Nuffield Australia 2018 Scholar
Opportunity abounds: Agtech only scratching the surface
Despite it being well established that food production needs to increase to feed a growing global population, agriculture remains the last major industry to fully capitalise on the benefits of an increasingly digitised world.
It’s an issue at the core of global research released in March 2020 by 2018 Nuffield Scholar and Western Australian farmer, Andrew Slade.
Recognising that for many Australian producers, much of the currently available agtech offering fails to offer a clear return on investment, Mr Slade travelled throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand researching the current state of the agtech landscape to better understand the role it can play in the future of Australian agriculture.
“Farm productivity growth in Australia has been stagnant from 2010 – 2016, with the most recent data actually showing a decline in productivity,” said Mr Slade.
“While much of this can be attributed to challenging seasonal conditions, it does highlight concerns around the ability of current agricultural systems to manage climate variability and it’s here that agtech has a real role to play.”
Surveying the current state of digital agriculture, the report outlines how agriculture is only scratching the surface of what is possible and subsequently not realising the productivity gains on offer.
Visiting a highly productive dairy farm in Oxford, England, the report illustrates how the lack of return on investment associated with the on-farm application of agtech was playing out.
“The dairy farm is self-described as being ‘no-tech’. Struggling to see a compelling case to adopt currently available agtech solutions, the business decided to proceed without implementing various options,” Mr Slade said.
“Despite this it is widely recognised as one of the most productive and profitable dairy businesses in the UK.
“Examples like this make it clear the current offering of digital technology doesn’t yet provide the return on investment needed to stimulate widespread adoption, and only serves to address specific production related issues rather than providing tangible business-wide productivity gains.
Assessing where the opportunities lie for digital agriculture, the report reveals that it’s critical for the industry to move beyond just data collection to the generation of valuable insights.
“Much of the farm management software available today amounts to little more than glorified notebooks, but we must take this enhanced data collection and convert it into real business insights or new products,” Mr Slade said.
“The real value in the digitisation of agriculture lies in the opportunity to combine digital assets and capabilities to create new products and business models.
“For example, growing consumer appetite for detailed food provenance stories, such as that produced in an ethical or environmentally friendly way, means technology enhanced traceability can help attract a premium for producers.”
A meeting with the Managing Director of Horsch Machinery in Bavaria, Germany illustrated the importance of smart farming practices if the opportunity for digitally enhanced story telling is to be realised.
“In order to take advantage of the potential marketing opportunities that come with digital agriculture, farming practices must be palatable to the consumer,” Mr Slade said.
“As Horsch Machinery made clear, there is no point tracing a story that is bad, and the exclusion of certain production aspects or practices from the overall story only serves to erode trust.”
The report concludes that there is immense opportunity waiting to be unlocked through digital agriculture, but producers should invest wisely, looking for integration and clear return on investment, while industry more broadly should explore opportunities to shift from data collection to valuable business insight generation.