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Hort Connections panel discussion

How to future proof? Data, data and more data

The use of DNA to form personalised food and lifestyle plans is a growing trend, according to a Monash University researcher.

Angeline Achariya from the university's Food Innovation Centre, was part of the State of the Industry panel at Hort Connections. She says that the food industry is moving beyond the health and wellness trend into an "intersection of personalisation", which has become the “holy grail” for the industry.

"Who doesn't want food for me, at the end of the day," she said. "There is technology now that is coming in where your DNA can be tested. If you are a producer out there, you can design food for not just my DNA, but for my lifestyle, and have it delivered to me wherever I am because this technology is coming around. When you start to look at it, personalisation and nutrition is moving from mass to targeted. You can get your DNA tested for around $400 and then it is a matter of working with a clinical nutritionist, who can then design the food for you. From a manufacturing perspective it's about how do you deliver that product, and that is about value. There will be a consumer in the world who is willing to pay for that personalisation."

It is for this reason that Ms Achariya is encouraging businesses to think about a diversified portfolio of where they invest, and what they bring to the marketplace - especially with the constantly changing trends.

"Having economy, mid-tier and premium brands start to really differentiate your offer," she said. "On the other hand, if you look at all of the other things around health and wellness, the big thing we are starting to see is also around generational shifts. So, if you look at the Gen Z, or millennials, who are the biggest consumers on the planet today, but right on their heels are the (baby) boomers. What we are also starting to see is that we are going to have less land to farm on. It's not something immediate today, but we need to think about as a nation going forward. The fact that we will have less, but more utilities and labour costs, how do we start to blend those transformational shifts with the trends you are seeing from a consumer and the marketplace."

Another speaker on the panel was Ros Harvey from Australian agricultural technology company, The Yield. She agrees that producers are going to have to become smarter and start doing more with less, and more expensive, resources – and do it more sustainably.

"This requires investment to be able to drive this," she said. "Everyone knows there is value in data, and in growing (produce), everyone is trying to achieve better yield quality, quantity and price realisation. There are five levers they can pull; when you plant, irrigate, feed, protect and harvest. All these levers are on the sea of uncertainty when it comes to weather.”

The Yield focuses on using real-time data and artificial intelligence to provide highly localised predictions. On farm data is being used together with the customers own data to look at optimising yield predictions, which then feeds into price realisation and optimising supply chains and reducing waste.

"The people who are going to win at this game are those with deep datasets that are well managed and curated and can be used for analytics," Ms Harvey said. "I often say to people when asked on how to get ready for the technology for the future; keep your data, and don't dump it even if you don't know what it is used for. In the world of AI that we work in, you create models and the more data you have the better. But we are all better off if everyone shares data in first place. The issue is how do we give large corporates incentives that there is a willingness to share so there is an industry wide benefit. So, we need to really understand the future and how data markets are going to work, so we don't have companies with deep datasets doing really well and leaving everyone behind, creating a digital divide."

But with so much data being collected, now and into the future, there has to be a discussion on how this is controlled and regulated, according to Ms Achariya.

"Everyone is saying data is the new oil, but it's not," she said. "Oil you use once and it is gone. But with data you use it again and again, and it never loses its value. You can combine it with other data, it creates new data and it is worth more. It is a very different factor of production than we have ever had before - and it is very powerful when it is put to work to add value to a business and supply chain. It also has risks that us as a society need to think about in terms of who is using our data. The fact it is used again and again is a bit scary because of the way it can be misused."

President of Sun World Innovations, David Marguleas, told the conference that the supply side of the horticulture industry is overdue for technology that will help reduce the cost of production.

"Particularly in Australia, Spain and California where there's not only a dearth of labour or people available to do farm work, but an increasingly higher cost structure than would be supported by the price people are receiving for the products," he said. "This begs for the introduction of some significant automation, particularly on highly labour-intensive crops that require a lot of hand labour. In addition, the predictive analytics that help growers make better decisions and estimate crops more accurately will help smooth out a lot of inefficiencies in the supply chain."

He also noted that internationalisation of retailers is not only changing way produce is procured and influencing taste preferences, but also establishing supply patterns in new and unorthodox location of world.

"This promises to be a huge disrupter, and it already is in many ways," Mr Marguleas said. "If you think about crops like blueberries, avocados and grapes, the supply patterns have changed dramatically in the past few years, as those crops have been established in places like Peru, Columbia, Mexico and China - both for domestic consumption and exports. If you are a blueberry or avocado grower in Australia and you are exporting, you need to be aware of the fact that these countries have become major players. Not only in their ability to produce product and supply products at non-traditional times, but also the proliferation of new varieties and growing techniques is also changing the way product is supplied. So, we see a lot of globalisation on the supply side as well as the buy side, which has huge ramifications for all of us in the supply chain."

PMA launched its State of the Industry report at Hort Connections. Ruth Ahchow from Ernst & Young was one of the authors of the report. She says a key difference with this report compared to other industries that she has worked with was that it looked at whole supply chain; from primary producer, through to wholesaler, and then to retail and grocery sales.

"So, we are getting the perspective of the whole supply chain in terms of the economics and what is happening is important," she said. "We looked at turnover, industry value-add, employment, import and exports. It was quite interesting to present the data from both Australia and New Zealand. Interestingly, Australia has a diverse range in our fresh produce sector. We have a lot of different climates, different weather patterns and therefore produce quite a wide variety. Whereas in New Zealand their primary sectors were kiwifruit and berry growing. That represented around 30 per cent of their industry."

While she says Australia does export a "little bit" it is often influenced by the terms of trade, and when the dollar becomes less valuable customers substitute and buy more locally-grown produce. Ms Ahchow is optimistic that change for the fresh produce industry is happening for the better.

"We are looking towards more plant-based diets, greater fruit and vegetable consumption, and greater personalisation towards a health and wellness lifestyle," she said. "Fruit and vegetables have a major role to play in that trend, and I think as an industry we need to be embracing that and thinking how we make the most of it, how do we gather the information we need to be able to present and market our products in the best way. What nutrients are involved, and how to link those with health and wellness, which we haven't in the past."

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