Technology challenges are standing in the way of Australian farmers: ACCC

Connectivity, interoperability, data portability, and data rights are hindering how agricultural businesses adopt digital technologies.

Connectivity, interoperability, data portability, and data rights are the technology challenges that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) believes has hindered the widespread adoption of digital technologies for agricultural businesses.

During an address to the Growing a Digital Future for Australian Agriculture National Forum on Monday, ACCC commissioner Mick Keogh said the adoption of digital technologies by agricultural businesses can facilitate improved productivity, and ultimately continued growth for the sector.

"In the past, Australian agriculture was able to increase output, despite low productivity growth, by expanding the amount of land and water resources utilised by the sector," he said.

"That option is no longer available, and in fact the amount of land and water resources available to the sector has declined significantly in recent decades and is predicted to shrink further.

"Consequently, a key focus of efforts to increase the annual value of agricultural output in Australia must be on improving agricultural productivity."   

He acknowledged that while agricultural businesses have adopted technologies such as GPS systems and electronic animal identification, in combination with remote sensing and automated weighing and drafting systems, these technologies require constant or regular internet connectivity – something that continues to be missing in some regional areas.

"This is a particularly vexing issue for much of regional Australia. Some progress has certainly been made over recent years in improving connectivity to the farm, but there is still a long way to go before connectivity across the farm is improved to the standard required," Keogh said.

He noted that the Australian and state governments' mobile black spot programs, alongside the deployment of the Sky Muster satellite service, "still appears to be the best available option to increase regional access to the internet — at least to the farm".

See also: Top 5 things to know about farm tech (TechRepublic)

Keogh added that limited interoperability of different systems and applications also presents a continuing challenge. However, he noted the emergence of third-party monitoring and data systems are beginning to provide a solution, at least in the cropping sector.

"The emergence of an agriculture-wide digital platform that accommodates a variety of different systems and enables easy integration of data could reduce some of these concerns, and also reduce the risk of inadequate support services and unsupported orphan systems," he said.

On the point of data, Keogh believes the lack of portability of data from one system to another is harming the efficiency of farms. He has suggested the way around this would be to broaden the Consumer Data Right to include the agriculture sector.

"While there are no plans to include agriculture in this regime at present, the principals involved will likely be expanded in the future, with potential implications for those involved in the ag-tech sector," he said.

In addition, Keogh highlighted the importance behind ensuring that farmers do not get left behind, and that digital agricultural companies need to be aware of data rights and understand the rights customers hold over their data.

"It is essential to maintaining a competitive market for digital agricultural technology services that user agreements are expressed in very clear and unambiguous language, that data rights are spelled out unambiguously, and that as a matter of principle, that there should not be unnecessary barriers preventing farmers moving their data to another service provider," he said.

During his speech, Keogh also took the opportunity to highlight how the way public and private sector cooperate in agricultural research and development (R&D).  

"My personal view is that public sector agricultural R&D agencies and universities in Australia are actually quite poor at transitioning R&D insights into commercialised products and services that are ready for adoption by farmers," he said.

"There is room for significant reform in this regard, starting with reducing the complexity and timescales associated with negotiating public and private sector collaborative research efforts, and removing some of the administrative deadweight that discourages cross-sectoral collaboration."

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