That was one of the main takeaways from the second annual Digital Agrifood Summit held in Wagga Wagga, NSW on 11-12 October 2023.
The Digital Agrifood Summit has established itself as one of the leading regional events on the Australian agricultural calendar, attracting over 450 Australian and International agrifood experts, and 150 high-school students, to regional NSW for two-days of demonstration, discussion and connection.
Hosted by Food Agility CRC and Charles Sturt University at the latters Wagga Wagga campus, this year’s theme ‘Paddock to Profit’ explored how digitally driven insights, systems and tools are helping producers improve sustainability and increase profits.
Opening the summit was Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Canadian innovation hub Alberta Innovates. In an engaging keynote, Mrs Kilcrease said the adoption of emerging digital technology isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
“Farmers and producers have limited opportunities to implement major practice change,” she said. “They may get one chance per year to do it, which equates to an average of 40 chances in their lifetime.”
Mrs Kilcrease pointed to the Global Digital Farm (GDF), and the global smart farm network currently being developed across Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as one way forward.
“Smart farms, such as the GDF here in Wagga, have a big role to play. First, they must get it right, second, they must make their findings available so that it can inform widespread practice change.”
ANZ Bank’s head of agribusiness insights, Michael Whitehead, agreed that technology would have an increasingly bigger role in the agricultural sector over the coming decade.
“ANZ Bank wants farmers to be profitable. It’s good for everyone when they are,” said Mr Whitehead. “AgTech can equip producers to better deal with changing environmental conditions, such as La Nina.”
Downforce Technologies is a natural capital assessment provider which has partnered with Charles Sturt University to assess soil organic carbon levels on the GDF. The company’s co-founder and chief scientist, Professor Jacquie McGlade, addressed Summit delegates with a stark warning for future productivity.
“Producing food at the cost of other natural capitals will not get you to that net zero, cost neutral outcome that we must achieve,” said Prof McGlade, who is the former chief scientist of the UN’s Environmental Programme.
“Taking care of historical emissions will be what differentiates premium products in the future,” she added. “The most resilient farming is not only going to deliver profitability, but it's going to deliver a different kind of prosperity for the world.”
Australia's agrifood sector has laid out its ambition to become a $100bn industry by 2030. Connectivity and data sharing will play a central role in achieving this goal, according to the head of industry growth at Telstra, Warren Jennings.
"Data is not the new oil,” Mr Jennings explained. “Data is sand that you must sift through to find the value. Unshared and unused data has negative value - it's actually a pure cost."
But as the expert panel, consisting of NGIS general manager Matt Stewart and National Farmers’ Federation data policy manager, Gabi Ceregra, noted, the ambition is there, but there’s work to be done.
“[What’s holding data sharing back] is a scale and population density issue,” said Mr Stewart. “Boots on the ground are scarce, so there is a role for geospatial analysis in driving decision making based on location,” he added.
Ms Ceregra said the NFF’s Australian Farm Data Code, which was released in June this year, would provide farmers with peace of mind when it comes to how their data is used, managed, and shared. (More: Australian Farm Data Code - National Farmers' Federation.)
In addition, Food Agility’s Data Sharing Agreement (DSA) Template, developed in collaboration with tier 1 legal firm MinterEllison, will provide a fair best practice contract template for data sharing between farm businesses (Data Originators) and those they share data with (Data Recipients).
The DSA is intended to protect the interests of smaller farmers - especially those without in-house legal teams. It can be accessed here.
Just as day one explored the digital transformation of the agrifood sector, programming on day two zeroed in on how increased adoption could safeguard market access and create new export opportunities.
Australian agrifood producers have long enjoyed the reputation of being among the most environmentally sustainable in the world. However, with new regulations around sustainability reporting on the horizon, the need to prove this reputation is more important than ever.
The Australian Farm Institute has developed the Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework (AASF), which enables a central source of information about Australian agricultural sustainability, providing a translation layer between farm practices, markets and the community.
The Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework - Australian Farm Institute
Executive director of the organisation, Richard Heath, opened day two of the Digital Agrifood Summit with a presentation explaining what the AASF can achieve for industry.
“We must work towards delivering sustainability goals,” Mr Heath began. “This framework gives us consistent principles so that we can have flexibility that doesn’t stifle innovation, it encourages it.”
If Mr Heath’s message wasn’t clear enough, Australia’s Special Representative for Australian Agriculture, Su McCluskey, made sure the audience knew what was at stake.
“The Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework gives us the ability to speak the language of global markets,” said Ms McCluskey. “If we don’t send a clear, concise message, we’ll lose what we put forward.”
To achieve that clear messaging, Sundown Pastoral owners David and Danielle Statham created FibreTrace, a cloud-based platform that provides textile fibre verification, traceability & transparency giving textile brands and suppliers 20/20 vision of their supply chain at every step from raw fibre to store.
Mr Statham also detailed the lengths the company is going to, to be more environmentally sustainable.
“Wathagar Gin is one of the highest performing cotton gins in the world,” Mr Statham said. "We’ve built a solar plant with Hiringa Energy which sees 66 per cent of the gin powered through renewables.
“We’re also building a hydrogen and ammonia plant because 85 per cent of my emissions are from two products; fuel and fertiliser. Now I am going to create it all myself, and it’ll be all green.
“The only emissions I'll have on the farm, which I need the tech people in this room to solve, are from the creation of insecticides and herbicides,” added Mr Statham.
In the panel discussion, GS1’s general manager of public policy and government engagement, Peter Carter, highlighted that ESG reporting requirements are not as new as some may think.
“[ESG] is just another credential. We've been doing this well for many years, and it's really well established. It's the backbone of mutual trade recognition agreements,” explained Mr Carter.
Director of Freshcare, Jane Lovell, rounded out the panel with a call to action for the industry. “I think we need to work toward having a united story,” Mrs Lovell said. “When we fight amongst commodities and amongst states, we do ourselves a disservice.
“We need to be united, and to do that, we need to have clear goalposts so that our farmers know where they need to be heading. One voice, one message.”
Two themed tours of the Global Digital Farm, an 1800ha landscape laboratory partnership between Food Agility and Charles Sturt University, gave delegates an opportunity see the real-world outcomes of applied research in a commercial-scale environment. The tours included guest presentations from Downforce Technologies, Sundown Pastoral, Cibo Labs, and Pairtree Intelligence. There were also demonstrations of market-leading agtech, including a drone with LiDAR functionality, Farmbot’s water monitoring system, Optiweigh’s in-paddock weighing unit, and the GUSS Unmanned Spray System, the world’s only driverless orchard sprayer.
“People loved that these tours brought to life the innovations they’ve heard so much about, and that the natural capital and on-farm input management solutions we explored were so topical,” said Food Agility Chief Scientist, and Summit Master of Ceremonies, Prof. David Lamb.
Complimenting the plenary sessions were the innovation showcases, which featured over 20 speakers from across Australia delivering presentations on topics ranging from the ethics of AI, to how sensor technology is providing insights into spontaneous haystack fires, and how integrating high school graduates into the agriculture sector is achievable and can be encouraged.
Food Agility and Charles Sturt University would like to sincerely thank all sponsors, exhibitors and attendees for making this year’s Digital Agrifood Summit a resounding success.
Recording of the plenary sessions and innovation showcases will be made available in the coming months.
With special thanks to Premium Gold Sponsor; Transgrid, Gold Sponsor; ANZ Bank, Strategic Sponsors; the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries, and the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist, and Sustainability Sponsor; SunRice.