Fields of glory

January 30, 2015

New technologies at the frontier of Australia’s agricultural boom are set to secure our place as a strong global competitor, write Rosslyn Beeby.

With the potential to add $250billion to Australia’s economy over the next two decades, according to a 2014 report by global consultancy Deloitte, agriculture has been deemed one of our five “super growth sectors”.

The Deloitte report, the final in its Building the Lucky Country series on future prosperity, says agriculture could be “as big as mining” for Australia, thanks to a combination of factors that include an increase in global population, rising food demand, food security issues and the changing dietary demands of Asia’s growing middle class in countries like China, India and Indonesia.

“Essentially, we have what the world wants and will increasingly need over the next 20 years,” says Rob McConnel, Deloitte’s Agribusiness National Leader.

“The global opportunity becomes obvious when you see the numbers, and the numbers are compelling. The world’s population is around 7billion and this is forecast to increase to 9billion by 2050, which is a 28% increase.”

The world will need to increase global food production by around 75% and Australian agribusiness “has the goods” to be a major player in meeting this demand, he says. But our challenges include investing more in research and development, improving tertiary education courses to produce more agribusiness and food science graduates, and “having a mature conversation” about foreign investment in agribusiness assets.

Also in 2014, economic consultants McKinsey & Company published a report on actions needed to build Australia’s international competitiveness across all sectors of the economy. The report, Compete to Prosper – Improving Australia’s Global Competitiveness, concludes that only one economic sector – agriculture – “stands out as strongly competitive”, but warns that its future contribution to the national economy should not be taken for granted.

While Australia is well-positioned, geographically and economically, to gain access to new markets in Asia, this growth is not assured, the McKinsey report says. Australia faces a “pervasive competitiveness problem” and many sectors of its economy lag behind international benchmarks.

The report argues that disruptive technologies such as robotics and digital communications are redefining economies and global trade, with supply chains fragmenting and becoming more specialised. The report uses Apple’s iPod as an example of a high-demand product that contains 451 distinct components sourced from around the world.

This means the global flows of those components, or “intermediate goods”, are more than three times greater than for the final product, and competition is moving from the level of industry sectors like manufacturing or retail to areas like design and logistics.

“Tools for file sharing and collaboration allow engineering plans to be drafted by teams in multiple countries; more sophisticated logistics allow construction firms to prefabricate everything from bathrooms in multi-storey dwellings to steel structures for liquefied natural gas processing plants,” the McKinsey report points out.

WHAT DOES THIS mean for Australian agriculture? Future farm research teams will include data analysts, software programmers, agronomists, statisticians, engineers, geneticists, cell biologists, hydrologists and atmospheric physicists. Farmers will use geo-location data to analyse climate, water tables and soils, and calculate inputs such as fertilisers and chemicals for weed and disease control. Farm robotics, from drone surveillance of livestock and crops to sophisticated digital systems that track soil moisture and farm water management, will be a major growth area.

The Australian Government has announced $100million in new grants for rural industries research. At the Australasian Research Managers Society conference in Canberra in September 2014,
the Department of Agriculture Senior Executive Richard Webb said “non-traditional areas” such as farm robotics will be funded by grants offered through Australia’s 15 Rural Research and Development Corporations. Australia is already a world leader in this area, Webb emphasised, adding that there was “plenty of scope” to work across industries and to adapt mining and defence robotic systems to farming.

Precision agriculture research, which involves the use of satellite mapping and remote sensors, is another area where Australia can lead. The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney has developed a world-first robot sensor for vegetable farming – a solar-powered robot called Ladybird that will help farmers collect crop data, detect pests and control weeds.

The Plant Biosecurity CRC is working with researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) on the use of drones to detect diseases in wheat and other crops, as well as the spread of the myrtle rust fungus in Australia’s national parks.

