Australia's Chief Scientist

How science facilitates productivity in the agricultural sector

We live in an era of connections.  The far reaches are a plane trip away; the virtual world is at our fingertips; and we amplify our own intellectual powers through an increasing connectivity with artificial intelligence.

The big issues in the agricultural sector can only be addressed by multi-disciplined research teams working with industry to better understand the critical connections between productivity and sustainability.

At the G8 summit on Food Security in July 2009, the statement noted:

Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue …. Effective food security actions must be coupled with adaptation and mitigation measures in relation to climate change, sustainable management of water, land, soil and other natural resources, including the protection of biodiversity.

Productivity is critical to sustainability because it’s  improved productivity that underpins the sector’s ability to compete internationally; and it’s only a viable and productive sector that can support the science needed to understand how best to use less resource and leave a smaller footprint for each unit of production.

Science improves productivity by first addressing the causes of inefficiencies in existing production systems which mean that biological yield potential is rarely reached.  Think about the impact that a serious new wheat disease would have on food security if it suddenly emerged in an important food bowl like the Indo-Gangetic plains or in the Australian wheat crop.  Wheat feeds two billion people, or a third of the world’s population.


Take the example of Ug 99, a new strain of stem rust identified in Ethiopia in 2007. It was characterised at the genomic level and its spread tracked across northern Africa and the Gulf states.  Using this information, scientists modelled its future spread, and identified sources of resistance from ancestors and wild relatives of wheat.  This resistance will now be included in breeding programs using conventional approaches, accelerated through the use of genetic markers.  The whole process will take about 10 years and is a great example of science is being deployed now to protect productivity and food security in the future.

Science also works to facilitate productivity through incremental increases in the biological potential yield.  Examples draw on many disciplines but include changing crop architecture to increase the harvest index, the proportion of the biomass which is the valuable harvested product.  The “dwarf” cereals of the green revolution are an example of this.  It also includes increasing the efficiency of water use.  The recent substantial increases in the yields of marketable product per mega litre of water for both rice and cotton, is a great example.  In aquaculture, scientists have worked to select more rapidly growing and maturing prawns from naturally occurring populations.

bananna prawns

A third area of research looks at transformative steps to create new products, new industries or new forms of value from agricultural production.  This research sees agricultural scientists connecting with other specialist disciplines to address issues such as major global human health problems caused by nutrient deficiencies.  Working in partnerships with human nutritionists, this research aims to increase essential nutrient levels in forms able to be absorbed from staple foods.

Techniques to efficiently extract waste materials from agribusiness processing for conversion to new products for energy and pharmaceutical uses are being developed in partnership with chemical and environmental engineers.  Agricultural scientists are working with the spatial sciences to improve the ability to assess soil production potential by looking into the soil profile using satellite remote sensing.  This will enable industry to better identify areas of risk and opportunity as climate change progressively shifts productive land suitability.

And finally close to my heart is the research to understand the chemical basis of the sensory appeal of wine and to find out how this appeal can be accurately reproduced through the right selection of genetic, management and processing approaches.  This work builds on understanding the design principles of the sensory systems of insects.

Not quite turning water into wine; but the contribution of science to growing agricultural productivity is a miracle which depends on attracting and resourcing talented scientists to connect with colleagues across disciplines to address some the big issues of our time.

This article was written by Professor Beth Woods, Assistant Director-General, Innovation; Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.

Professor Beth Woods, OAM

Prof Beth Woods worked in North Queensland before completing her D Phil in Agricultural Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.  She then worked with DPI as an agricultural extension officer in southeastern Queensland and North Queensland in the dairy, broad acre cropping and potato industries, as Manager Farming Systems, and as Acting General Manager Horticulture. She was the inaugural director of the Rural Extension Centre (UQ) and became the Suncorp Metway Professor of Agribusiness at the University of Queensland Gatton Campus in late 1997.

Beth Woods’ academic interests include the concept of supply chain management as a tool to improve innovation and competitiveness of agribusiness, and the rapid change occurring in supply chains of developing countries with which Australia has major trade interests. In May 2004 she took up a secondment as Executive Director R&D Strategy in the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.  She has served on committees of the Grains R&D Corporation, the Policy Advisory Council of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CSIRO Board, the Gatton College Council, the Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Council and the Queensland Planning Group for FarmBis.  She was Chair of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and ACIAR, and chaired the National Drought Review in 2004.  She has been on the Board of the International Rice Research Institute since 2005 and was elected Chair from January 2008.  She is currently President of the ACIAR Policy Advisory Council, and a member of the Australian Rural Research and Development Council.  Her current position is Assistant Director-General, Innovation, in the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.