State needs long-term vision for agriculture

Strategy

The Geological Survey of Western Australia has had constant funding for 100 years, creating one the world’s great resource databases and a prized State asset. In contrast, parts of our agriculture sector can barely look five years ahead because of poor research funding.

Too many disparities between the WA resource and agriculture sectors exist, although both are exposed to the greatest megatrend of them all: the coming boom in the Asian middle-class and its effect on minerals, energy and food demand.

Why doesn’t WA have the equivalent of a Fortescue Metals Group in agriculture?

Why don’t we have the same entrepreneurial spirit of innovation that exists in mining? Why isn’t WA a leader in agrictulure technology (AgTech) research, as we are in Mining Equipment, Technology and Services (METS)?

WA is ideally located to help feed billions of people in Indian Ocean Rim countries as populations expand and incomes rise.

We have the natural capital: agriculture scale, high-yielding crops, efficient grain storage and delivery system, and stable climate. And human capital: a culture of start-up companies and a skilled, adaptable workforce. 

WA has the technology: The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest public-research supercomputer, has the digital firepower to handle the data-processing AgTech requires.  Pawsey researchers from the University of Western Australia this year discovered 21,000 new genes in 16 varieties of common wheat, yielding better disease resistance. 

We also have the history: Agriculture is WA’s second-largest export and our State has long recognised AgTech’s potential. Early last century, WA led the world in superphosphate research and application. In the 1950s and 1960s, our discovery of trace elements led to spectacular increases in crop yield and low-cost cures of animal diseases.

So, what’s the problem?

WA Government funding of agricultural research is haphazard.

Arguably, too much State funding of agricultural research replicates more advanced overseas work.  Our focus should be on turning local or overseas research into farming innovations and commercialisation.

Lack of government focus is another problem. WA Chief Scientist, Peter Klinken, sensibly recommended WA focus on agricultural and food, and biodiversity and marine sciences, as two of five industry priorities.

But as the WA Government ‘talks’ about industry priorities, other States are doing more to help develop high-potential AgTech enterprises.

Queensland has identified biofutures (industrial biotechnology and bioproducts) as a priority in the Advance Queensland strategy. It wants to facilitate a $1-billion biofuels industry and in June 2016 launched a 10-year action plan.

In a world first, New South Wales farmers last year traded grain using blockchain technology (a distributed ledger that secures online transactions) that directly links farmers to buyers.

Tasmania start-up, The Yield, is exploiting the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and predict microclimate at row level within crops.

In Central Queensland, SwarmFarm Robotics is commercialising robot use in crop production, to improve productivity and reduce environmental impacts.

Why aren’t there more examples like this in WA?

Sporadic State Government commitment is part of the reason.  France, Germany, and Switzerland fund AgTech research for a minimum of 15 years. WA struggles to look beyond this decade for research funding.

WA can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to emerging sectors. We must focus on building new high-tech industries around mining, energy and agriculture – and exploit technology opportunities around our industry strengths.

WA should have an Agriculture Technology Innovation Fund, similar in principle to the recently announced Future Health Research and Innovation Fund.

A long-term plan recognising the State’s competitive advantages in AgTech is needed. One that focuses on the next 20 years rather than the next three, provides an over-arching strategy to catalyse and capture the AgTech opportunity, and helps the emerging AgTech sector better collaborate and manage risk.

Another challenge is commercialising AgTech research. WA has legislation to channel $1 billion each year into regional development. Part of that should be used to develop unique AgTech competitive advantages.

To compete, WA farmers need reliable, cost-effective access to high-speed, high-volume digital connectivity. As McKinsey reports, the biggest differentiator between leaders and also-rans, by a factor of eight, is having a digitally empowered workforce.

There are good signs. West Australia’s new Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, has lifted government engagement with the agriculture sector, understands its potential and is well positioned to champion AgTech through her regional development portfolio.

But the Government must think bigger. When we talk about grains, livestock and lobsters, in the same way we talk about iron ore, base metals and gold, we’ll know real progress is underway.

  • John Barrington is founder of Barrington Consulting Group, a leading strategy consultancy, and Chairman of GotSkills Platforms Ltd

john.barrington@barrington.com.au

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