I distinctly remember, during harvest season in Wahgunyah, Victoria, driving a 1977-ish New Holland combine harvester (not unlike the image below).
This 6 tonne+ monstrosity had no doors, no air conditioning, no suspension, and starting the damn thing required me to climb the ladder and get on the back, pump fuel manually and then place a screwdriver between the ignition points. At which point, the engine would (hopefully) start and I would have to quickly jump down and race to get to the cabin before the harvester started creeping forward due to some unknown malfunction. Cue to 12 hours a day conducting monotonous laps of the paddock by myself, breathing in powder-fine dust. Workplace health and safety would have had a heart attack. Understandably, not long after I decided dairy farming was the better option.
Nowadays agriculture technology or AgTech has progressed leaps and bounds ahead of my days filtering Wahgunyah’s dirt through my lungs. I have continued to keep close tabs on the evolving technology adopted by farmers, with a focus on the potential benefits and risks of such adoption.
Many people do not realise but self-steering and GPS guided tractors and similar technology in agriculture is now decades old. Modern tech in agriculture is brilliant in its ingenuity and its potential in increasing the efficiency, productivity, and resilience of the industry. Some examples of such technology are:
· Cloud-based applications that assist with farm management, livestock prices, and stock rotation. (particularly useful for farmers who sometimes run their notebook through the washing machine, losing all their data)
· Imagery and analytics SAAS that employs drones and satellites feeds to capture and record the health of crops, spray timing, and structure and irrigation of soil using NVDI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index)
· Blockchain technology for smart contracts, tokenisation and tracking of commodities, and enhancing supply chain visibility from farmer to consumer
· Digital yield monitoring systems that allow for the creation of moisture maps while planting and harvesting and analyse how paddock conditions affect yield.
· Livestock feed additives such as asparagopsis (seaweed) that help cattle grow faster and reduce their methane emissions, and thus reduce their carbon footprint. (check out Sam Elsom’s company Sea Forest and CSIRO’s Future Feed)
It is my belief that R&D investment in such technologies and Australian farms becoming data-driven is critical to the success and resilience of the entire industry and our ability to sustain our ever-growing global population. Australian agriculture is worth $60 billion+ to our economy and accounts for approx. 14% of goods and services exports. The industry hopes this will grow to over $100 billion in the next 10 years, however, ongoing trade wars, excessive tariffs, drought, soil health, flooding, and bushfires have all hit our farming communities hard.
However, like all digitisation efforts, there are risks to consider. Cybersecurity remains of paramount importance and agriculture-related industries do not escape the attention of cybercriminals or nation-states. As was evident with the successful ransomware attack against a software company that supplies the wool industry in Australia and New Zealand, there are potentially devastating impacts to farmers, suppliers, brokers, and markets. The software company’s representative stunningly and incomprehensibly refused to admit there were vulnerabilities in their IT systems and stated their users “did not have to worry about their data” because “it could happen to anybody”. But I digress…
By adopting and investing in evolving technology, embracing non-traditional methodology, utilising e-commerce, investing in organisation-specific cybersecurity policies and controls, and improving environmental and nutritional values, Australia’s agriculture industry can overcome the above-mentioned barriers and subsequently enhance international trade and our ability to compete on the world stage. To achieve this, government and government-funded R&D corporations must engage and communicate with private enterprises and have a clear bipartisan approach to AGTech and the sustainability of the industry for generations to come.