Using next generation genetic testing to give growers a competitive boost

QUT has partnered with Hort Innovation under the Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative (PBRI) to advance the use of next-generation genetic sequencing technologies, giving Australia’s horticulture sector a competitive boost through faster access to new plant stock.

This partnership identified issues that included:

  • Current quarantine screening for pathogens in new plant genetic stocks can take up to three years
  • Next generation high throughput sequencing technologies could reduce this to 6-12 months
  • More rapid access to new genetic plant stocks will help primary producers to remain internationally competitive and profitable

The project is being led by QUT Senior Bioinformatics Solutions Architect Associate Professor Roberto Barrero, from the Division of Research and Innovation, and draws in expertise from the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries, facilitated by the PBRI.

Previously, Associate Professor Barrero headed the multidisciplinary team at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre in developing a diagnostic toolkit that accurately detects in a single test all known plant viruses and viroids. From this research, a single assay test is now being used by the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for quarantine screening of ornamental grasses brought to Australia.

Associate Professor Barrero said the project with Hort Innovation would look at optimising the toolkit’s next generation sequencing technologies for screening of pathogens in a range of crops – in the first instance, grapes, citrus fruits, berries and potatoes.

“At the moment the traditional biological testing platforms used for screening of imported plant species are resource-intensive, time-consuming and may produce ambiguous results,” he said.

“Imported plants can spend up to three years undergoing pathogen testing, potentially impacting the ability of agricultural industries to access new crop varieties and adapt quickly to global market opportunities.

“Next generation sequencing technologies offer a faster, more reliable and cost-effective way to identify all known plant pathogens without having to run numerous tests. These technologies are capable of sequencing multiple DNA molecules in parallel, enabling hundreds of millions of DNA molecules to be sequenced at a time.

“This project will assess the robustness, accuracy and reliability of these methods compared to existing testing protocols.”

Hort Innovation R&D Manager Dr Penny Measham said reducing the time that imported plants spend in Australia’s quarantine system has a direct benefit for growers.

“Rapid and safe access to new plant genetic stocks, supported by appropriate policy, is crucial for primary industries to remain productive, profitable, sustainable and internationally competitive,” she said.

Associate Professor Barrero said the research team will work closely with quarantine agencies in Australia and New Zealand and policy groups to develop operating procedures and a quality assurance program for next generation sequencing testing.

WA government to develop horticulture business case for North Wanneroo

The Western Australian government has announced plans to maintain strong year-round horticultural production in the state’s north metropolitan region, following report findings on water allocation and land use issues.

The North Wanneroo Agriculture and Water Taskforce has recently delivered its report examining water allocation and land use issues in North Wanneroo to the state government.

North Wanneroo has been a traditional farming area providing seasonal, fresh fruit and vegetable supplies to Perth, interstate and overseas, with an estimated production value of agricultural production of $47.7 million in 2015-16.

State Agriculture and Food minister Alannah MacTiernan, said that the taskforce chair Sabine Winton and the committee had worked hard to deal with this challenge of sustaining urban horticulture in a drying climate.

“North Wanneroo’s agriculture industry continues to make a significant contribution to the local economy and the state’s agricultural exports, and it is important that we keep our existing irrigated land to supply fresh and diverse produce to the people of Perth,” MacTiernan said.

“Now that we have clarity on water allocation for the next 10 years, we can work together with industry to improve water efficiency.”

In response to the report findings, the WA government will develop a business case for a new leasehold agri-precinct in State Forest 65 in North Wanneroo, incorporating the use of recycled water.

The government will also invest in a new Water Use Efficiency Program to support growers and industry to assess and promote technology options that improve efficient water use, ensuring industry viability in a drying climate.

“There are constraints around water availability and growers need to be supported to operate in a drier climate. Our Water Use Efficiency Program will assess techniques and systems to help growers,” MacTiernan said.

“The state government will work with growers and the local community to develop a water scheme and lead a cost benefit analysis on a new agricultural precinct at State Forest 65.

“We will also be making a case for Commonwealth funding through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund.”

CropLogic secures space in Mildura, Australia as part of Smart Farm project

Crop forecasting technology company, CropLogic, has secured space in Mildura, Australia, as part of the Mildura Regional Development Smart Farm project.

The expansion is a collaboration with SproutX, Mildura Regional Development and the Victorian government.

