New GRDC boss mindful WA grain growers get fair share of research investment

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Tony Williams, who is the new MD of GRDC.
Camera IconTony Williams, who is the new MD of GRDC. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

The new boss of Australia’s biggest investor in grains research has defended accusations WA farmers aren’t getting bang for their buck on the millions of dollars they spend annually to fund projects that increase crop profitability.

Grains Research and Development Corporation managing director Tony Williams visited Perth this week — his first trip to WA since starting the role 10 months ago because of COVID restrictions — to meet a range of stakeholders.

He said during the visit he was aware of local sentiment that WA growers didn’t receive adequate investment from the GRDC.

Farmers pay 0.99 per cent of the net farm gate value of their grain as a levy to the GRDC. That is matched by the Federal Government of up to 0.5 per cent of the three-year rolling average of the gross value of crop production.

The total is used to invest about $200 million a year in rural research, development and extension (RD&E) projects for the grains industry, with any excess levies kept as reserves to cover poorer production years.

WA Grains Group chairman Doug Smith said there was a long-held dissatisfaction from WA growers on how expenditure was carved up.

Mr Smith, a Pingrup farmer, said based on producing a $6 billion crop, WA farmers would pay about $60m in levies each year.

He added that far less than that was being returned to WA farmers in terms of both direct research, or as part of national goods projects, which are based across Australia.

Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan came out swinging at the GRDC in 2019 for what she felt was a short-changing of WA growers.

The State Government was prepared to pay $40m if the GRDC matched funds towards a big project aimed at unlocking the potential of WA soils and enhancing crop productivity through Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. The GRDC instead contributed $22.5m.

Mr Williams said this week he was aware of the sentiments, but he was adamant WA farmers received their fair share.

Mr Williams, along with Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan and rural research organisation AgriFutures, announced this week that Australia’s centre for oat breeding would be shifted to WA.

He said that announcement was a good example of WA reaping the benefits of national investment.

WA growers produce more than half of Australia’s oats, but the national breeding program has been based in South Australia for the past 20 years.

The new WA centre would be led by cereal breeder InterGrain, jointly funded by GRDC and the State Government, who together with AgriFutures are tipping $5.4m into the oats project over five years.

Mr Williams said the GRDC continued to fund specific WA projects, citing the $22.5m DPIRD investment in 2019.

“We have a good share of impactful investments in WA,” he said.

“The centre for Crop and Disease management and the Australian Herbicide Resistance Institute are based at Curtin University, and now WA also has the oat breeding centre.

“Those sorts of investments are great for WA farmers but also growers across Australia.

“WA growers are a massively important piece of the Australian grains landscape, and I am very mindful of making sure they are looked after and that every one gets their fair share of great impact.”

Based in Canberra, Mr Williams has 25 years of experience in agribusiness, including senior executive roles with food company Goodman Fielder and grain marketer Bunge, in Australia and abroad.

He hoped his end market experience could help guide where the most effective investments can be made.

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