First published 12/03/2016
Over the last two hundred years, Australia has become a major producer and exporter of agricultural products and in 2017 agricultural growth was 27.6% overtaking the traditional driver of the Australian economy – mining. Powered by good rains, record harvests, a low Australian dollar, new free trade agreements, surging exports, in particular to China (with its insatiable demands) and the application of technology, this growth is set to continue.
An Agtech revolution is underway.
Next time you fly over farmland consider how technology is driving decisions about growing, harvesting and selling produce and how digital disruptions will reduce the costs of production, boost output and support greater care for our natural environment.
- Big data, analytics and cloud-based applications – as reported by Accenture are disrupting production systems and supply chains, creating new business models, and enabling farmers and their suppliers to manage with precision.
The Australian Farm Institute says big data enables “farmers to change from paddock and herd average management to square metre and individual animal management, with reported subsequent increases in farm productivity. Gains of the order of 10% to 15% have been recorded in cropping systems”.
Applications include The Climate Corporation (owned by Monsanto) whose prescriptive-planting system exploits soil and weather data for the whole of the USA and terabytes of data relating to seed yields.
ONFARM (which federates data from partners and public data sources) and the South Esk Hydrological Sensor Web (which was designed with collaborative data to maximise water harvesting without compromising environmental flows for a whole river system) support increased productivity while better managing the environment. They also raise important questions about privacy, ownership and use of farm data as highlighted in Digital disruption on the farm and the recently published International Food and Agribusiness Management Review.
Elsewhere the D2D Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) has partnered with 14 rural research and development corporations in a unique project aimed at exploiting big data opportunities for the Australian agriculture industry to accelerate precision agriculture to decision agriculture.
- The Internet of Things – the United Nations reports almost 7.1 billion people, over 95 percent of the global population, now has mobile coverage and Statista reports 3.5b worldwide are now connected to the internet. Also, Gartner reports there were 4bn connected things — excluding PCs, phones and tablets — in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 percent from the previous year.
While in Australia farmers face high costs, low population density, large distances and retail market consolidation by Coles and Woolworths, farmers in other markets have seized the opportunity to use mobile phone Apps to deal directly with the market e.g.Grubmarket in the USA and to also to collaborate as e.g. Agworld.
Farmers are also deploying cheap and ubiquitous sensors in a myriad of ways. Sensors have been deployed in Tasmania by Houston Farm to measure the microclimates of lettuce, spinach and herbs crops; and Barilla Bay Oysters is using sensors to measure salinity and water quality in their oyster leases.
Agersens has automated controlled grazing, waterway protection, and precision farming techniques with fenceless farming. And GYUHO Fujitsu’s Connected Cow application has successfully raised the conception rate in cows.
Farm Logs uses data from sensors built into farm machinery to measure and analyse water and fertiliser requirements and divert resources to maximise yields and profitability.
While Observant uses water, plant and soil sensors, to measure and manage the delivery of water. Concurrently, similar systems can monitor and report what happens to applied irrigation water for compliance purposes.
- Artificial Intelligence – is all around us and machine learning algorithms drive e.g. Amazon’s book recommendations, Apple’s Siri assistant, Facebook’s news feed and Spotify’s music discovery playlist. As demonstrated when AlhpaGo played a near perfect game on 12 March 2016 in Korea it is now possible for machines to learn to solve any problem – so long as there are sufficient data and computing power. With the resolution of the current challenges for artificial intelligence in agriculture, it will be routinely applied to support innovation, productivity and profits.
- Drones – use has exploded since the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) changed the rules governing the use of commercial drones to make it easier for farmers to use them on private properties and they are now routinely used to survey crops, herds, gates and water pumps.
- Robots – low cost “farmbots” are being used to inspect crops, count yields, dig up weeds and, now The University of Sydney has commenced a new two-year trial to train a ‘farmbots’ to herd livestock, monitor their health and check they have enough pasture to graze on.
At the same time, Accolade Wines, Australia’s biggest wine company is using robots to manage stock in a “magical place” – its European warehouse!
- Biotech – since time immemorial farmers have bred animals and crops for health, productivity and disease resistance. This century the plummeting cost of gene sequencing, along with shortened time scales has led to a revolution in biotechnology. Now Biotech is being applied to solve routine and wicked problems for both farmers and consumers.
In Australia, climate change is a major concern for wheat farmers – Australia’s most valuable crop. With farmers focused on the genetic potential of the best-adapted wheat varieties to survive climate change.
While in China, reportedly the world’s biggest producer of tomatoes, China’s Agricultural Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, have determined the full genetic makeup of 398 kinds of tomatoes intending to fix their flavour!
- Renewable energy – while politics has distorted the debate over climate change and poor policy has distorted the economics of both gas and electricity, solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, methane, waste materials and geothermal technology are all used today and with lower costs, their use will scale.
- Value chains and Block Chain – advanced systems in the food processing and retail sector, are now being integrated with farm systems to meet and manage food security and compliance requirements efficiently and deliver digital differentiation. The West Australian Livestock Biosecurity Program is one program managing regulatory activities to support stock identification and traceability, disease surveillance and animal movement.
Endorsing Australia’s reputation for quality products with known provenance and overall food safety and security Alibaba has opened its new headquarters in Melbourne offering via its Tmall Global access to the Chinese consumer market.
Separately, confirming Australians ingenuity, in late 2016 AgriDigital, was connected to a private blockchain network which successfully executed the world’s first live settlement of a physical commodity (wheat) on a blockchain.
It is not surprising that the Data61 plan to find Australia’s next great industries includes food provenance and real-time freight tracking.
Each of these eight trends is prominent in the StartupAUS’s report co-authored by KPMG, Powering Growth: Realising the potential of AgTech for Australia and no doubt will feature heavily in the Sproutx Accelerator applications which are now open.
The federal government has confirmed the crucial importance of agriculture for the nation’s future economic growth and prosperity in establishing the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre. And this week PwC announced a new specialist Food and Agribusiness Advisory Team and a new food safety assurance offering.
These trends promise to accelerate the digital transformation of agriculture when matched with cultural change, collaboration, network capacity (fixing mobile black spots and improved broadband upload rates in rural areas) and an acute understanding of the cyber security risks for us all as highlighted by Federal Government’s new Critical Infrastructure Centre (CIC).