February 11, 2021

What it will take to revolutionise Australian agriculture

Unleashing the transformative power of agtech could help our farmers meet the $100 billion target government has set the industry – but they’ll need a lot of support.

How do you grow a sector 66 per cent? The agricultural sector is worth an estimated $60 billion to the Australian economy. Both the National Farmers’ Federation and the Federal Government would like to see that amount grow to $100 billion by 2030.

But getting Australian agriculture to such a figure won’t happen by accident – or by small, incremental changes. It requires all players involved to think big, particularly when it comes to agricultural technology.

Certainly that’s something Andrew Coppin, chair of the Australian Agritech Association, would welcome. Last year, he expressed concern that Australia was being left behind in the global race to develop and adopt agri-technologies that save time and money, reduce waste, improve productivity and yield, and boost profitability.

His concern is backed up by the numbers: a 2018 report from the United States Studies Centre noted that the US’s per capita investment in agtech was 50 times greater than Australia’s.

The power of agtech

 There are no shortage of examples of agtech already helping producers optimise – and monetise – their operations, both here and abroad. One US study found that adopting automatic section control technology could save crop farmers seven per cent on inputs. Closer to home, an effluent monitoring system using sensor technology developed by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Australian Pork revealed the potential for piggeries to save thousands each year, by decreasing their feed waste by even a small fraction.

How technology could help Australia’s agricultural sector grow is something Australia’s former chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, deemed of such importance that he commissioned the Australian Council of Learned Academics (ACOLA) to examine the future of agtech in Australia. The resulting report, published in September 2020, explores a multitude of digital technologies – including sensors, Internet of Things (IOT) networks, robotics and machine learning – that could help local farmers dramatically improve their efficiency and profitability and develop new industries and markets.

On its release, Finkel noted Australian producers – who are no strangers to embracing innovation and adopting technology to improve productivity – would need to strive for more than just incremental technological advancements if they were to increase their outputs and hit the $100 billion target.

We asked the report’s co-author, Professor Stewart Lockie, Director of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University, about the tech developments and initiatives he believes will make the greatest difference to the Australian agri sector in the coming decade. His three key picks are big-picture in scope, so much so that bringing them to fruition is beyond the purview of any one farmer, business, research institution or agency.

So the $100 billion question is, how as a nation can Australia help the agriculture sector rise to the challenge?

His concern is backed up by the numbers: a 2018 report from the United States Studies Centre noted that the US’s per capita investment in agtech was 50 times greater than Australia’s.

1. Data sharing

In today’s knowledge economy, data is often described as ‘the new oil’, a phrase attributed to British mathematician Clive Humby back in 2006. Digital solutions, such as crop sensors and cattle tracking systems, generate plenty of raw data, but the value of this data depends on whether it can be extracted and put to use.

Australian farmers are already stellar collaborators – witness the success of agricultural co-operatives across industries including dairy, sugar and meat marketing – and Lockie believes this willingness and ability to work together should be harnessed for the collective good in the high-tech sphere.

“Establishing industry- or location-specific ‘data hubs’, where production data could be pooled, analysed and shared, would enable agribusinesses to conduct research, detect trends, benchmark their performance against their peers and identify areas for potential improvement,” he says.

For example, aggregating and analysing data about soil types, planting times, fertiliser use and irrigation methods could help broadacre farmers make better decisions about what and when to plant and how to manage their crops for maximum yield and minimum environmental impact.

“With the appropriate technical support, there are a lot of opportunities for farmer groups to get together to exploit the information they collect,” Lockie says.

2. Regional infrastructure

 Smart systems aren’t necessarily difficult to install, but they do require a high degree of connectivity to operate effectively.

While Australia continues to invest in regional telecommunications infrastructure via initiatives such as the NBN rollout and the Mobile Black Spot Program, many farmers are still missing out.

The government’s response to the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review acknowledged this digital deficit. It noted the estimated $20.3 billion productivity gain improved digital connectivity could deliver, through remote monitoring, automation, better tailoring of inputs like fertiliser and seed, and more efficient water and pest management.

“Installing a remote monitoring system that uses smart sensors to check stock watering points, for example, can eliminate the need for someone to spend several hours a day driving round paddocks doing those checks manually,” Lockie explains. “But it only works if you have the capacity to transfer that data.”

This connectivity challenge is made worse by the lack of computer processing power in regional and rural Australia. Transferring a large volume of data from the farm gate to a capital city or offshore location to be processed and stored consumes energy and bandwidth – bandwidth farmers simply don’t have.

Setting up regional data centres is one solution, according to Lockie.

“Having that background infrastructure in place will allow farms to become highly automated and connected,” he says. “Not having it will prevent farmers from realising the benefit of technologies like remote sensors and the Internet of Things.”

3. Supporting collaboration

Adapting technology to Australia’s unique production systems, educating local workforces, undertaking our own R&D and stimulating a vibrant agtech service sector requires collaboration across the private and government sectors.

And that, according to Lockie, requires policy and regulatory infrastructure that supports investment, encourages collaboration, aligns technologies with industry and community needs, and builds trust in the integrity and security of data.

“The potential is there to leverage advanced technology and build a virtuous cycle of research, innovation, business profitability and workforce development that is genuinely transformative for Australia’s rural businesses and communities.”

Backing innovation across the agri sector

 Agribusinesses with an eye to the future will need to explore high-tech assets and solutions that can help them optimise their operations and capture emerging opportunities, says Julie Rynski, NAB Executive, Regional and Agribusiness.

“Investing in agtech will not only offer them long-term gains, it will set up the younger generation for success,” Rynski says.

In turn, this will ensure the future of our country. “Farm-based businesses are key to Australia’s economic recovery and growth. We’re excited by the potential agtech has to transform the sector and we look forward to backing our customers as they explore the many opportunities it can open up for them, at every stage of the production process.”

Where to from here?

As such a vital part of the economy, what’s good for the agricultural sector is good for Australia. Our farmers embrace innovation that has helped position them as some of the most efficient primary producers in the world. But to achieve the fundamental change Dr Finkel calls for, government and industry will also have to work together.

As Professor Lockie noted upon the release of the ACOLA report: “Innovation in our agriculture sector is critical for our economy, our food security and so much more. With a supportive policy environment, workforce and investment, we are confident that the future of agriculture in Australia will be one in which data analytics and artificial intelligence are as at-home on the farm as they are in any other high-tech industry.”

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