would imagine that a proportion of the Genome Australia initiative would have an international engagement fund that would still have a committee or an overseeing board to decide on the appropriate thing. Peter and his colleagues would come to that committee: we have an opportunity to be in the wheat genome project at this particular level, these are the costs, these are the benefits, and what can we do? And in effect there is an instant decision. It could still be no, but it might still be yes. That is really a major block that we have.

Ms McGOWAN: Thanks for coming. It is fantastic to have your presentation. My question is about uptake. Working with our farming communities, I have to make a little comment about 'the farmer'. We have gone through the days when we have them and we now have farming businesses that do this. Yesterday, we had the privilege of working with a dairy farm up in north-east Victoria. One of the dairy farmers there is on genetics—whatever the dairy industry is doing with their genetics organisation. You could just see that he was at a level much higher than everybody else. Can you talk to us about the skills and knowledge and how you would go about making sure—and I am not talking about the social knowledge—that we can actually work within our farming communities? I think this question is to you, Peter. What do we need to put into our system to make sure we can do this well?

Prof. Langridge : I think we in Australia already have by and large one of the best-educated and scientifically-engaged farming communities in the world. Our farmers are actually very good. They are very supportive of technology and technology adoption, by and large. But, essentially, over the past few decades I think we have seen a downgrading of a lot of extension services—advisory services—to farmers. One of the things we are proposing here is the social and community engagement strategy. So, one of the things we would expect to be seeing in the new programs that are coming forward would be a mechanism and a strategy that would engage both the end-users, but also the broader community, around the technologies. We both need to avoid the problems of community acceptance of new technology and also to ensure that the processes are in place for technology adoption and delivery.

If we look at the trends that are happening overseas now with a lot of the big companies, they are going to a system where they are offering farmers very comprehensive packages. You sign up to one of these companies—there is a whole series of social and ethical issues related to this to some extent—which then provide the farmers with full service. They provide them with the seeds they might need, diagnostic services, fertilisers, chemicals, or whatever they might need—an advisory and extension service through that whole package. That is also starting to develop in Australia now, too. As that process goes forward we need a mechanism to engage with that to make sure that there is good exchange between those extension companies and the research community.

Dr Forrest : Within AGRF we have a scenario, which we use internally, about sophisticated users and naive users. Exactly the farming the community that you saw yesterday would be in that sophisticated group. We are well aware that there is the more naive but important user base. Working out education programs that allow them to engage with genomics and the broader phenotyping, and everything else we are talking about, is essential. I think that that is a gap that Genome Australia see that we can fill, also. Already, at the researcher and at some industry levels, we are doing that within AGRF.

Ms McGOWAN: Would you like to have a go at the skill sets that we need? We need to have critical assessment. We don't want people just buying packages and not being able to do that.

Dr Forrest : No.

Prof. Lewis : I will give you an example. I think the chairman knows about this. I was once in charge of an organisation that developed a molecular diagnostic test for pathogens in broadacre cereal crops. It is a new, sophisticated technology for the industry et cetera. You talk about the farmer: most significant farmers have advisers. We actually built the whole technology transfer around the farmer not being the primary recipient of the technology. It is a professional business to transfer technology into the farmers. So we actually built it around putting it in through the advisers. Because it was a whole new technology we did not allow anybody to deliver it unless they actually went through a three-day accreditation course with us, and then an annual one. Because we were adding new pathogens all the time and changes in technology were rapid, they then had to do an annual one-day refresher course. They are the people who then deliver this technology. So, instead of it being to a few areas in the Mallee area and the Eyre Peninsula, of South Australia, this diagnostic test is now from the Queensland border through to Geraldton, across Australia. So you have to use the avenues the farming sector uses, and in many cases the first recipient will not be the farmer per se, because they have professional groups out there who actually pick up technologies and put them in packages that are regionally relevant, down to almost individually relevant properties, to deliver them. It can either be through one of the proprietary companies or it can be through the various advisory groups et cetera, and, equally, there are others a lot of people get through specialists—we also put it through social media and other things, as well. It is about adapting our technology. The people actually get value out of delivering our technologies to the ultimate customer, which happens to be the farmer you are talking about.

