Thursday, August 11, 2022

Turning problems into agritech opportunities

New Zealand agritech companies are well-placed to lead solutions to problems confronting global agriculture but will make more progress if they partner with overseas players, Callaghan Innovation chief executive Vic Crone told a recent webinar put on by B.linc, Lincoln University’s collaborative innovation hub.

“We know from the work that the Productivity Commission has done, when you’ve got that connectivity internationally, your innovation rates for your products and services, your marketing and your business model are a lot higher than if you were just a New Zealand company alone,” Crone told her online audience.

Callaghan Innovation works with Agritech NZ, putting the government-led agritech industry transformation plan into action, alongside industry, government agencies NZ Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Crown Research Institutes.

“The aim of that plan is to turbocharge commercialisation in this sector and to grow capable, internationally-ready New Zealand agritech businesses who are solving global problems in agriculture which of course will benefit us but ultimately benefit the world,” she says.

She says Callaghan Innovation knows of 300 agritech companies in NZ, including many small businesses as well as larger ones including LIC and Gallaghers.

“They are value-adding services, providing meaningful, high-value jobs for people in our country and it is solving NZ and the world’s productivity and sustainability problems. That really sums up for me the importance of this industry in NZ and how innovation can actually help this industry move forward,” she says.

With the world population projected to top 10 billion by 2050, far more food will need to be produced, but the planet cannot sustain that if resources continue to be used as they have up until now so new technology will be vital.

But there are additional challenges to overcome to achieve that, including climate change and the loss of biodiversity and ageing populations in countries like NZ.

“In the next 15 to 20 years, our 65-plus population will double and our working population will increase by only 10%, so I think you can probably see straight away some of the challenges we are going to have,” she says.

There are massive geopolitical changes too with the rise of economies like China and India, as well as South East Asia, Mexico and Russia, depending somewhat on the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine, all on target to make gains over the next 20 years.

“So kind of out goes the UK, Germany, Japan, a lot of partners we used to trade with.”

Social values are changing too,” she says.

“That hits at the heart of the agriculture industry and that’s particularly been around should we be continuing to consume animals at the rate that we have been, so there’s a lot of change happening globally and that’s before we get to covid, a war that’s going on and then the flow-on effects like inflation.”

The problems are manifold and serious but they also present opportunities for NZ agritech entrepreneurs, she says, including real-time environmental monitoring, non-chemical crop protection, labour shortage solutions and water management.

“California and Australia have had some of the driest and wettest years on record and it’s really starting to spur calls for water conservation, how do we use water differently, collect water differently and get water around our countries differently in order to do what we need to do to feed the world,” she says.

NZ companies already in this space include Wildeye, which harnesses live sensor information to manage water. Now based in California, Wildeye has an Auckland-based R&D team.

Irrigation software design company Irricad, formed by Lincoln Agritech which is owned by Lincoln University, now has a strong North American partner, she says.

“They’ll use Irricad software to design new irrigation systems into orchards and they have a recent exclusive agreement with Autonomous Pivot of some ground penetrating radar technology, one of the technologies developed at Lincoln Agritech,” she says.

NZ isn’t alone in having a labour shortage, exacerbated by covid, immigration issues and an ageing population.

“Farmers and growers around the world are facing a real shortage and luckily there is technology that is coming our way and there are lots of examples in NZ in terms of bringing in robotics to help us on our land,” she says.

Crone lists Marlborough automated oyster growing and harvesting company Flipfarm Systems, hi-tech seeding, weeding and harvesting pioneer Greentech Robotics, and cow collar provider Halter as examples of NZ agritech solutions providers.

“They’re doing everything from managing herds and automating that so there’s not so much human intervention through to automatic picking of fruit in our orchards. That whole automation space is absolutely critical to how we address some of the labour shortages, not just in NZ but globally,” she says.

Crone says she’s “super proud” of the NZ companies taking their agricultural technology to the world.

“The change technology is bringing is accelerating so it’s our responsibility as leaders to work out how we integrate human and machine, how we upskill our people, how we think about our organisations and interactions between hardware, software and the human interface,” she says.

This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.

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