“Megatrends” changing agricultural markets

Like Sisyphus destined to roll his stone eternally uphill, early South Australian farmers attempted fruitlessly to clear their land of the stumps and roots of mallee scrub. Richard and Clarence Smith realised that a new take on existing technology was the only means of beating those pesky roots, and created a plough capable of “jumping” the stumps.

In a similar vein, the CSIRO and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation suggest that Australian agriculture must again adapt existing practice to a new environment. The two agencies anticipate five “megatrends” changing the face of the industry:

  1. A hungrier world: population growth fuelling heightened demand for food and fibre;
  2. A wealthier world: a new middle class increasing its own food consumption;
  3. Choosier customers: access to information empowering consumers that demand certain ethical, sustainability and health attributes;
  4. Transformative technology: advances in food production and transport; and
  5. A “bumpier ride”: changes caused by globalisation and a shifting climate.

These trends may permanently alter agricultural markets, and the Australian Government’s 2015 White Paper sees the $50 billion industry capitalising on them. With Asia’s appetite steadily growing, the world’s food demand is predicted to grow around 77% by 2050. Australian agriculture has a tremendous opportunity to cater to a hungry globe.

Recent Ag-Tech innovations

In an age of urbanisation, climate change and sustainability, simply turning to more intensive land use is untenable. As a result, tech innovators have begun seeking other means of ensuring food output is able to match future demand.

Internet of (agricultural) things: Recent ventures have looked to the possibilities for adapting the “Internet of Things” ­­­­­­­­­­­– tangible objects sharing their data over the internet – to agricultural purposes. IBM suggests that such an opportunity is ripe for the picking, with only 1% of agriculture’s capital expenditure currently going towards technology. Recent examples include:

  1. Tasmanian start-up “The Yield”, partnering with Bosch and Intel, is eager to capitalise. The Yield seeks to combine networked wireless sensors and local data in order to connect oyster farms to the Internet of Things, allowing the reduction of unnecessary estuary closures impacting harvests, more efficient labour coordination and easier tracking of food safety. Cost and safety efficiencies are expected to benefit farmers, regulators and consumers alike.
  2. Queensland innovators AgDNA have developed an analytics app to turn farmers’ data into a usable form. The app, used in over 90,000 farms across 167 countries, allows real-time tracking of machinery, access to weather data and is compatible with data provided by equipment manufacturers or previously stored by a user.
  3. Similarly, John Deere has developed software to digitally connect farmers’ crops and equipment, providing real-time, wireless analytics for data such as seeding rates, average harvest time or machinery wear.

Terminator (weeds that won’t “be back”): Another Queensland fledgling, Swarm Farms, has developed lightweight weed control robots capable of identifying individual weeds in a field before plucking them out or killing them with microwaves and lasers. The robots are capable of everything from refuelling themselves to diverting course to assist a peer toiling in a particularly weedy area. Had they beaten the Smith brothers to the punch there may have been no need for a stump jump plough. One thing remains clear either way: Australian farmers will always be quick to adapt to change in the industry.

En Garde, on line: Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has developed a virtual fencing device, consisting of a set of collars for cattle programmed with exclusion zones, to minimise the need for physical fences in cattle farming – and environmental and cost saving.

Uber for water: US based Regenesis Management Group have designed a product, SWIMM, that allows farmers to analyse the water on their property and to rent surplus water to municipalities, conservation groups or industrials, as well as identifying blocks of land that may be suitable for conservation uses.

Where to from here?

The Australian government and academic community, through the CSIRO, and the private sector, through various start-up accelerators have been fostering technological development in agriculture by devoting research time, investment and expertise to the industry.

  1. Cisco, the CSIRO (through their subsidiary, Data 61), UNSW, the National Farmer’s Federation, the NSW Department of Primary Industries and other industry parties have created an Internet of Things focussed innovation hub in the Australian Technology Park called Innovation Central Sydney. Agricultural technology is a key use case for Internet of Things, and a focus for this innovation hub.
  2. The Australian Government and National Farmers’ Federation have also jointly announced proposals in response to the Turnbull Government’s innovation agenda for fostering agricultural technologies, including the creation of Sprout, an innovation hub and start-up incubator.
  3. The CSIRO has, in and of itself, continued to research into agricultural technology, and has in the past commercialised many of its agricultural innovations. Its Digital Agriculture working group has created the following use cases:
  1. using drones to locate cattle;
  2. remotely measuring the health of cattle;
  3. bio-sensors for oyster farmers;
  4. Internet of Things agricultural sensor networks; and
  5. iPad enabled soil quality mapping.

Ag-Tech will undoubtedly have winners and losers on the technology side, but no matter what happens to the players in the industry, these technologies will consistently improve the efficiency and output of the Australian agricultural land. It is important that these advances continue, and are commercialised so that the increases in efficiency will not only lead to profitable technology, but increased Australian agricultural economic activity.

Just like the jump stump plough opened up new land to agricultural development and fed Australia, maybe the newest wave of Ag-Tech will allow robots, sensors, drones and data to feed the world.

Some legal implications

Given the amount of data that will be generated by these Ag-Tech tools, the intellectual property and privacy issues associated are complex.

For example, the way in which data is presented is not necessarily protected by intellectual property. It is important to ensure data is protected through confidentiality measures, rights obtained under contracts and security measures.

Further, where data collected contains personal information (namely, information that identifies an individual or could identify an individual), data collectors will need to ensure they comply with privacy laws.

In addition, developers should always be on the lookout for opportunities to patent any invention and ensure that brands are permitted and protected.