With an internationally recognised and market-oriented agriculture and food industry that prides itself on innovation, Queensland has strong historic roots and growth opportunities for a sustainable future, underpinned by government support and industry investment.
Professor Sagadevan Mundree is an expert in biochemistry, biotechnology and tropical crops. He is the director of the Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which is part of the university’s Institute for Future Environments, and also works on collaborative projects with other institutions in Australia.
The Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy translates agriculture and bioeconomy research into tangible outcomes that address the dual challenges of feeding the world sustainably and developing green bioproducts from agricultural waste.
We spoke to Professor Mundree about the different ways Queensland is growing a sustainable future in advanced agriculture and why we are a world leader in this field.
What is the state of the advanced agriculture industry in Queensland?
Firstly, Australia is one of the few developed countries with such a vast tropical, subtropical agroecological zone and our geographic position in the Southeast Asia region puts us in a very commanding position.
Our crop development and advancement is considered quite innovative and at the forefront of major breakthroughs. In Queensland, we grow major crops with high levels of efficiency and in very difficult and challenging climates. Our ability to interact and adapt to our environment has allowed for advancements that have worldwide implications.
Due to long-term investment in advanced genetics research and development (R&D), Queensland also has a unique offering in the use of gene modification and gene editing to affect crop resilience and disease and pest management as well as the real-time challenges of climate change. We are one of the leaders in germplasm enhancement using a range of technologies, accelerated breeding, gene modification, gene editing and the sourcing of wild relatives, particularly related to tropical/subtropical crops, which is directly relevant to our region as well as South America and Africa. These advanced technologies accentuate the student experience in Queensland.
Precision agriculture is another powerful tool in our toolbox in terms of developing advanced technologies for the efficient use of water, helping plants and crops cope with environmental stressors and using effective diagnostic tools to target diseases and pests that are impacting our crops. This involves technologies such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to use satellite imaging to map agricultural land and diagnostic tools to manage and reduce the impact of pests on crops.
Another area that Queensland does well is bridging the gap between agriculture and health. This is another sector that is growing in leaps and bounds and we are developing products, such as protein-rich pulse-based products, that deliver value-added health benefits that address real challenges and needs.
What sets Queensland’s advanced agriculture industry apart?
The advancements in Queensland’s agriculture industry are due to multiple factors: our unique tropical, subtropical agroecological zone; government investment in infrastructure and the knowledge economy; and gene modification R&D.
Queensland’s vast tropical, subtropical agroecological zone and abundant sunshine supports a robust agricultural sector. We can grow crops that are not farmed extensively in other parts of Australia and our extensive knowledge of gene modification and gene editing has given Queensland a head start compared to other states. In Queensland, 97% of our cotton is genetically modified to deal with one of the major pests associated with cotton, which has made us global leaders in this industry.
We have seen significant Queensland Government investment in infrastructure at a regional level, which allows projects closer to where farming occurs. The Mackay Renewable Biocommodities Pilot Plant is a great example of government investment to establish a food innovation hub. This collaborative project with multiple industry partners and universities works with farmers to take commodities and turn them into high-value products.
The government’s long-term investment in the knowledge economy through fellowships and grants also encourages industry partnerships and provides job opportunities for graduates in this field.
How have Queensland universities adapted to train students in advanced agriculture?
Most universities focus on areas that build on Queensland’s strengths and we are fortunate to have a very collaborative culture between our universities. A multidisciplinary approach has allowed for most of our advancements in agriculture, such as the areas of automation and engineering. As not all disciplines are available at one institution, Queensland universities have used each other’s strengths to avoid duplication of effort and work together to develop and deliver outcomes. For example, using robotic vision, which is a huge strength at QUT, and UQ engineering capabilities can create a formidable team that works on fruit harvesting using robotic vision and mechanical engineering.
What opportunities can students studying advanced agriculture access in Queensland?
Holistically, students have the opportunity for work-integrated learning during all stages of their degree through industry placements, projects and research opportunities in Queensland. There are active research projects relevant to Queensland that can also be applied to similar geographical areas worldwide, which attracts students to study here.
Queensland also has a strong culture of working with growers, small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) and companies as well as access to fellowships and grants, which allows students and graduates to obtain work placements and job opportunities.
What is the relationship between Queensland universities and the advanced agriculture industry?
Historically, there has always been a close working relationship between Queensland universities and industry partners. Australia has research development corporations (RDCs) such as the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Meat and Livestock Australia and Horticulture Innovation Australia, which are major R&D funding agencies that encourage university and industry connection. Other funding opportunities that facilitate industry connection include Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects and the current Advance Queensland program.
This close relationship means it is not uncommon to find industry partners on university campuses. One of the world’s leading gene-editing companies, Elo Life Systems, has a lab at QUT, which is the company’s first partnership of its kind outside North America.
What are your predictions for the future of advanced agriculture in Queensland?
The agriculture industry is currently in a fascinating era of rapid change, advancement, and development accelerated by COVID-19. There is a greater focus on tracking the entire supply chain from food production through to consumption, and technology will play an important role in advancing this traceability.
Going forward, the 3 main industry drivers will be provenance, health benefits and sustainability. Provenance will become more significant as consumers demand product traceability as part of living a sustainable life. There will be an increased expectation that products with health benefits such as probiotics will have evidence-based research to back up the claims. The public also wants to know more about a circular economy in regards to conscious consumption of not only what we eat but what we wear and consume and the value-add opportunities of agricultural waste management as well.
The education component will also rise to meet these challenges and we have already started to change our undergraduate programs to address sustainability and technology issues. Students are exposed to these concepts in high school, so we must bring these technologies to the fore in our university courses.
These continued advancements in agriculture through government investment, university courses, R&D projects and industry partnerships will put Queensland in a commanding and competitive position for the future.