Food Agility receives AU$50m in backing from Australian government

Food Agility has received AU$50 million from the government to lead the digital transformation of the agricultural sector in Australia.

Food Agility is receiving AU$50 million over the next 10 years as part of the federal government's Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program, the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos announced on Tuesday.

The government funding adds to the AU$160 million in contributions -- both monetary and non-monetary -- previously raised by the organisation from partners such as KPMG, National Australia Bank, IAG, and Bosch.

Founded by CEO professor Mike Briers, Food Agility is a consortium of commercial companies, universities, and farming industry bodies looking to facilitate the digital transformation of agriculture industry in Australia.

"Global food production needs to double by 2050 and the opportunity that presents to the Australian food industry is enormous. Yet we are lagging our international competitors in preparing for a digital future," Briers said.

"The Food Agility CRC, backed by government, will be an independent, trusted intermediary to accelerate research adoption and commercialisation -- including AgTech startups -- to improve digital services to the sector."

Moving forward, Food Agility's innovation programs will seek to deploy real-time big data market intelligence and predictive analytics to help farmers produce the right products at the right time, connect food producers with consumers in new ways, and a common knowledge base.

"[Australia's] got excellent brand reputation internationally for high quality green food ... We believe the centre of excellence for food production is here in Australia and that's where we want to effectively grow the agricultural technology sector," Briers told ZDNet earlier this year.

"For the food and agriculture sector to reach a higher level of maturity from a digital transformation perspective, you'll need to have a stable and reliable underlying measurement system."

Food Agility's upcoming projects include the use of the Internet of Things to improve the shelf life of bagged lettuce; the development of a market insights and information portal to support agribusinesses interested in entering new markets; and the development of financial products to provide viticulturists with access to information that could help improve the quality and yield of their produce and reduce operational costs.

Led by the Knowledge Economy Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and Curtin University, Food Agility has 54 partners across the food value chain including technology providers, food producers, service providers, research providers, regional development agencies, government agencies, and industry networks.

Professor Bronwyn Harch of QUT, who has been appointed as Food Agility's research director, said Food Agility's research programs will focus on hardware, software, and liveware.

"That means addressing the sensor and communication technologies that underpin data across food value chains; transforming poorly designed, utilised, and connected data into information and insights for decision making; and ensuring best practices are integrated into the workflows of governments, industry, and consumers, and building a capable workforce," Harch said.

Executive director of the Australian Farm Institute Mick Keogh, who will be an independent board member of Food Agility, implied the organisation will help close the gap between researchers and the agriculture and food sector in Australia, which he said has been a personal frustration of his for years.

Ben van Delden, who leads the AgTech division at KPMG, communicated a similar sentiment, saying one of the highlights of his trip to Israel as part of the Australian Agri-Food Trade Mission was seeing the "unprecedented 'collaboration in action' between farmers, universities, industries, and government".

"Australia can learn from this and it seems we are now on this path with the Food Agility CRC's collaboration model bridging the gap between stakeholders," van Delden said.

A collaborative agricultural ecosystem is gradually forming in Australia. In February, Cisco, Data61, and the University of New South Wales, in partnership with the National Farmers' Federation, the NSW Farmers Association, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, and ATP Innovations, launched an innovation centre in Sydney focused on developing new uses for IoT within the agriculture sector.

In 2015, the University of New England (UNE) began transforming a 2,900 hectare commercial farm called Kirby-Newholme into a "smart farm". In an initiative led by the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation in collaboration with CSIRO and the UNE's Precision Agriculture Research Group, the Kirby Smart Farm was one of the first farms in Australia to be connected to the National Broadband Network fixed wireless service, and is often referred to as an example of what quality broadband can enable.

Updated at 1.50pm AEDT, March 10, 2016: Food Agility raised $160 million in both cash and in-kind commitments. Adjustments were made to reflect that.

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