Ms McGOWAN: That is a lovely example, thank you. Do you have a list?

Dr Forrest : Mine is really around that educating. We have worked with the environmental scientists who are helping environment repatriation et cetera, so you are not necessarily dealing with the people on the ground but you are dealing with an intermediary and identifying those and educating them. Did you have anything in particular that might be an area to target?

Ms McGOWAN: My head says that you cannot solve current problems with current thinking. I take it to this: we really want to innovate in Australia and get that huge step-up in productivity, and I do not think we can do it with our current thinking. So, what is the new thinking we need to apply to do it, which is new thinking around your education, as well? What you are saying is useful, but we also know that Australian agricultural systems are really innovating very quickly and I think for many of those farming systems their learning is well ahead of us. The complexity of what you are talking about, because it is moral, you have to be able to understand what you are doing and you have to be able to manage the consequences. There is a whole stack of learning that has to take place in using your technology. People are scared for a reason: it is because they feel that they do not understand it. So it is not just understanding it. You actually have to give them the tools to feel comfortable with. That is a whole new education system, really, that you need to put in place. It is not just teaching them how to use it.

Prof. Langridge : I think inevitably a whole series of changes will need to occur within the farming community generally about how they access and utilise information. That is already happening. If you look at what has happened with the commercialisation of wheat and barley breeding industry in Australia, that has had a big impact on the way in which farmers make choices about the varieties they use. I think as these new technologies come in that trend is going to continue.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for coming over from Adelaide. Given you have limited funds, how do you determine your priorities in the work you are doing?

Unidentified speaker: You look at impact—potential impact. My background is in marine science. I woke up one day finding I was in charge of a bigger organisation, 75 per cent of which was agriculture! I had a very steep learning curve. I will go back to an example I know: the root disease testing service, which we developed. On day 1 I had put in front of me a list of all the soil-borne pathogens and the projected crop losses as a result of that. We started at the top of that list and worked our way down. Wherever you look there will be some sort of prioritisation process where it is all about impact—where, for the money you have, you can do the greatest. That is a very glib, generalised discussion, because it can be what the science impact is first, before it gets out into the market, or it could be what the market impact is, depending on the situation. But there is a whole suite of tools the funding bodies and the research institutions use to determine how, hopefully, they are best going to spend their money, whether it be for scientific impact or for technical application impact. That is what you do.

Dr Forrest : I think what we have used on the last line of that summary sheet we have given you about coordinating the direction and utilisation of genomics in Australia, we are not expecting Genome Australia, or the connected entities that we currently are, to do it all. So many isolated pockets have developed. It is not just specific to the agricultural industry, but, in order to do that prioritisation, it is about doing it at a national level, understanding the consequences and delivering the best we can with what is available.

Prof. Lewis : The answer is: make sure we are not being inefficient, ineffective and dysfunctional—that is what the issue is.

CHAIR: And obviously that could apply to political parties.

Prof. Lewis : Well, that is your area, not ours!

CHAIR: My next question, and it is close to where Clare was, is about the funding model at the moment. You suggest a quite different funding model in your submission where, basically, the federal government puts up 50 per cent of your funding and then you cobble the rest together out of the state funding, commercials and whatever. Are you suggesting that the plant genome centre should be treated differently to the rest of the research bodies, or do you think the whole funding model is actually holding the whole industry back across a raft of different organisations?

Prof. Lewis : I do not interpret it that way. First of all, I will speak for AGRF. AGRF was set up to be a national facility to help us to bring genomics together. If we are going to compete, we need national capability. It is like saying, if you are in space technology et cetera, you have to have telescopes somewhere. If you want to do good ocean research, you have to have a big ocean research vessel. There are lots of other things and it is about coordinating on a national level, but at certain times you have to have critical mass—you have to have scale which gives you the capacity to be adaptive to these new technologies. As the chair of the AGRF board, the biggest issue we have is, when someone brings out a new technology, every researcher in Australia wants that new platform. It costs nothing less than $1 million to do it. Our capital budgets go like this and suddenly go up like that, and we have to scramble like hell to get the money et cetera. The only way you can do that is by having a scale which is connected into the Australia-wide capability and being able to do it. That is what this Genome Australia is about. We are hoping that AGRF will be seen as a critical part of that, but, if that scale is achieved some other way, we will have to adapt to that. So that is—

CHAIR: So you really are arguing a specific case here and, because the genomic facility cuts across not just agriculture but a whole raft of different sciences and is sort of underpinning science, if you like, it should be viewed in a different way.

