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Post-Covid agritech push needed

Peter Griffin. 18 June 2020, 10:16 am

It's the backbone of our economy, but a group of scientists say New Zealand's agricultural sector needs a new strategy and a more sustainable, technology-driven approach if it is to thrive in a world where Covid-19 has rewritten the rules of business.

A discussion paper from Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland this week called for commitment to a "sustainability agenda" across the food sector that would extend beyond pastoral agriculture to include arable production, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture.

It points out that consumer sentiment around food was changing long before the pandemic, with so-called "credence attributes" increasingly being looked for by food consumers. These can include food safety, nutritional value, animal welfare, carbon footprint and environmental protection factors.

Unlike tourism, New Zealand's primary sector has come through Covid-19 well, say the scientists, and our recent though fragile Covid-free status now gave us a strategic opportunity to 

"There is an opportunity to leverage the mounting international interest in our unique national values and attributes and our status as a leading producer of elite primary products as the basis

for the renewal of New Zealand's national brand," write Sir Peter Gluckman, formerly the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor and Dr Stephen Goldson, one of the country's most experienced ecologists, among others.

The sustainability agenda

Committing to the sustainability agenda would require a coordinated effort across government, industry and the farming sector, but one thing is clear in the minds of the scientists - it will need to be driven by technology. 

"Many different technologies, including sensors, big data and artificial intelligence, and the huge breakthroughs in the life sciences, such as gene editing, will dramatically change agriculture and food production systems around the globe," they write.

Making the production of food more sustainable and efficient and improving the primary products supply chain, would increasingly incorporate technology from other industries, such as drones, predictive analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors.

They argue that horticulture, in particular, is already well-placed to adopt precision agriculture technologies, with a data-driven approach, automation of irrigation and crop management and use of robotics for harvesting and processing.

There was an opportunity for New Zealand to become a leader in vertical farming, which through the use of hydroponic systems and intensive production methods can save on land use and improve food security.

"Is there an opportunity for New Zealand to incorporate cultivars other than lettuce and leafy greens into these systems, or to develop our own systems?" They ask.

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Better environmental data needed

The discussion paper also calls for a more data-driven approach, which will require complete data sets to be available for decision making across the primary industries. While data sets for soil types, predicted rainfall etc, do exist, they are not readily accessible. 

Issues around data ownership and sharing arrangements would have to be sorted out so that farmers can make informed decisions about their own land management.

Automating processes on farms and using sensors to gather crop and animal data in real-time would also require more bandwidth in rural networks, something that is still lacking in parts of rural New Zealand despite a big push behind the ultrafast broadband network rollout and the Rural Broadband initiative driven by the mobile network operators.

"Such technologies will depend on farmers and growers being completely digitally connected, with access to sufficient bandwidth to use it effectively and efficiently," write Sir Peter and his co-authors. 

"This infrastructure will be as critical in rural New Zealand as it is in urban areas."

Tech-related recommendations from Koi Tū:

- Investing in the provision of accurate environmental data that will provide validation for the claims being made to global consumers, including certification systems where appropriate.

- Investing in the long-term research necessary to support an increasingly technology-based sector facing rapid change in both the realities of climate change and markets and

consumer expectations. Barriers to exploring the potential of advanced life science technologies to assist the New Zealand food system need to be periodically reassessed.

- Investing in supporting producers to ensure food safety and provenance traceability, and by taking a lead in data sharing across the sector.

- Investing in broadband connectivity within the rural sector to enhance productivity by informing decision-making and enabling data transmission and best practice sharing.



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