Food Agility CEO Mike Briers has sat down with The Australian Farmer to answer a number of questions about the opportunities offered to the food and agriculture industry by digital technology, how innovators can be the bridge between farmers and technologists, and the innovative potential on our doorstep.
How can Australian agriculture embrace the opportunities offered by digital technology, particularly big data and the Internet of Things (IoT)?
“Six or seven years ago, agriculture was considered to be at the bottom end of the scale in terms of digital maturity. But with the rise of IoT and the development of a proliferation of instruments that measure the physical environment, we are starting to overcome the challenges of measurability and help agriculturalists make better decisions around when to harvest, when to plant, when to spray and when to water. Historically these have been made on guesstimates and a lot of uncertainty, particularly concerning weather.
Complicating this is the nature of the industry – agriculture is a very risky and uncertain area to apply data science to. However, the improvement in devices and connectivity has created a flowing stream of reliable data that is improving exponentially. It is an environment that is uncertain, but can be rendered more certain by measuring things with confidence.
In our favour is the fact that Aussies are very well known as early adopters. We take up things really quickly, but the big challenge has been the rift between the very complex and uncertain rural environment, and the technologists who tend to be in urban areas. The key is empathy – how do we cross that empathy divide and have the technologists better understand the decisions that need to be made on the farm?”
What is the key to crossing this empathy divide?
“If I’m trying to design something that’s simple, robust and reliable to use for a farmer, then I’ve got to imagine what a farmer wants. Part of the challenge has been that agriculture has not been particularly well served by technologists, who would typically impose their existing products or solutions on farmers without really understanding how farmers will use it. Growers can tell you plenty of stories about tech they’ve been sold rusting in their barns.
I think this is where our work at the CRC for Food Agility, as well as others like us, can really help by being the fluid in the ecosystem – the broker who tries to introduce technologists to growers and vice versa and bring them together in a deliberate innovation to co-design a solution. There is a challenge for farmers to discern what is good and bad technology and they need a trusted third party who can help them make that decision. What we’re starting to see is players in the ecosystem who can fill that role.”
Where can Australia look to and take lessons from to accelerate our innovation in this area?
“Sometimes we look overseas too quickly. There’s a lot we can learn from ourselves and so much talent in this country, we just haven’t figured out how to work together properly and leverage it. The celebrated examples in agtech and adoption are the US, Israel and the Netherlands. The latter are tiny countries compared to Australia, but somehow they have developed an amazing entrepreneurial agtech ecosystem. There’s clearly a lesson to learn from what they’re doing, but you can’t just pick that up and replicate it.
We can’t be afraid to look overseas, but I think we have enormous talent in Australia. Our only challenge is we don’t think big enough. When you look at Australia, we have high labour costs, the highest variability of weather in the world, very challenging conditions, pretty much every crop there is to grow and a very open export system – all these things make people more creative and innovative. So, while we are naturally innovative, we have a very complex R&D and incubator environment. We need to learn to collaborate better to all rise on the same tide when it comes to digital agriculture.”
This article and many more can be found online in The Australian Farmer, Volume 2.