Research and innovation to harness opportunities for the North
This keynote address was delivered at the Developing Northern Australia conference in Darwin on 17 August 2021.
The way we work at CSIRO is through collaboration and partnership. Because real world impact is what drives us, we are keen to talk to you about how we might work together to further the northern development agenda.
I’d like to take you on a bit of a journey. First, I’ll share some stories about the impact CSIRO has had over the 90 years we have been active in northern development. I won’t dwell too long on the past though. Because the role of science and innovation in economic development is something I feel very passionate about, I’ll also talk about the ongoing role of science in transforming the region.
And finally, I’ll outline our vision for the future – to continue investing in the north and using science to realise the full potential for a prosperous, sustainable and thriving north.
For over 100 years, CSIRO has been the mission-led national science agency for Australia, collaborating across the innovation system. We are here for the long term. Our purpose is to solve Australia’s greatest challenges through innovation and technology, to support Australia’s competitiveness and growth. This very much includes working to advance the northern development agenda by translating ideas into impact.
Our 90-year history in the North
So, let me take you on a bit of a trip down memory lane, and talk about how we have collaborated nationally and internationally, and worked with industry to apply science and innovation to both tackle challenges and seize opportunities.
CSIRO started working in northern Australia in the late 1920s, soon after the Australian Government first set out a vision to further develop the north.
In fact, our Fourth Annual Report from 1930 summarises research for pineapple and coconut diseases, flying foxes, prickly pear, buffalo-fly, cattle and cold storage of foods – among many other things.
By 1933 we were working in partnership with a syndicate of north Queensland cattle producers to transform the beef industry through the importation of Bos indicus cattle – which directly led to the ubiquitous Brahman. As you know, these genetics are now the foundation of the northern beef industry.
Other CSIRO research at that time led to the development of a diagnostic test and effective vaccine for Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia, a disease which had spread very quickly across northern Australia by the early part of last Century. This disease spread a like a cattle super-COVID. A coughing cow could spray infection for nearly 100 metres. A collaborative national campaign succeeded in eradicating the disease by 1973, and for the first time in 100 years Australia could freely export live cattle.
In the 1960s CSIRO imported several species of dung beetle into Australia, many from southern Africa. The aim was to use the beetles to process cattle dung and reduce fly numbers. The Australian dung beetles could deal with the waste of our native animals but weren’t up to the challenge posed by livestock These amazing creatures bury nutrient rich cow dung underground. They have brought multiple benefits beyond their initial purpose – conserving nitrogen, increasing water infiltration through their burrows and improving the condition of pasture.
It is estimated that for every litre of dung that’s taken down, a litre of subsoil is brought to the surface. This was an early example of sustainable agriculture in Australia and has significantly reduced fly borne disease and increased live weight of cattle.
The dung beetle success story was the result of the persistence of CSIRO researchers who identified a problem and used science and innovation to solve it. We then scaled-up this work in partnership with the Australian Meat Research Corporation, one of the forerunners to Meat and Livestock Australia.
The role of science and technology in transforming northern Australia
Northern Australia has vast untapped potential. To continue the transformation of the north, truly understanding that potential is critical. This is especially the case when it comes to land and water resources, and how those resources can be leveraged for development while still preserving environmental and cultural heritage.
Immediately after the Second World War we at CSIRO embarked on a series of Land Resource Surveys beginning in the Katherine-Darwin region and then moving across the north. We mapped soil, land and vegetation resources and now, more than 70 years on, these maps remain a prime resource in many areas.
Nowadays, we have a much better understanding that we need to integrate across sectors and scientific disciplines. For the agricultural and water resource assessments we have led across the north over the past 10 years (with Chris Chilcott at the helm) we’ve brought our multidisciplinary expertise to look at the scale of the opportunity for irrigated agriculture. As well as the land and water resources – we’ve considered the social, economic, cultural and ecological risks linked to each opportunity, to ensure that informed development decisions can be made.
We’ve done these in partnership with the three northern jurisdictions and the Australian Government as well as several universities and the private sector.
These agricultural and water resource assessments are conducted with the explicit understanding that transformation cannot occur unless there are opportunities for Indigenous people to directly benefit. Indigenous people hold invaluable knowledge of our land and water and have strong interests and rights in these resources. So it is vital that these resources be deployed to further Indigenous social and economic development.