CropLogic’s future growth strategy highlights a specified region in South-East Australia that includes Mildura, which confirms the area has a high percentage of horticulture acres.

Based on market data, it shows that this area represents about 74 per cent of Australia’s horticulture acres, with a gross product at the farm gate of $3.5 billion per annum.

The Victorian government has classified agri-business as a prime strategic industry for Mildura, with the region’s horticulture being key to this.

Viticulture and wineries have also been identified by the government as vital tourism assets for the area.

Mildura Regional Development CEO Daryl Buckingham said the core focus of the strategic development plan was to support and grow the Mildura’s economy by capitalising on assets it already had.

“This partnership with CropLogic fits perfectly within this framework and I am excited by all the possibilities it opens up for the region,” he said.

CropLogic CEO James Cooper-Jones said the response and uptake of CropLogic realtime in the Columbia Basin, USA, could not have been better this season.

“CropLogic values these partnerships in its global growth strategy and it’s why we were eager to take this opportunity when approached by SproutX and Mildura Regional Development,” he saud.

“A lot of the tree and viticulture crops that are seeing a resurgence and boom in the Mallee/Riverina, are crops CropLogic has been servicing in the USA. We’re getting great feedback from these growers and we’re eager to bring this technology to Mildura and contribute to grower’s optimum yield rates there too,” said Cooper-Jones.

SproutX director Andrew Lai said the Mallee region was a leading horticulture area.

“We’re thrilled to have the support of CropLogic in the Mallee and to parent with a company that shares our view that regional engagement is critical to agtech development and investment,” said Lai.

The Smart Farm Project goal is to develop, test and commercialise Internet of Things solutions and to combine them with robotics to increase productivity and sustainability on farms.

Dry weather in Australia significantly impacting crops

Australia has experienced one of the driest autumns since records began, more than 100 years ago, leading to poor crop growth.

It’s not unusual to experience dry conditions in early autumn, with a normal winter crop possible if a rain break arrives by mid-June.

But, continued dry conditions in July are contributing to one of the driest seasons on record for many crop regions.

Nufarm is concerned that the Australian crop protection market is down substantially as a result.

READ: Dry weather ahead cries out for ‘aggressive’ NSW dairy management

The extended dry weather conditions have impacted ANZ business, with the 2018 financial year EBIT contribution from ANZ now anticipated to be between $5million to $10m (LY$51.6m).

These seasonal conditions have also impacted the mix of products sold, with growers buying lower margin functional products over higher margin differentiated products.

The limited demand for crop protection products across Australia has led to increased competition and high inventory levels – resulting in significant margin pressure.

By the 20th of July, following feedback from Nufarm teams, it was determined that the market had reached a turning point.

It is now considered unlikely that a viable crop season will occur in many parts of the country and the expected demand for post emergent products will not eventuate.

Given poor demand in the 2018 financial year, there will be an overhand of inventory. Grower demand will depend on a return to normal summer conditions in the 2019 financial year, but the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting a dry spring.

Anticipated low levels of demand, coupled with the current over-supply, is expected to constrain sales and margin into 2019.

Despite the drought conditions, Nufarm remains confident it has retained market share in Australia, in line with the long term strategic objective.

Nufarm expects Net Working Capital for the group, at the 31st of July, to be $200m-$300m higher than last year.

This reflects the high inventories in the Australian business due to the difficult seasonal conditions and the higher receivables in the Northern Hemisphere countries resulting from the delayed seasons in those markets.


Rabobank appoints new horticulture and wine analyst

Agribusiness banking specialist Rabobank has announced the appointment of Hayden Higgins to head up its horticulture and wine sector research. 

Higgins joins the bank’s food and agribusiness research team from his role as major agribusiness manager with Rabobank New Zealand.

General manager of RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness Tim Hunt said the new appointment was an opportunity to take advantage of Mr Higgins’ extensive knowledge of the horticulture and viticulture industries.

 “Over the past 15 years in his career in rural banking, Hayden has worked extensively across a range of industries, but has had particular exposure to both wine and horticulture,” he said.

“Since joining Rabobank in 2010 in the Hawkes Bay region, he has worked closely with some of the largest and most complex wine, horticulture and other agribusiness clients in the North Island and has built a substantial in-depth knowledge of these key industries in this time.”

 Higgins has also served as chair of Rabobank’s NZ horticulture strategy team since 2014.

