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Technology to boost Australian agriculture

Between now and 2050 the world's food system will need to produce 70 per cent more food to feed an increasingly crowded world, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Australia aims to meet this challenge through technology which seeks to improve production, yield and land management.

"Innovation – whether through new technologies, smarter farm management and improved business models – will be key to unlocking this productivity growth for Australian agriculture," says Sydney-based Rabobank commodity analyst Georgia Twomey.

Ag-tech with its proliferation of novel, high-tech data gathering techniques – whether drones, sensors or GPS tracking devices – has the tools unlocking the next wave of productivity needed to keep Australian agriculture competitive.

Innovation at the farm gate

To these ends, innovation at the farm gate is thriving. From driverless tractors, to drones to monitor crop health and Uber-style ride-sharing apps for ferrying fresh produce, Australian researchers and farmers are experimenting with all sorts of data-driven applications to drive down costs and optimise land and water use.

Australia's agricultural productivity, once up around an average of 2.9 per cent per annum growth market in the years between 1991 and 2000, has fallen back to 1.4 per cent in the decade to 2011, and sits below the world average of 1.7 per cent.

"The ability to capture digital information at the farm gate is growing rapidly; harvesters, tractors, farm implements, sprays, walk-over weighing scales – all those sorts of things allow to capture a huge amount of data associated with farm production," says Australian Farm Institute's executive director, Mick Keogh. "The key is turning that flood of information into sensible, decision-supporting tools."

Newfound optimism

This new "precision" toolkit has meant many young farmers are approaching farming with a newfound optimism, National Farmers' Federation chief executive Simon Talbot says, reflected in the recent uptick in ag studies at tertiary level:

"This science and business that can be applied using digital agriculture now are such that young farmers are going out there and getting a very good lease rate for very large properties, and they can manage them using those technologies and get a much better result."

Applied across farm management in Australia, and these new forms of "digital agriculture" could potentially add billions to the agriculture sector's profits, he says.

"Agriculture is one of the fastest-growing segments of the Australian economy, with much unrealised potential. Even if growth slows, the NFF believes agriculture is on track to be our country's next $100 billion industry by 2030 – that's the size of iron ore and coal combined and nobody's talking about agriculture in the way they are about iron ore and coal."

After five consecutive years of strong growth, and with record output of $57.6 billion in raw product forecast again this financial year – up 8 per cent on year ago levels – Talbot expects the resurgence of the sector to continue.


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