Through the work of Marcus Barber, we’ve learnt that pre-colonial Indigenous water management included fish traps, weirs and small dams that improved their harvest of resources. In the Roper catchment where the team is working now, there is extensive evidence of pre-colonial water management by Indigenous people who diverted water from the main channel into smaller channels to improve returns from hunting and gathering.
These agricultural and water resource assessments have resulted in new research partnerships between CSIRO, National Indigenous Australians Agency, and the National Native Title Council. They support native title corporations to better understand their asset base and sustainable development pathways. It has also enabled further work in Indigenous water planning and policy development. We recognise that Indigenous people and organisations can and will be crucial partners and co-investors in future northern development.
We are supporting Indigenous jobs, enterprises and livelihoods in the north through science and innovation in other ways as well, such as through effective biosecurity and invasive species management.
One example is the control of para grass, a major invasive weed choking floodplains in Kakadu National Park. Para grass outcompetes plants that magpie geese and their chicks feed on, so the birds leave. The weed can grow to head height and is dense so it’s also hard for Traditional Owners to access the wetlands and the food they provide.
But now, drone technology is identifying the extent of para grass and ethical use of artificial intelligence is being used to determine magpie geese numbers. Rangers can see the impact of their spraying or burning efforts. This work is being done with a range of partners, including Microsoft, NESP; and Kakadu, Arnhem Land and Cape York communities. It has been led by Indigenous knowledge from the outset with Bininj knowledge working side-by-side with AI to achieve real results on the ground.
Improved surveillance, detection and management are vital for protecting our borders, our agricultural businesses and our biodiversity. At the same time, they provide economic development opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We are also using technologies such as Artificial Intelligence to help provide high quality medical care to remote communities. The aim is to prevent avoidable blindness in places where specialists rarely visit.
Three years ago, together with our project partners Queensland Health, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation and Marthakal Homeland and Resource Centre Aboriginal Corporation, both in East Arnhem Land, we began a multi-year project to establish eye screening services for diabetic retinopathy management. This work is funded by CSIRO and the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia.
The project connects metropolitan-based ophthalmologists with remote health clinics via telehealth. The objective is to not only improve the technology, but also to identify and address the other factors that constrain the technology’s wider adoption, such as the best way to balance Artificial Intelligence with human empathy. We’ve already made a difference to over 170 people in this trial, with more to come as the outcomes of the project are scaled-up.
Our promise for the future
In the last part of this presentation, I want to turn to the future. At CSIRO, we see great promise for the future of the north, as I’m sure all of you here today do. We believe whole new industries can be created. And we are investing in these right now.
Prawn farming is one example, It is already a 5,000 tonne, $90 million dollar industry in Australia. But to extend this industry to more remote parts of the north requires a different type of farming system.
We envision low-input, low-output enterprises that would operate in a near natural state.
We have been exploring opportunities to demonstrate and trial this technique with Indigenous-owned businesses and Traditional Owners in Queensland’s coastal communities. Community-led aquaculture operations such as these have the potential to provide livelihood, training and business opportunities.
The scale of this industry is difficult to predict but we believe it has the potential to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, reducing our reliance on imported prawns and with the prospect of adding additional value through provenance accreditation and niche branding.
Food processing, value adding to waste and circular economies are other areas with the potential to build new industries. These overcome one of the biggest constraints to produce from northern Australia: high transport costs.
Currently, the Australian food industry is dependent on plant protein ingredients being imported from China, Europe, and the USA.
We are working with Charles Darwin University under the recently approved Strategic University Reform Fund project involving many partners in the Northern Territory and Tasmania, and with Full Harvest in Townsville. This work is scoping out very real opportunities within the bio-circular economy for higher value use of food waste and opportunities for new food manufacturing hubs. These locally based hubs would produce high value protein and other shelf stable foods and ingredients. We are looking for solutions that will utilise the entire crop – for humans, aquaculture, cattle, organic soil fertilisers and fibre.
Townsville has many of the characteristics required to support such a manufacturing plant, using food waste as well as novel sources like hemp seed. The challenge is to define the competitive advantage for the location and to build on these advantages by manufacturing products to market needs.
On future protein and managing droughts
Another area where new industries are emerging is in meeting the growing demand for protein in all its forms. In red meat, dairy, fish and in plants.
To help Australia capture high-growth global protein markets, next week we will launch a Future Protein Mission, led by Professor Michelle Colgrave.