Based in Hastings on New Zealand’s North Island, Mr Higgins will cover the horticulture and viticulture sectors for the bank in both Australia and New Zealand.

New guide for Australian fruit and vegetable exporters

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo, and the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, has launched, “Fresh fruit and vegetable export requirements: A guide for Australian business” an initiative that the government says will ensure Australia’s horticulture producers have the necessary information to capitalise on the sizeable business opportunities on our doorstep.

Australian fruit and vegetable exporters wanting to go global can now access advice on every step of the export journey in a single online guide.

Minister Ciobo said Australia’s premium-quality produce was highly prized by overseas buyers.

“The Turnbull Coalition Government is pursuing the most ambitious trade agenda in our country’s history, opening new doors for more Australian exporters to sell their top quality, clean, green and safe produce to more markets worldwide,” Ciobo said.

“Australia’s agricultural products are a sought-after commodity, and this guide will help producers benefit from Australia’s strong reputation, providing current information on market regulations and expectations and links to the correct export documents and templates,” he added.

Ciobo said Australia’s proximity to Asia gave local producers the advantage of shorter transport times, allowing them to deliver fresher, more attractive fruit, often in counter-seasonal months or times of short overseas supply.

“We’re working on the principle that forewarned is forearmed. We want to ensure businesses – particularly new exporters – are aware of and comply with, key requirements and regulations, so they have a safe and smooth experience and continue to generate export dollars for Australia.”

The farm gate-to-overseas market guide is the first time both Government and industry advice about the export journey for producers has been collated in a single place, making it easier for potential exporters to expand their businesses, creating jobs and boost Australia’s economy.

Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud said Australia’s premium produce was in demand the world over.

“We’ve produced a simple guide to help exporters send Aussie farm produce around the globe,” Littleproud said.

“We’re making exporting Aussie produce as easy as possible,” he said.

“We’re doing this so more of our exporters will send more Aussie food all over the world, giving our farmers more selling options and our rural towns more jobs.”

The value of Australian fresh horticulture exports has nearly tripled over the past five years, growing from $846.5 million in 2012 to $2.11 billion in 2017, according to the IHS Global Trade Atlas (2018). Fresh fruit exports are generating more than half this value, with citrus ($423.1 million) and table grapes ($373.3 million) the standouts.

China has emerged as Australia’s most significant horticultural export market, accounting for nearly one in five dollars of value generated from horticulture exports (19%), and has maintained an average annual growth rate of over 200 per cent over the last 5 years.

The guide is jointly produced by Austrade and DAWR, with assistance from DFAT, Hort Innovation, the Australian Horticultural Exporters’ and Importers’ Association and the Export Council of Australia.

“Perfection” now just the starting point for Australian fruit and veg

Australian fruit and vegetable growers have been warned by a visiting US horticulture expert that while the quality of their produce is “better than ever before”, the demands of the average consumer now starts at “perfection”.

In Australia this month to meet with local growers, Rabobank’s California-based senior fruit and vegetable analyst Dr Roland Fumasi (pictured) said the list of qualities that buyers were looking for in fresh produce continued to grow and had changed markedly in recent years.

“Consumers now expect the quality of their fruit and veg to be 100 per cent perfect, 100 per cent of the time,” Dr Fumasi said.

“They expect it to taste amazing, look good and to be extremely convenient and they want this all year-round. And that is just the starting point.”

Dr Fumasi said to gain customer loyalty, growers had to appeal to the deep-seated values of consumers.

“When you look at the buying habits of the middle-class consumer, not only do they now want a high-quality product – they are also looking for staunch food safety, transparency regarding production, sustainable farm practices that leave a lighter footprint on the environment and assurance that farmers are looking after their employees.

“And while these consumer demands are increasing, farmers are now also producing their fruits and vegetables in a more complex environment than ever before, with rising labour costs, water issues, changing environmental policies and government red tape.”

With challenge comes opportunity

While acknowledging the challenge of delivering “perfect” produce, Dr Fumasi insists there is a lot of opportunity to be had for farmers intent on meeting these demands.

“While this trend for high-quality, ethically-produced food is most evident in developed markets, it is also increasingly being seen in developing markets,” he said.

“Along with the rise in the global population we are also seeing a massive increase in the world’s middle class, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Within the next 10 years or so, it is predicted that 66 per cent of the world’s middle- class population will live in the Asia-Pacific and it is in this group of people where we see the biggest growth in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Dr Fumasi concedes that food safety and consistent quality are still the biggest drawcards for Asian consumers willing to pay a premium for Australian produce but that their demands are likely to catch up with western markets very quickly.

