$5 million boost for cannabis research

La Trobe University has welcomed more than $5 million for an Australian-first, next generation ‘protected cropping’ research and training project that will innovate medicinal cannabis production, and enhance other agricultural industries.

Funded by the Australian Government’s Regional Research Collaboration Program, La Trobe will lead the project from its Australian Research Council Industry Transformation Research Hub for Medicinal Agriculture (ARC MedAg Hub), based at AgriBio in Bundoora, Melbourne.

The project will see state-of-the-art technology installed at ARC MedAg Hub partner, and medicinal cannabis company, Cann Group Limited’s new Mildura-based facility, to improve crop yield and sustainability.

It will also leverage the skills of an industry leader in training and compliance in medicinal cannabis, PharmOut, to help create a skilled agricultural-technology workforce – including in areas like Mildura, Swan Hill and Shepparton.

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar AO said the multi-million dollar investment is testament to the University’s world-leading expertise in agricultural innovation and technology.

“La Trobe has been working closely with primary producers, the food industry and governments for many years now, to optimise Australia’s crops, food and plant-based medicines,” Professor Dewar said.

“This project – using medicinal cannabis as the case study – will benefit the nation’s entire agricultural industry, playing a key role in producing plant-based medicines, and more sustainably feeding the global population.”

Project lead Professor Tony Bacic from the La Trobe Institute for Agriculture and Food (LIAF) said protected cropping – also known as greenhouse horticulture – is critical to the National Farmers Federation reaching its goal of a $100 billion agricultural industry by 2030.

“The protected cropping industry is the fastest-growing food producing sector in Australia, employing more than 10,000 people, with a ‘farm-gate’ value of $1.3 billion,” Professor Bacic said.

“Not only will this project benefit Australia’s emerging medicinal cannabis industry – it will deliver a precise roadmap for improving crops for a whole range of agricultural and food products.”

Professor Bacic said plant imaging technology will provide real-time data on critical aspects of the medicinal cannabis plant health, including nutrient status and stress levels.

“It will enable us to optimise harvest times, reduce nutrient and watering regimes, and respond quickly to pathogens like viruses and insects – all leading to a healthier, more sustainable and productive crop,” Professor Bacic said.

Cann Group Limited Chief Executive Officer Peter Crock said he was excited to be part of a project capitalising on the company’s new state-of-art production facility in Mildura.

“Not only will this project bring more cutting-edge technology to this exceptional facility, boosting production, it will help build the agricultural technology workforce – critically needed for a growing industry,” Mr Crock said.

In 2019 La Trobe launched a $24 million ARC MedAg Hub to drive better cultivation, breeding and manufacturing practises to support Australia’s medicinal agriculture industry, and ultimately improve health outcomes.

The ARC MedAG Hub is located in La Trobe’s world-class AgriBio building within the Research and Innovation Precinct, and was a key component of the University’s $5 billion City of the Future plan.

Cann Group’s facility near Mildura is the most technologically advanced, large-scale medicinal cannabis cultivation and production facility in Australia. The cultivation area incorporates a closed system micro-climate controlled glasshouse to optimise plant growth.

Medicinal cannabis is used to support patients with a wide range of health conditions, including alleviating the pain for those undergoing cancer treatment. It is prescribed for use in pain treatment for palliative care patients and in a limited number of neurological conditions, such as childhood epilepsy.

It combines expertise in plant biotechnology, chemical engineering, the extraction of natural products, AI and sensor technologies and training and compliance, among other fields.

Project partners:

The project is a partnership between La Trobe University and Cann Group Limited, along with:

  • The University of Melbourne – a research partner that contributes manufacturing expertise
  • PharmOut – industry leaders in training and compliance in medicinal cannabis and other Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) activities, and provides a critical training platform for protected cropping in regional communities
  • Photon Systems Instruments – global leaders in plant imaging and growth systems
  • SpexAI – builds smart multispectral sensors integrated with AI for the cannabis industry.

Minister McKenzie added that she was excited to announce the ‘Next Generation protected cropping in a regional manufacturing facility’ project to be funded under the Coalition Government’s Regional Research Collaboration program.

“Australia produces world-class research, and we want our regions to contribute to that proud tradition as well as reap the benefits from it, creating more resilient regional economies,” Minister McKenzie said.

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