Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Agritech opportunity abounds in the east

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Place for NZ technology as southeast Asia, Middle East increase food production.
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Some of the most rewarding returns for New Zealand agritech are likely to be found in southeast Asia and the Middle East in coming years as countries in those regions ramp up their domestic food production.

So said Nuffield Scholar Lucie Douma, who outlined findings from her scholarship travels in a recent Agritech NZ webinar.

“What is happening in the world of agriculture is we are seeing Western countries moving away from food production, particularly in Europe,” she said.

She pointed specifically to Germany, where a values-focused rather than science-focused Green party has significantly influenced food production policies.

This includes forcing a stop to the use of glyphosate by the end of this year.

“This is a very challenging space now for arable farmers, especially when much of Germany is no-till and the alternative products are four times the price.”

As a result farmers there are likely to revert to more tillage, breaking down soils and increasing emissions in the process.

Germany has also  experienced a 50% reduction in pig farms over the past decade, with a move to more plant-based greenhouse-type food production. However, the loss of animal production has meant lower demand for fertiliser. 

She cited a glasshouse operation next to a fertiliser plant that had lost its CO2 supply source, as a result of the fertiliser plant shutting down.

“So, the lessons here for us are on the loss of part of the system and the impact of what that will be across the whole farming sector.”
In contrast, Singapore, which imports 90% of its food, has set a goal of producing 30% of its own nutritional needs by 2030. 

“That is a significant change when it is basically a city.” 

It now has cell-based meat on restaurant menus, including chicken nuggets. Multi-storey structures house undersea fish- and shrimp-rearing operations and water-borne pontoon structures are proposed for arable production.

“There is a lot of opportunity here. They are really open to people they can trust and have similar values. They trust us.”

At present Singapore is sourcing much of its tech inspiration from the university, and Douma encouraged agritech companies in NZ to better liaise with the National University of Singapore.

Qatar in the Middle East is a small wealthy country that was compelled to source its own dairy after a trade spat with Arab partners in 2017. Almost overnight it created a 25,000-cow industry supplying the nation with milk and yoghurt.

But water limitations threaten to stunt its ability to export and Douma said the opportunities for NZ agritech lie in helping meet sustainability requirements there.

Similarly, in northern India a high level of development and focus on production in areas like the Punjab region mean water tables are falling at a metre a year, opening up the opportunity for precision irrigation and fertiliser application technology.

She noted that investment into Chinese food production has tended downwards in recent years, in part due to a loss of trust and China becoming more expensive as a food production base. This is prompting a move to other southeast Asian countries.

While the United States is a sharp contrast to those countries, greater flexibility on budget spending in its Farm Bill opens up more opportunities for NZ agritech firms to work in conjunction with their US counterparts in areas like climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Douma also pointed to the relationship Agritech NZ already enjoys with Californian tech firms. 

This is through the partnership that Western Growers has with Agritech NZ, with a signed memorandum of understanding to accelerate tech developments.

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