The Future Protein Mission has a bold plan to develop new Australian protein products and ingredients that earn an additional $10b in revenue by 2027. This includes using new technologies to create more sustainable animal protein production in order to protect and grow Australia’s traditional high-value protein industries of livestock and aquaculture. It also includes developing new value chains and products to meet the demand for plant protein, with Australian supermarkets now selling five times more meat substitute products than they did four years ago.
We see northern Australia playing a key role in our Future Protein Mission through its livestock sector, growing potential in legumes and potentially via the food processing hubs I just mentioned.
Missions are large scale, major scientific and collaborative research initiatives, focused on outcomes that lead to positive impact, new jobs and economic growth. They are one way CSIRO is addressing national and international scale challenges by harnessing skills across the more than 5,000 people in CSIRO as well as a host of research organisation and private sector partners.
Over the coming months and years, you will see the launch of several of these Missions, most with direct relevance to northern Australia.
One of these is the Drought Mission, aimed at building Australia’s resilience in the face of drought. As part of the Drought Mission, Declan Page is working on ways to help increase water security for agricultural and regional towns in the Murray Darling Basin. He is now turning his attention to consider the potential for Managed Aquifer Recharge in the north.
The principle of Managed Aquifer Recharge is simple: bank water when it is plentiful so that there is a resource to draw on when it is dry.
In northern Australia, Declan is exploring the potential to use Managed Aquifer Recharge to support irrigated cropping and horticulture, to provide irrigated forage for cattle and to augment water security for towns.
A cooler tropical city: the Darwin Living Lab
It is not just in rural areas and industries that we see promise for northern Australia. We are also investing in the cities, which are well-positioned to benefit from the rapid economic and population growth in the nearby ASEAN region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that people are prepared to move from southern capital cities to regional centres. Together with the rise of remote work, this has meant that liveability and lifestyle are prime determinants of where people choose to live. Rising temperatures under a warming climate have the potential to increase the challenges of living in a city in northern Australia. Indeed, in Darwin the number of days over 35 degrees are projected to double by 2030.
The CSIRO-led Darwin Living Lab is collaborating with City Deal partners to integrate the latest science with local knowledge to test the effectiveness of heat mitigation measures to improve Darwin’s liveability.
And many, many other projects
Twenty minutes is nowhere near enough time to cover the full range of research we are delivering towards our promise for using science and innovation to help drive the northern development agenda.
I would like to have covered many other activities for example, working with the northern cattle industry to build its social licence and demonstrate its sustainability credentials through improved animal welfare and pain management as well as investment in reducing methane emissions from cattle – which will help the Australian red meat industry reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.
I also would have liked to talk about how our work on transport logistics has already had direct impact through targeted infrastructure investment under the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program, leading to more efficient cattle transport and lower transport costs.
But I can’t leave without mentioning the crazy ants.
Yellow crazy ants are one of the world’s worst invasive species, forming huge super-colonies with worker densities reaching 20 million ants per hectare. They pose a major threat to biodiversity and to agricultural industries, with one estimate putting the costs of inaction at $700 million over the next seven years.
We are very proud that our long-term partnership with the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and Rio Tinto has eradicated yellow crazy ants from more than 30 separate locations in north-east Arnhem Land. This project has won several prestigious awards and developed methods of eradication which have been applied in other parts of Australia where these ants have established a toe-hold.
Looking towards the future
We’re proud of the positive impact CSIRO has had in the north over the past 90 years through our science and through our deep collaborations.
As the examples I have given show, our approach is to better understand the changing needs of industry and community, use cutting edge science and innovation to address the issues and work with collaborators and partners to develop reliable methods of translation to impact.
Scaling-up remains a perennial challenge but we have worked hard in the last few years to take an entrepreneurial approach to our science and to commercialise our outputs where possible, and appropriate.
A second challenge is ensuring that the north is always “visible” in CSIRO against the competing demands from where the majority of the population live, southern Australia. To address this, we have recently begun an initiative, Northern Agricultural Futures, which seeks to focus many of our efforts in agriculture, aquaculture, biosecurity and natural resource management in a way that will generate further growth in agriculture and aquacultural production from northern regions.
In the same way that our early researchers found a solution to a problem using dung beetles, we look forward to the partnerships we will forge with many of you here to use science, ingenuity and persistence to create real-world impact and economic benefits for the north for years to come.
As always, we seek to partner and collaborate and we encourage you to make contact with us in whatever means available in these COVID-constrained times.