Australia has well deserved reputation for innovation in agricultural technology. What comes next might be a surprising link between innovation and migration policy.
Farm machinery has evolved a lot since the days of a farmer perched on a tractor on those funny little triangular seats. Precision farming these days means GPS-guided machines that can plant this year’s crop between the rows of last year’s crop. Laser-leveled fields make maximum use of irrigation water.
But as in all sectors, innovation must be continuous.
As previously reported here in 2016, AgriTech had the potential to double the agricultural sector by 2030. But the AgriTech sector earlier this year expressed concern that Australia was being left behind.
Parts of the federal and NSW budgets are expected to be tied here, as well as an urgent issue revealed by the pandemic.
First of all to budgets.
In the 1970s, in my high school, we had a lunchtime conversation promoted under the title “AI: A Cow from a Business, Not a Bull”. When I was in the workforce in the early 1980s, AI had already moved from artificial insemination to artificial intelligence with the commercial development of expert systems.
But over the next forty years, the description of AI was just as relevant. AI remains an area where future promises continue to trump current deliveries.
A centerpiece of the Morrison government’s “back to the future” digital economy strategy incorporated in Budget 2021 was a Artificial Intelligence action plan.
Like AFR Chanticleer rated one of the frustrating parts of this strategy is that the AI expertise that had been developed by the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Center of Excellence (better known as NICTA) before being disemboweled and merged with CSIRO to form Data61.
Chanticleer made two other observations, the first being the value of recruiting great leaders into academic research roles where they can also teach, and partnering with leading global companies.
Interestingly, the government announcement set the example of a local food maker BlueEsky seeking to “speed up operations with AI and robotics.”
Robotics is actually made up of three disciplines; machines for moving and grabbing, etc. (actuation, locomotion and manipulation), devices to sense the environment and finally intelligence to control movement, interpret inputs and make decisions. But robotics shouldn’t be limited to factories.
Robot fruit pickers are already under development at the academy and commercially. (It’s also worth noting how orchards began to espalier their trees – which improves both light distribution and access to fruit.)
In New South Wales, the 2021 budget provided $ 48 million for an expanded Farm of the Future program. This is specifically focused on building and operating a Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) in the five target regions. This will allow communication over large areas and complements existing mobile and broadband services.
While the focus is on access to static sensors, one of ALP Digital Economy’s original projects focused on the use of sensors to track stock movements, which made it possible to target the use of fertilizers and reduce runoff.
Of course, extensive communications not only facilitate detection, but also control. What, after all, are the differences between advanced agricultural machinery with an operator seated in air-conditioned comfort and a driverless truck in Australian mining site?
The answer is simply connectivity. The greater the intelligence built into the remote agent, the lower the throughput required for connectivity.
Now let’s turn to the problems revealed by the pandemic.
In the midst of the pandemic, we are reminded of how dependent our agricultural sector has become on migrant workers, be they backpackers or Pacific Islanders.
Britain’s recent free trade agreement removed some of the work restrictions on backpackers from this place and suggested that even when borders open we will still be short of workers.
Proposal new farm worker visa to offer to ten ASEAN countries has horrified long-time immigration policy professionals.
Speaking on ABC Battery Abul Rizvi (at 41:20) noted that he had worked for twenty years at the Immigration Department and one thing they said to each other during that time was that “Australia should never become a company of low-skilled guest workers “. They said this because they could see the exploitation of these workers that occurred in the United States, Europe and the Gulf countries.
One of the real issues in meeting employer demands for low-paid workers by importing low-paid workers is that you remove the incentive to invest in the most sustainable solution, which in this case is robotics.
The other sector that featured high on the list requiring access for imported workers was the technology sector. The same problem arises of course, namely that allowing the importation of workers reduces the incentives to invest in our own development.
More worrying however is the experience of overseas students pursuing postgraduate studies in computer science in Australia. They are allowed to work in the country for two years after graduation, but report Australian employers are reluctant to hire them. It is a topic, however, for another day.
The other major obstacle to AgriTech is the structure of the Australian agricultural sector. One of the reasons that so much Australian farmland has been acquired by international investors is that they are willing to make big investments in technology.
Our largest pool of investment funds, the retirement pension, finds long-term investment in agriculture unattractive due to the liquidity requirements imposed by our rules on the choice of retirement pension.
Australia has a huge opportunity to increase the productivity and value of our agricultural sector.
Realizing this opportunity does not require diverting water from environmental flows or increasing the amount of land cleared for agriculture. It’s about applying technology to our farms and not trying to rely on an underclass of poorly paid and exploited guest workers.
David Havyatt provided government relations advice to NNCo, a LoRaWAN provider.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley by email or Signal.