“When you look at developing Asia, we are seeing the market catch up at an incredible rate, so it is only a matter of time until there is a major sector of this market that has the same demands as local Australian markets,” he said.

Online shopping drives transparency

According to Dr Fumasi, the retail trends of grocery shoppers in the US have become increasingly fragmented and the same trend is being witnessed in Australia, particularly among millennial buyers.

“The younger generation seem to be very comfortable purchasing from a variety of retail sources including traditional retailers, farmers markets, and value retailers such as Costco and of course buying online,” he said.

“In the US we have grocery websites that have gained good traction because of their reliability, convenience, traceability and for their ability to share background stories on the produce they sell.

“At the ‘click of a button’ not only are you able to select from 20 different tomatoes, but you can also see where they were grown, how they were grown and by whom, along with nutritional information and recipe ideas.

“Customers are also able to leave reviews, so if the product isn’t up to scratch it won’t be long until the negative reviews start pouring in.”

Dr Fumasi said while big retailers were starting to understand the importance of telling the backstory of the produce they sell, it was also up to farmers to be proactive in engaging with their customers.

“Australia has an excellent reputation for producing safe, delicious, attractive produce and that brand equity is a good platform to build a conversation with customers,” he said.

“Being able to be as open and transparent as possible with an audience and giving them an insight to exactly who you are and what you do, will not only gain loyalty for your brand but is likely to reflect positively on the industry as a whole.

“Today’s consumer has an extensive list of demands from producers and the technology to find the information they want at their fingertips, so it is important that the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is proactive in engaging this consumer and telling its story, before someone else does.”

Responsible for analysing the North American fresh fruit and vegetable industries, Dr Fumasi combines a background in agribusiness research with international market development and finance experience in the agriculture industry.

ACCC urges Horticulture Industry to comply with code

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is putting growers and traders in the horticulture industry on notice that they need to take steps to comply with the 2017 Horticulture Code of Conduct, or face penalties and fines.

Addressing the 2017 NSW Farmers Horticulture Forum today, ACCC Commissioner Mick Keogh called on growers and traders to familiarise themselves with the Code and to ensure their businesses are compliant.

Since the revised Horticulture Code was introduced on 1 April 2017, the ACCC has worked with industry associations to educate growers and traders about their rights and obligations. The next stage of the ACCC’s work in relation to the Code will be to begin compliance audits.

“Later this year the ACCC plans to use its investigative powers to check the industry’s level of compliance with the Horticulture Code. If Code breaches are detected, the ACCC may take enforcement action,” Keogh said.

“The Code is designed to offer new protections for growers and traders. We want the horticultural industry to understand that breaching the Code could mean facing an infringement notice or court action.”

Mr Keogh said Courts could impose penalties of up to $63,000 for serious breaches of certain sections of the Code. For other smaller breaches, the ACCC can issue infringement notices to the value of $10,500 for body corporates and $2,100 for individuals.

“The revised Code aims to address much of the commercial uncertainty that has existed for many years in these markets, and which numerous inquiries and reports have identified,” Keogh said.

“While the ACCC will continue to educate the industry about the revised Code, businesses are now on notice that ensuring compliance with industry codes, including the Horticulture Code, is a priority for the ACCC.”

The world goes nuts for Aussie almonds

According to the Almond Board of Australia, almonds have become our most valuable horticultural export, with annual export sales surpassing $AUD422 million last year, which is an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year.

This is on top of massive growth over the past five years, where export sales increased almost 250 per cent.

Future predictions note that in 2015-16, export sales will reach $AUD600 million.

In fact, the almond industry is set to become Australia’s most valuable single commodity horticultural industry, generating around 10 per cent of Australian horticulture’s gross value.

India is Australia’s largest overseas market for almonds, followed by
Spain, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

According to Ross Skinner, CEO of the Almond Board of Australia, “The recent Free Trade Agreements with Japan and Korea combined with the industry’s focus on promoting the Australian almond brand in these countries has resulted in promising gains of 295% and 145%, albeit off a low base.”

“The China and India FTA’s will be very advantageous to the Australian industry as these are two of the largest almond markets in the world and the removal of tariffs will make a significant impact on returns from these markets,” Mr. Skinner stated.