Australia's report on agtech confirms technology can lead to a fertile future

Sensors, robotics, AI, and blockchain are outlined as some of the future technologies that can improve the sector's advancement.

The horizon scanning report on the future of agricultural technologies has identified how adopting new technologies -- such as sensor, robotic, artificial intelligence (AI), data, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and distributed ledger -- could improve the sector's productivity, diversity, and profitability.

The Future of Agriculture Technologies report [PDF] was released by the Australian Council of Learned Academics (ACOLA) on Tuesday, after it was commissioned by Australia's chief scientist Alan Finkel, on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), to undertake the project.

"Australia's diverse agriculture, fisheries, and forestry sector is a AU$69 billion industry … however, reaching the government's goal of AU$100 billion by 2030 will likely require more than just incremental technological advancements," Finkel said.

"Historically, Australian producers have been rapid adopters of innovation, and these emerging technologies will help our agriculture sector to transform and tackle current and future challenges."

The report highlighted how the deployment of technologies, such as robotics, coupled with AI and Internet of Things (IoT), has the potential to generate vast amounts of data that could assist with complex decision-making and environmental monitoring, while allowing farmers to devote time to focus on complex tasks, for instance.

It also added how data, AI, and IoT, if properly harnessed, could underpin other solutions such as asset automation and rapid testing of localised crops, resulting in cost reduction and increased investment in computational hardware, software, and algorithm development.

Other opportunities that technology could bring to farmers, according to the report, include improving supply chain transparency and quality assurance using sensors and blockchain technologies.

At the same time, the report noted there is also an opportunity to increase involvement of primary producers and other community members, including supporting Indigenous landholders, while breakdown existing silos.

Additionally, the report warned that national leadership and regulation would be necessary to ensure that appropriate data codes of practice are upheld, and greater transparency is promoted.

"Innovation in our agriculture sector is critical for our economy, our food security and so much more. With a supportive policy environment, workforce and investment, we are confident that the future of agriculture in Australia will be one in which data analytics and artificial intelligence are as at-home on the farm as they are in any other high-tech industry," said Stewart Lockie, one of the chairs of the ACOLA expert working group.

The report into the future of agricultural technologies is the second report to be developed by ACOLA. The first examined the ethical development of AI and was released last July.

The NSTC was charged with overseeing the development of these reports when the Australian government announced in 2018 it was replacing the then-existing Commonwealth Science Council to be the peak advisory body on science and technology to the ministry.

At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government recognised the importance of science, research, and technology in "improving the competitiveness of Australian businesses and driving new jobs" and the council would provide independent advice in relation to this.

"The Council will identify Research Challenge projects and oversee horizon-scanning reports into long-term science and technology priorities, providing expert advice on issues such as health, emerging technologies, and education," the statement read.

"These changes will enable a stronger voice for science and technology in the national conversation, ensuring deeper engagement with government and industry in the policy process."

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