Dr Forrest : Yes.

Prof. Lowe : It is a broader genomics capability for agricultural genomics, medical-human genomics and environmental genomics. There is a nice case study in Canada where this type of fundamental investment in genome capability and also flexible funding have worked extremely well. The argument would be that that has actually put Canada at the forefront of genomics research internationally through the investment that was made in this type of space. It would be nice to see that Australia had a similar vision in this type of space.

Prof. Lewis : Another way of looking at this is that the depreciation rate on the technology platforms that we are using is three years. They are out of date in three years. If you want to put it in a strictly commercial context, we have to have a system which is robust enough to be able to turn over and deliver technologies within a three-year cycle.

Dr Forrest : I think the other important scenario with the Genome Australia concept is that it is not to replace ARC and NHMRC initiatives. We have already spoken to the chairs of those entities and there are things that they would like to do that they cannot enable in their own funding block and they could see that Genome Australia could still enable. It is to facilitate in a different way the coming together of genome science in Australia, but it would have linkages to GRDC, RDCs, NHMRC and ARC. But it is to do a different type of scale of science. It is to inform and engage everything from the farming community right through to the general population. Using the Genome Canada example that Andy just gave, Andy and I have made good contacts with the group from Genome Canada. We are not saying it needs to be identical, but they would be delighted to come out and meet with representatives of the government to talk about what they have done, how they work, where the gaps are that they have filled, what worked and what did not work. I think that is a great opportunity we should pick up.

CHAIR: Is part of their great success the fact that they have been able to secure a big income source coming back from what was originally Roundup Ready canola and the offshoots that have all come back from that? Has that been part of their—

Dr Forrest : No, it is the government funding; no.

Prof. Langridge : It is government. I am chair of the oversight committee for the Genome Canada wheat program, and most of their industry funding comes from—it is mainly provincial funding, but also from grower levies. So it would be a bit equivalent to having state and GRDC funding here in Australia. But just to return to Genome Canada: it is a really interesting model, but I actually think if we had a similar model—we actually have some really big advantages in Australia, because we have had such strong investment in some of the more applied research. We have a much better grasp of some of the issues, particularly in this sort of production environment, than the Canadians have. Now, in my role in Genome Canada, I keep on hassling them that they just do not have that applied science and the delivery mechanisms that we would have in Australia. So, I reckon we could really do quite nice things—

CHAIR: So, you are quite close to the Canadian organisation?

Dr Forrest : Yes.

Prof. Langridge : Yes, well I chair their oversight committee. But I am chairing several panels in Europe as well, so I also have good oversight of the European—that is what I think is so exciting about this. In Australia—

CHAIR: You are not far from being right.

Prof. Langridge : Well, I think the science is telling us that this is the way to go, but we just have this real strength in Australia around understanding the biology and the problems and the issues, and really good mechanisms for actually seeing those. All we need to do is now bring in the technology, tie that in, and—wham, away we go.

Ms McGOWAN: Perhaps I could just add to what you said, Peter. You said biology, science and issues. Perhaps I could add benefits, because until we start putting the benefits into the equation, you are never going to win the community.

Prof. Landridge : You are absolutely right.

Ms McGOWAN: And we have not done enough work on the benefits. We get excited by what you say about the tropics, but it is only when you start explaining benefits of it that you get the political will to do it.

Prof. Lewis : Just as an aside, we see a lot about government policy, about agriculture in the northern regions of Australia. Unless you pick up this technology and address disease resistance, you have no hope in hell. That is just one small example of that. Our varieties we are dealing with here have had 9,000 years plus of disease resistance.

CHAIR: Well, we are going to have to move on, so thank you for your attendance. I do not think you have been asked to provide anything to us, but if anything extra comes to you that you would like to get to the committee, then please contact us. You will be sent a copy of a transcript of the evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to any errors. So, thank you very much.