Technology to transform agriculture, but only with investment

By John Harvey

Technology’s transformative potential for the agriculture industry all comes down to innovation and investment. John Harvey, managing director of Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), says innovation will continue to create new applications for technology and make its adoption on-farm possible. But, investment is required to commercialise this innovation and support its implementation so it can deliver on its promise of production and efficiency gains.

Kay Hull and John Harvey of RIRDC.

At an almond farm in Mildura, robots developed by Sydney University work day and night, moving through the orchard, gathering data to create a comprehensive view of the entire operation. This trial was one of a series of projects led by Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems Salah Sukkarieh, supported by Horticulture Innovation Australia. His team are pioneering autonomous robots for the horticulture industry that can monitor the soil and check the health of the plants, meaning farmers don’t have to physically check each orchard. They can even sense when the fruit is ripe.

At Mingenew in Western Australia, Darrin Lee has taken an Internet of Things approach to managing his family’s properties and created a wirelessly connected network of devices, sensors and vehicles that provide him with quality data in real-time. The Internet of Things is a new form of communication between humans and objects, and between objects themselves. Combining with external and regional data sets, the Internet of Things approach means Darrin’s decision making can be pre-emptive and is always driven by accurate data.

It’s easy to see from the above that while agriculture might be one of Australia’s most traditional industries, it is about to be upended by technology.

What’s just around the corner is a collection of digital technologies that have the capacity to make the entire Australian agricultural supply chain more precise, more profitable and more sustainable. Collectively, they’re referred to as ‘agtech’, and they’re set to transform our industry.

It’s the sensors that will generate real-time, continuous data about the health of individual plants and animals. It’s the artificial intelligence that will convert data into decisions and guide robots to operate in a range of scenarios. It’s the nanomaterials that in pesticides can deliver site-specific, slow-release applications targeting specific pests and diseases. It’s the synthetic biology that will result in more nutritious crops that thrive with less water and require fewer chemical inputs. It’s the gene editing that will facilitate faster and more precise plant and animal breeding. And it’s the ability to provide consumers with more information about their food and fibre than ever before.

So the questions have to be asked, can the industry keep up with the available opportunities and who will make these transformative technologies commercially available? Which of course, comes back to investment supporting the innovation.

Global investment by venture capitalists in agtech has jumped from US$400 million in 2010 to US$3 billion in 2015, and while the Australian agtech innovation ecosystem is relatively immature, its potential is huge.

We have innovation incubators like SproutX (Australia’s first agtech accelerator), disruptors seeking solutions like Agrihack, and companies like The Yield and Observant come in. Pockets of innovation are springing up in regional Australia, bringing together agtech ideas, startups and entrepreneurs with investors, IT skills, marketing and finance.

These are the people whose entrepreneurialism will ‘solve the farm’ and transform the industry. By looking at old problems in new ways and embracing technology and innovation, they will provide our industry with the technology and the solutions it needs to boost productivity and profits.

With clear knowledge now of the endless possibilities technology can provide to the industry, it’s time to focus on making its promises – of efficiency and production gains – a reality. All of which requires not only innovation, but more critically, investment.

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