Tech for farm transformation? Maybe not says MBIE report

Published on the 16/04/2019 | Written by Heather Wright

Farm transformation_MBIE report

Tech just a tool for improving existing practices, not transformation…

While technology has the ability to provide benefits in the land-based farming sector, it won’t fundamentally alter farming practise – at least that’s according to a new report, which also notes a potentially damaging lack of a national strategy.

The Sapere Research Group report commissioned by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Current land based farming systems research and future challenges, highlights the potential role of technologies including sensors, drones, AI, ‘the internet of farm things’ and blockchain.

“Overall, our view was that these and other technologies largely represent a continuation of existing developments rather than a material shift, and at this stage were best thought of as improving existing practices, not fundamentally altering them,” the report says.

“Interviewees thought this lack of co-ordination was detrimental to New Zealand.”

The report, which is compiled from interviews with local and  international experts and a literature scan, will be used to ‘help inform science investment plans to contribute to a dynamic science system that enriches New Zealand’ says Marcos Pelenur, MBIE manager of science policy.

But while the technologies might not be transformational, there’s still plenty of scope for benefit, the report notes.

“The use of sensors, drones and other electronic devices is able to generate significant amounts of data, which can augment the intuition of farmers, regulators and consumers.

“AI and the internet of farm things will also allow farmers to trial changes designed to enhance production while lowering the costs, including environmental, of doing so.”

Sensors can be used to help pick produce at the right time, or to detect signs of illness or fertility in animals, while drones can cut agrichemical use by spotting crop enemies earlier. Drones can also be used to map patches of unhealthy vegetation and reveal potential causes.

“Interviewees were of the view that these technologies are largely in play now, are likely to continue to be important and, in contrast to robotics, are labour augmenting (as opposed to replacing).”

Robotics, which last month was in the news locally with a world-first harvest of apples by a robotic picker in Hawkes Bay, gets a look-in only as one of the ‘other influences’ likely to affect land-based farm systems. It is deemed to ‘not necessarily be paradigm-shifting because either they are not likely to be of sufficient import or they are too remote from land-based farm systems’.

Also included in the report is mention of cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

Bitcoin ‘could potentially alter the way farm systems are financed and in general the availability of credit which might be relevant to farm investment’, the report notes, before adding that it is ‘quite some way removed from land-based farm systems to be paradigm-shifting’.

Blockchain’s relevance lies largely in its potential to enable greater transparency through the supply and value chain and enhance the security of information. “However, the technology is not well understood yet, and its use is as an enabler of other game-changing trends rather than the driver of change itself.”

Skills fusion
The report also highlights an increasing fusion of skills and the need for data analysts and technologists with an understanding of blockchain to assist the farming sector.

While data and associated increasing levels of automation and measurement were seen as of ‘medium’ importance by external commentators, local interviewees put ‘a much higher priority’ on the technologies, saying advanced data analytics could help farmers make the best decisions, while automation and robotics could solve emerging labour shortages.

But, as with the rest of New Zealand, there’s also a dearth of the required skills in areas such as data architecture, big data skills such as machine learning and the ability to implement sector wide infrastructure.

The report says research providers involved in the survey had concluded that, given the difficulty in getting researchers and scientists with abilities in both farm systems and analytics, there is a need to partner with other organisations or use capability developed in parallel sectors, particularly for AI and sensing. Leveraging Amazon and Google was offered as one option.

The report notes there is ‘much to be done’ in developing the right capacity and capabilities in the data fields.

Also needed is investment around infrastructure to enable farms to make the best use of data.

“If sensors are to be useful in remote farm systems, then infrastructure to provide a rural internet of things would need to be developed in parallel.”

Much of the report focuses around three – not particularly earth-shattering – global ‘mega trends’ of enhanced environmental consciousness, transformational science (predominantly developments in genomics and alternative proteins), and changing consumer preferences, with demands for evidence around ethical production, environmental effects and traceability as the three mega trends.

Technology’s role is highlighted as one of the ‘other influences’ likely to affect land-based farm systems.

But there’s also a strong warning signal contained in the report, with the note that ‘joined up thinking is lacking’. While there a range of strategies already existing in individual organisations, sectors and government departments, no single over-arching national strategy exists.

“Interviewees thought this lack of co-ordination was detrimental to New Zealand.”

The report also notes a lack of comment from interviewees around ‘the possibility New Zealand has the opportunity to become a leader, rather than follower, in relation to some trends’.

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