By Daniel Kruithoff, Managing Director of Monsanto Australia
Business Council of Australia president, Catherine Livingston, recently lamented the lack of investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Australia. It was a timely reminder that Australia’s living standards could fall if we do not embrace the rapid advances in science and technology transforming many sectors of the economy, including agriculture.
The importance of improving STEM skills in the workforce cannot be overstated. And we need to look no further than Australia’s cotton industry to see the huge economic and environmental gains at stake if we don’t take this seriously.
Local cotton farmers have used biotechnology (genetically modified cotton) since 1996 and almost all of the cotton grown in Australia today uses the technology to help protect crops from insects. Biotechnology has helped cotton growers protect their yields and reduce their insecticide use by more than 90%.
Recently released independent research carried out by UK-based PG Economics estimates that Australian GM cotton growers have earned an extra US$757m between 1996 and 2013.
This impressive performance has another valuable impact on the economy and farming communities: jobs. The cotton industry employs thousands of people in Queensland and New South Wales providing a further boost to living standards and incomes.
The cotton industry’s rapid adoption of advancements in science and technology ensures local farmers are able to meet international demand for Australia’s high quality cotton, particularly from China. The industry’s commitment to innovation has also positioned Australia as one of the world’s most sustainable cotton producers.
It is important to note that local farmers and the wider economy could not have benefited to this extent had governments not been forward thinking and embrace innovations such as GM crops. Successive state and federal governments have been instrumental in fostering the development and adoption of agricultural biotechnology.
Supportive policy settings along with access to a market of STEM professionals and proximity to major cotton producing areas drove Monsanto’s investment in a new research centre in Toowoomba. The centre will be home to our scientists working in collaboration with the CSIRO to undertake the research and development required to ensure that growers continue to benefit from this technology for many years to come.
Science and technology has always been a key driver of Australia’s agricultural competiveness. However, the prospect of producing the food and fibre to meet the demand of the rapidly growing middle class in our region should compel Australia to invest more in STEM education.
The McKinsey Global Institute says that the populations of cities globally are growing by 65 million each year and that 440 cities in emerging markets will account for nearly half of global GDP growth by 2025. The opportunity to feed an increasingly urban population is clearly within our reach. However, it is the level of our investment in and adoption of innovation which will determine just how lucrative this opportunity will be for our farmers and economy.
We need to take a broad view of the future role of STEM skills across Australia’s economy as we simply cannot afford to under-invest in the skills that will sustainably grow our economy and living standards.