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Australia must forge its own agtech techniques, not rely on US

15 Jan 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

From popular culture to military strategy, Australia has always drawn a lot of influence from the USA. But when it comes to deriving data for agtech, digital agriculture and smart farming, the country needs to carve its own path, says Dr. Andrew Moore of CSIRO.

“In Australia, there is currently a ~$9billion per annum opportunity in smart farming,” said Dr. Moore ahead of the Agtech Summit 2020.

“But measured data about our climate, soils and vegetation is sparse by US or European standards; our broadacre farming environment is much riskier; and our farmers have their own culture.

“As a result, smart farming technologies developed in the northern hemisphere are unlikely to be a good fit to Australian conditions.”

Dr. Moore fears that placing too much weight on overseas approaches will lead to the misguided allocation of venture capital. Additionally, it may reduce the efficacy of smart farming technologies and decision support tools which rely on accurate data. In turn this could stunt industry progress and have long term economic consequences, he warned.

“To grasp the opportunity, we need to work smarter, by combining our understanding of biological and physical processes on the local land with data-driven monitoring and forecasting technologies. The ways we do both process-based prediction and data-driven prediction will change as a result,” he said.

So why is Australia so different?

Greater climate risk

As has been readily apparent in recent months – with the rampage of bushfires and drought in rural areas – Australian farmers face greater climate risk.

The need to manage climate and price risks increases the potential value of production (and other) forecasts to Australian farmers, as well as forcing them to innovate at a faster rate, Moore highlighted.

“Climate change  is already affecting food availability. Future increases in temperature, increases in extreme weather events, and changes in precipitation will increasingly deplete agricultural productivity,” he said.

“Whilst farmers understand generally the climate risks associated with their region – and, through experience, how to adapt management practices accordingly – they are now facing pressure and uncertainty that will increasingly challenge their existing practices.

“Changing climatic conditions, increasing demand for food and the spread and intensification of agriculture to marginal production environments – all require improved climate risk management and decision support systems.

“Only when data is relevant in a local context can farmers deploy appropriate strategies and effectively mitigate current and projected risks.”

Greater sustainability focus

Increasingly, Australian farmers are choosing – or coming under societal pressure – to manage their land for more than just economic production, Moore highlighted.

“There is a current focus on “ecosystem services” – like biodiversity and landscape aesthetics – that underpins Australia’s contribution to the global Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.

“As one key example, sugar farmers located near the Great Barrier Reef need to manage nitrogen runoff from their land into waterways.

“This community of practice needs to do “landtech”, not just “agtech” – and deploy information systems with that in mind.

“By that I mean we need to consider and cater for a far greater breadth of agronomic metrics – not just the purely agricultural ones like crop yield.

“Using decision support tools that integrate accurate information about the current state of plants, animals, land, water and infrastructure; farmers “see” their current conditions better. For example, CSIRO’s Graincast app provides an approximate, but useful, estimate of soil water in a paddock – an important diagnostic that’s expensive to measure.”

Digiscape Future Science Platform

CSIRO’s Digiscape Future Science Platform has already delivered multiple tools and technologies that help farmers do these things.

The Graincast app provides quick and easy grain production forecasts at paddock scale. Using LOOC-C, farmers can assess whether different options for carbon abatement make sense on their farm. 1622-Water Quality, is the first in a suite of tools that can improve the management of nitrogen in Australia’s sugarlands. Coming very soon, is WaterWise, CSIRO’s irrigation efficiency tool. And finally, CSIRO’s Senaps-LAND platform lets Digiscape – and farmers – build workflows for landtech more efficiently.

“We are drawing on decades of research to make the most of Australia’s sparse land-sector information,” said Moore.

“We want farmers to re-use our information bases, so we are making them FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) by releasing them as Web services.

“If you are beginning to build a smart farming tool, then you should consider Senaps-LAND as an efficient way to get the job done.”

Hear more from CSIRO’s Dr. Andrew Moore at Informa’s third annual Agtech Summit, in partnership with Cicada Innovations. The event  – due to take place 17-18 March 2020 in Sydney – will showcase the best names in the sector, with a view to uncovering a roadmap for industry progress.

Learn more and register.

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