A data-driven destiny?
From the First Fleet’s 7 head of cattle at Farm Cove in 1788, to an Australian agricultural industry that has a gross value of $53.6 billion, farming has always been critical to our prosperity.
Advancements in data and technology mean the industry is forecast to double by 2030 (Source: Agricultural output soars as technology takes over, Financial Review 17th February, 2016) The future of farming will be an exciting blend of the old and the new; technology and tradition working to complement each other and not compete.
The Australian system is set to become more sustainable as we build on the wealth of farming tradition and expertise, but with the benefits of new and better technology. The key to transforming the food economy is to create the conditions where farmers have access to innovation at its leading edge, where they can create a positive cycle of improvement and advancement.
Precision farming is about using resources as efficiently as possibly to get the best possible yield, whether that’s quality, amount, or both. It means the precise application of fertiliser, impeccable irrigation and harvesting at the prime moment, to create produce that is as close to ‘perfect’ as possible.
As every aspect of our agriculture becomes a data point we’ll know more about our food than we ever have. If you scoff at the detail of food marketing labels now, just imagine what it will be like when we have single origin wheat.
Tracking animals, small and large, gives us access to many of those data points and makes a real difference to how food is understood and marketed. An almost unbelievable example can be found in Tasmania where the CSIRO has managed to tag up to 5000 bees with sensors. The 2.5mm x 2.5mm devices are similar to the e-tag in your car, recording when the insects pass particular checkpoints. There’s a reason for this madness though: bees are important in cross-pollination. They are also very sensitive to changes in the environment and typically creatures of structure and routine, so this project will paint an interesting picture for farmers, fruit growers and beekeepers. The next stage is to get the sensors down to 1mm x 1mm so that flies and mosquitos can be tracked.
Vertical farms, smart farms, factory farms... They might not be as romantic as rolling green hills and a red barn, but they sure are efficient – and they’re a glimpse into the farm of tomorrow.
Already there are driverless tractors that follow programmed routes and can react to obstructions. Drones help take stock of animals, and can monitor conditions of a field. It won’t be too long before you can irrigate and deploy specific nutrients with the push of a button, if not an algorithm.
Just outside of Tokyo, in a factory where floppy disks were once made, Toshiba (yes, that Toshiba) is growing shelf upon shelf of lettuce, in a range of varieties. They hope to grow 3 million heads of lettuce per year. In a room where air pressure, water, light, temperature, bacteria and dust are strictly controlled, the ‘farmers’ who check the quality of the lettuce must wash their hands before entering and wear special suits, not unlike medical scrubs. Soon those scrubs will no longer be necessary and the farm will be completely automated. Toshiba joins Fujitsu in factory farming lettuce, and Sharp who cultivate strawberries in a “plant-growing facility” in Dubai.
Meanwhile, agricultural science and agribusiness degrees are in boomtime. The University of Adelaide and La Trobe University each initiated new agribusiness degrees this year. Enrolments are seeing an uptick. Graduate programs are increasing their capacity, with one of the major banks searching for more agriculture grads to fill their program.
The Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture found that for each graduate of an agriculture-related degree there are six jobs available. And why not? The desire for food and textiles is probably not going anywhere soon, (unless it’s being exported, of course). Agriculture is a rare bright spot for university-leavers and suggests the untapped potential still yet to be made by technology.
As new technologies radically improve efficiencies and outputs for our farms, they also create an interesting new reality for our agriculture industry, where those who do not add value risk being by-passed or ignored.
Tech that enables real time information for higher value decision making throughout the supply chain, that gives us better, faster, more accurate and safer ways of tracing and tagging physical items means we need to be ready for greater transparency. Technology will allow people - the all-important everyday consumer - to know what they did not know before, and to better understand their food and the many hands involved in the food chain. We may be surprised to learn how deeply they care about that information, and as a nation be ready to act.