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From irrigated plants to invasive ants: opportunities for innovation in northern Australia

Posted By on December 10, 2021 @ 11:00

Since the late 1920s, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been active in the development of northern Australia. Research over the years has ranged from tackling invasive plants like prickly pear to introducing dung beetles and cattle bred to be better suited to the north.

More recently, work on transport logistics has helped target infrastructure investment and led to more efficient transportation of cattle and lower transport costs. CSIRO is also championing technologies such as artificial intelligence to help provide high-quality medical care to remote communities, especially in preventing avoidable blindness.

Now, with renewed focus on further developing the north, CSIRO researchers across many disciplines are looking at how science and innovation can both tackle challenges and harness new opportunities for economic development and sustainability. Among these are new methods for aquaculture, food processing, boosting protein production and improving liveability in the north. CSIRO works closely with collaborators and partners to achieve these goals.

Northern Australia has vast untapped potential. Truly understanding that potential, and the risks that accompany it, is critical to the continued transformation of the north. This is especially the case when it comes to land and water resources and how they can be used for development while preserving environmental and cultural heritage.

A series of integrated assessments across the north led by CSIRO over the past 10 years has brought multidisciplinary expertise to look at the scale of the opportunity for irrigated agriculture. As well as land and water resources, they have considered the social, economic, cultural and ecological risks linked to each opportunity to ensure that informed development decisions can be made.

These assessments are providing a foundation for decisions on future land use in the north.

Numerous presentations at the 2021 Developing Northern Australia conference reinforced the importance of inclusive and sustainable development approaches to ensure better outcomes for the north. One such approach, which has supported Indigenous jobs, enterprises and livelihoods, has been the work to control para grass in Kakadu National Park.

Para grass is a major invasive weed that has choked the floodplains. Local Indigenous knowledge together with the use of drone technology and AI has enabled local rangers to make a real difference in controlling this pest.

Similar results have been achieved with yellow crazy ants, one of the world’s worst invasive species and a major threat to biodiversity and to agricultural industries. A long-term partnership between CSIRO, the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and Rio Tinto has eradicated yellow crazy ants from more than 30 separate locations in northeast Arnhem Land.

There’s great potential in northern Australia for new industries that can respond to the unique characteristics and advantages of the region. This includes opportunities to produce high-quality food products for the rest of Australia and for export.

Prawn farming is already a 5,000-tonne, $90 million industry in Australia. Extending the industry to more remote parts of the north might require a different type of farming system—one with less infrastructure and potentially operating in a near natural state—but it has the potential to become a lucrative industry. CSIRO has recently called for expressions of interest to pilot and assess the viability of this type of prawn production, which would provide employment, training and business opportunities for Indigenous communities.

Another opportunity lies in new enterprises for food processing that adds value to waste. Locally based food manufacturing hubs would produce high-value protein and other shelf-stable foods and ingredients, some of which could use every part of a crop, for human consumption and for aquaculture, cattle, organic soil fertilisers and fibre. Such enterprises would overcome one of the biggest constraints to production from northern Australia: high transport costs.

Townsville is one place with many of the characteristics required to support such a manufacturing hub. The challenge is to define the competitive advantage for the location and to build on this by manufacturing products that meet the needs of the market.

New industries are also emerging to meet the growing demand for protein in all its forms, in red meat, dairy, fish and plants. CSIRO’s recently launched Future Protein Mission has the bold plan to develop new Australian protein products and ingredients that earn an additional $10 billion in revenue by 2027.

New technologies will be needed to create more sustainable animal protein production to protect and grow Australia’s traditional high-value protein industries of livestock and aquaculture. But there will also be new value chains and products developed to meet the demand for plant protein, with Australian supermarkets now selling five times more meat-substitute products than they did four years ago.

Northern Australia has the potential to play a key role in boosting protein through its livestock sector, with its renewed focus on legumes and by value-adding to food waste.

It’s not just rural areas and industries that have untapped potential in northern Australia. Cities too 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 strong 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. In Darwin, the number of days over 35°C is projected to double by 2030. The Darwin Living Lab initiative aims to use emerging science, local knowledge and innovative approaches to heat mitigation that can improve liveability in the tropical north.

Science and innovation will be vital in addressing many of the challenges in the north and capitalising on the north’s competitive advantages. But science alone won’t lead to economic development; partnerships and deep collaboration are needed across all levels of government and with Indigenous peoples, regional development organisations, the private sector and communities.

The challenge is to ensure science is based on an understanding of the changing needs of industry and community and considers the unique social, economic, cultural and ecological elements to ensure a truly prosperous north into the future.

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