Growing a digital future in agriculture: what will it take?


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Australia’s agricultural industries have the opportunity to harness the benefits of big data and digital technology, and it’s a case of working together at all levels, according to the Australian Farm Institute’s Executive Director Mick Keogh.

Mick was the keynote speaker at the Australian Agriculture: Growing a Digital Future National Forum held at Parliament House in Canberra in September. The forum bought together representatives from Rural Development Corporations, educators, researchers, government, the private sector and the farming community.

Research has shown that digital innovation could lift the GVP of the Australian agricultural sector by $20.3 billion. Four key areas have been identified as benefiting producers across the sector – managing inputs, automation and labour saving, market access and biosecurity and genetics.  The Australian agricultural sector has set a course for Australian farms to produce $100 billion by 2030. In his keynote presentation, Mick outlined the opportunities and challenges for Australian agriculture’s digital transformation.

“In the past, Australian agriculture was able to increase output, despite low productivity growth, by expanding the amount of land and water resources utilised by the sector,” he said.

“That option is no longer available, and in fact the amount of land and water resources available to the sector has declined significantly in recent decades, and is predicted to shrink further.

“Consequently, a key focus of efforts to increase the annual value of agricultural output in Australia must be on improving agricultural productivity.”

The widespread adoption of digital technologies by agricultural businesses is potentially one of the most important ways to stimulate improved rates of productivity growth.

Mick said the advantages that digital technology can bring are not limited to the farm, and some of the biggest gains in value are likely to be generated from the adoption of digital systems that extend seamlessly through the supply chain from farm to consumer.

“Some of the best avenues Australian agriculture has available to increase the value of output involve targeting higher value and premium markets,” he said.

“The beef industry is a good example of this. Twenty years ago the main market for export beef was the hamburger market in the USA. Now we are seeing strong growth in the high value end of the beef market including chilled prime cuts and Wagyu beef exports to Asia.”

Fortunately for producers, Australian supply chains are well placed to provide this information as part of the ‘product’, and digital technologies provide opportunities to supply product information at low cost, as well as creating opportunities to guard against food fraud.

The potential additional value that digital technologies can bring to Australian agriculture was outlined in a detailed economic analysis by the Centre for International Economics under the Precision to Decision Agriculture project – the forerunner to Growing a Digital Future.

“We now possess unimaginable levels of monitoring, and as such digital technology can supply product information at low cost, with better resource management, environmental outcomes and new career opportunities,” Mick said.



Digital agriculture also brings with it some new challenges, which require concerted attention from government, regulatory agencies such as the ACCC, and from the private sector, if these challenges are to be overcome.

These challenges are connectivity; limited interoperability between systems, data portability; data rights and creating better levels of co-operation between public and private R&D sectors.

“My personal view is that public sector agricultural R&D agencies and universities in Australia are actually quite poor at transitioning R&D insights into commercialised products and services that are ready for adoption by farmers,” Mick said.

“There is room for significant reform in this regard, starting with reducing the complexity and timescales associated with negotiating public and private sector collaborative research efforts, and removing some of the administrative deadweight that discourages cross-sectoral collaboration.

“A flourishing digital agriculture sector will require ongoing public-sector agricultural R&D, and better models of collaboration between the public and private sector R&D systems.

“And perhaps, most importantly, digital agricultural developments are likely to facilitate faster changes to the ‘normal’ way of doing things, meaning that all involved will need to respond much more rapidly than was the case in the past.”

The forum was led by CRDC with support from partners* in the Growing a Digital Future project.

Participants from across Australia’s agricultural and skills/educational industries heard that the amount of potential is currently equalled by a lack of digital maturity, skills and governance, which is a barrier to adoption and utilisation of digital agriculture to its full potential.

“This isn’t just about farmers and primary producers taking advantage of agtech and big data, it includes the coming together of educators, RDCs, policy makers, communications providers and private investment,” CRDC’s Jane Trindall said.

“To kick start the drive to a digital future, the project has developed the Australian Agricultural Workforce Digital Capability Framework and maturity index self-assessment tool for businesses and the development of data governance laws in the farm data code of practice.

“Adopting technology at farm level and through the agricultural production chain is only one piece of the puzzle and there are five aspects for businesses to benefit from digital technologies that we’ve outlined which are: Strategy and Culture; Technology, Data and Analytics; Capability; and Data Rules.

“The implementation of these five aspects will lead to digital maturity and enable digital transformation. “We have to start somewhere, and I believe this starts with every individual engaged in agriculture – and importantly we have to start now.”

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*AgriFutures Australia is a project supporter of Australian Agriculture: Growing a Digital Future.

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