Sustainable grazing systems also have the potential to improve farm productivity and profitability, while making Australia’s farms more resilient to climate variability. The Future Farm Industries CRC recently ended its seven-year research program with a string of successes, including two Eureka national science awards for its use of native perennials and shrubs to create drought resistant pasture systems. These new pastures can improve nutrition for livestock and help control intestinal parasites in sheep, reducing drenching and chemical costs. Following trials by the CRC with farmers in WA and NSW, these systems are in use across more than 1million hectares of farmland, and estimates suggest they could increase farm profitability by around $1.6billion by 2030.

The Future Farm Industries CRC also explored the possibility of planting woody crops, such as oil mallees, to diversify farm income from new industries such as aviation biofuels. In 2013, it won a CRC Association national award for innovation excellence for a low-emissions mallee harvester (capable of continuous harvesting) developed with Richard Sulman, Principal Engineer in Australian consultancy Biosystems Engineering.

160115_agricultureSMAUSTRALIA’S GLOBALLY competitive agronomists will also make greater use of genetics to improve crops and livestock. The Sheep CRC is using full genomic sequencing to improve the effectiveness of DNA tests used by wool and sheep meat producers when selecting breeding stock. The Dairy Futures CRC is involved in a global collaboration of more than 20 international participants led by Australian scientists to collect more than 1000 DNA sequences of bulls to identify gene mutations that cause embryonic death in dairy cattle (see page 20).

Four years ago, Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb led a review of Australia’s international agricultural research programs and found that when national investments in agricultural science, technology and training were taken into account, the number of people benefiting from Australian agricultural expertise was around 400million a year.

“We are good at this,” he wrote in an introduction to the report. “Australia has a longstanding worldwide reputation for excellence in science related to food and agriculture. This is an area where Australia can show leadership.”

Coming in drones

160115_agricultureSboxDATA ANALYTICS WILL become a thriving industry for Australia’s rural towns, providing skilled jobs and business opportunities for local graduates, says Senior Lecturer Dr Felipe Gonzalez from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Working with the Plant Biosecurity CRC, Gonzalez is a partner in a $6.5 million international research program at QUT on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to detect plant pests in crops. The project’s research partners also include Kansas State University and the Victorian Government’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

The three-year project is developing advanced software for thermal and multispectral imaging equipment in UAVs to detect the spread of pathogens. These include stripe rust in wheat, and myrtle rust, which is a threat to native plant crops such as tea-tree, eucalypt and callistemon.

In future farm management, drones could be commonly used as ‘farm scouts’ to patrol livestock, crops, weeds, feral animals and fences. In the process, they will collect so much information that a new breed of experts will be needed to process, collate and interpret the mass of data.

“We can see a future in which farmers would fly their own UAVs or hire a UAV contractor,” says Gonzalez.

“But the farmers won’t want all of the data that’s collected. They’ll only want what’s relevant to their decision-making, so they will rely on data analysts to prepare reports. The analysts will design and use machine learning programs and other artificial intelligence systems to sort, select and present information.”

Gonzalez has given talks to rural schools about the UAV project and
says students are “really excited by the technology” and the possibilities of using a degree in data analytics to contribute to the family farm.

The UAVs could also be used for spraying and seeding crops, collecting air samples and surveying large areas of land, such as national parks, where helicopter surveillance would be difficult and costly. At the moment, the challenge is to make the use of UAVs a cost-effective way for farmers to detect crop diseases and pests for agricultural applications.

Designing and testing a UAV involves a complex mix of agriculture knowledge, as well as skills in software and programming languages to communicate instructions to the machine. Future design architectures will include fast response, real-time algorithms to map and vary flight paths, as well as light detection, terrain memory and ‘see and avoid’ technology to respond to other objects in the UAV’s airspace.

Gonzalez says the technology is already delivering good quality images, and several farm sectors are keenly interested in its future applications.

“We’re working on issues such as determining optimal flying distance
from plants to get the best images, detection rates and data,” he says.

“This is not a technology that has a long way to go,” Gonzalez explains. “It’s already being used, and within the next two years we should see UAVs ready to play a bigger role in farm management.”

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