Consultation highlight need for export-driven strategy

Photo: Agritech NZ

Photo: Agritech NZ

CEO Mark Begbie and PlantTech’s research director, Ian Yule, were among more than 300 people who attended the recent ‘All of Government’ Agritech Taskforce strategy workshops.

Led by Agritech NZ and taskforce head David Downs, the workshops were a chance to comment on the issues highlighted in the strategy document released in July. Participant feedback was varied but for Mark and Ian, the industry needs to become more outward-looking and export-driven if it wants to truly grow and become an even greater contributor to New Zealand’s economy.

“Defining the Agritech strategy is a pre-cursor to the industry’s transformation and it really has to be about transformation, rather than evolution,” says Mark.

“New Zealand is as good a place as any to develop products and solutions that add value to our primary industries but if we develop solutions to problems unique to New Zealand, we’re not going to get very far.

“The problems we’re facing are global and that’s where the real opportunity for New Zealand is.”

Ian agrees, and believes success will come for those companies and organisations who understand the value of adopting a long-term vision that’s focussed on achieving results in international markets as well as at home.

PlantTech shareholder Robotics Plus Ltd, founded by Steve Saunders, is an example of a successful agritech player that is thinking globally and taking a long-term approach to investment.

“Steve has a vision for what he wants to achieve 10-15 years down the track and his investments reflect that.”

Supporting the industry

The Government Taskforce highlighted in its strategy document how growth of the agritech sector should be driven by a fast path from research idea, to new product in the market.

However, it was reinforced by David Downs during the workshops that currently, science and industry coupling is poor and this is viewed as one of the sector’s major obstacles to growth.

Scientific research has a major role in stimulating the development of innovative products and Mark says this is where PlantTech, as a Regional Research Institute, is deliberately designed to support the rapid transfer of research into industry benefit.

“We are operating in the space and in a way that’s close to industry, working with it to co-define strategic research then deliver on that.

 “We need to be doing stretchy science research that’s transformative and extends the agritech industry’s capabilities constantly.”

Changing the farming landscape

With environmental and sustainability issues expected to further challenge current farming practices, New Zealand is expected to follow global trends and adopt more mosaic farming landscapes. This could see growers and farmers adopt a mix of crops or stock as they look to improve their land’s yield, sustainability and profitability.

In this new world, the farmer’s job undoubtedly becomes more challenging as they deal with more diversity in farming systems, stakeholders and interest groups, Mark says.

“At the moment, you might be a dairy farmer but, in the future, you might have dairy, bees and horticulture all in the mix.

“Data and decision support mechanisms will be increasingly important to navigating this complexity effectively. Through our machine learning and data science research, we will help people manage those complex environments more effectively and sustainably.”

Changing land use and a focus on intensive production is also likely to bring with it new varieties or planting methodologies. There is already evidence of this in Hawke’s Bay where apple orchards were replanted in grapes for wine then transformed again by growers wanting to plant higher yielding, apple varieties densely planted on espalier; or 2D apples to the millennials.

Mark says simplified planting structures lend themselves well to automated harvesting methods which provide the agritech sector with further opportunities to explore, particularly in automation.

Data sharing needed

This shift towards more diverse, intensive food production requires effective management of the eco-system. Data analysis becomes critical and PlantTech believes more should be done at  government and industry levels to enable data exchange between sectors.

“Farmers will need to integrate data across what are currently very siloed industries. There will come a time when a dairy system will need to ‘talk’ to an apple system, for example.

“Industries will need to work together and share information that’s meaningful for farmers and growers. However, funding initiatives may be needed to support development of such data exchange.”

Strengthening global ties

Building connections with the rest of the world will be the key to opening the door to a real economic advantage for New Zealand’s agritech sector long-term. Delegations are already making trips to the US market to tell the New Zealand Agritech story and expose leaders here to serious labour shortages and harvest challenges that are threatening the viability of various Californian crops, such as strawberries.

The strategic partnerships between Agritech NZ and Western Growers, the largest producers of fresh produce in the US, is an example of the efforts going into strengthening New Zealand’s global ties.

“The focus of solutions we build here needs to be on how they will be applied to the global economy, because that’s where we can scale up and create the kind of transformative change we should all be aiming for,” Mark says.

“It’s great to give our New Zealand industries first access to the technology. Our tightly integrated product development environment will serve as a fantastic testbed for various solutions. But ultimately, the growth potential is in exports.”

Consultation on the draft agritech strategy documents continues and PlantTech will now make a formal written submission. Sector stakeholders still wanting to have their say can do so by visiting the Agritech NZ website, www.agritech.co.nz or email feedback to David Downs – david.downs@nzte.govt.nz.