Australia can become the food bowl of Asia’s middle classes, but only if it can establish itself as a leader in Agricultural Technology (AgTech), says a report from StartupAUS.
The Powering Growth report, co-authored by KPMG Australia, and backed by the Queensland Government and Commonwealth Bank of Australia, calls for an independently administered fund to help farmers invest in AgTech and a digital marketplace for easier access to AgTech products.
It is vital that ‘rural Australia gets connected to state of-the-art national IT infrastructure’ if an AgTech sector was to thrive, the report said, as it was a ‘precursor for the functionality’ of many products. Rural connectivity would also mitigate the ‘geographical disadvantages to collaboration’.
“We have an extremely valuable opportunity here to develop technologies that make a real difference to the economy’s bottom line, while also helping rural Australia realise the economic benefits of the digital technology revolution,” said Alex McCauley, StartupAUS CEO.
“If Australia is to realise its ambition to be the food bowl for a rapidly-growing middle class in Asia and Africa, we will need to become a leader in AgTech.”
Australia could grow a $100 billion agricultural industry by 2030, the report predicted. Currently the agricultural sector is the largest employer in rural and regional communities and generates four per cent of Australia’s total employment. It provides 93 per cent of the nation’s domestic food supply, and contributes approximately 13 per cent ($42 billion) of Australia’s export revenue.
Industry at crossroads
Andrew Robb, who was Minister for Trade and Investment before his retirement from politics this year, wrote in the paper's foreword: “Right now the industry stands at a crossroads. As with most sectors, technology has surged into agriculture, pushing aside well-worn practice, challenging long-held assumptions and upending our understanding of what is normal as well as what is possible.
“As a leader in agriculture, Australia can work to become a leader in the next wave of technology that underpins it too. Global competition from places like Israel, the US and the UK is strong - they too see the benefits AgTech can deliver and have moved fast to become leaders.”
The report also recommended the creation of a AgTech startup ecosystem which could leverage on the existing CSIRO agrifood hubs into a nation-wide network, as well as entering into joint R&D funds with leading global AgTech players. It was also important that Australia nurtured and attracted the best talent in AgTech, the report said, and suggested that technology be a bigger part of university agriculture courses.
The report suggested visa programs to fill missing skill sets be promoted, a move which had proved successful in Canada.
Builder, buyer or bystander?
Australia’s agricultural productivity growth, once up around an average of 2.9 per cent per annum in the years between 1991 and 2000, has fallen back to 1.4 per cent in the decade to 2011, and sits below the world average of 1.7 per cent.
“The question facing Australia is: do we want we want to be builders, buyers or bystanders in the AgTech market?” said Ben van Delden, KPMG AgTech leader and head of markets. “In countries such as Canada, England, Israel and New Zealand, government is already playing a key role bringing together researchers, producers, technology providers, startups and investors. It is our hope that this report can form a go-to-market strategy for Australian governments and corporates to work alongside each other to build and grow a vibrant, world-leading AgTech ecosystem.”
The emergence of new digital technologies in recent years – including sky muster, weather support, remote sensors, RFI tags, GPS, remote gate release, remote pump switches, smart phones and wearables – represented a huge opportunity for AgTech in Australia, the report said.
Andrew Robb wrote: “We are now presented with a series of choices for the future. Automation, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous high-speed communication, drones, big data, interconnected machinery, and cloud analytics offer us the opportunity to further our mastery of agriculture. The economic benefits on offer if we can boost our agricultural output are very real.”