AgTech is where agriculture meets technology to cater for an increasingly hungry world.
In a world of soon-to-be 10 billion mouths, our primary advantage still stands. New Zealanders are producers, and not just of protein. Every year, the agricultural, horticultural and food industries contribute almost $40 billion to the New Zealand economy. But sending that figure north of $50 billion without sacrificing our clean-green image requires pioneering new strategies. As global agricultural policies prepare for accelerating climate change, population pressures and nutrition challenges, what was considered disruptive is now the norm.
To capitalise on this fast-moving frontier, New Zealand must pivot for the future. The fruits of far-sighted government investment are emerging. Precision farming, regenerative agriculture, methane inhibitors/vaccines, sensor technologies, automation, genomic selection technology and advanced robotics have all witnessed domestic leadership. But if we’re not careful, we’ll miss opportunities to secure a stake in, for example, the alternative protein market, which forecasts have hurtling over the $10 billion mark by 2022. Whether the future of food will rely on efficiency gains from robotics or a mass consumer shift toward plant-based or synthetic proteins cannot be prophesied. But industry, government and research collaboration can encourage more competition (to drive innovation) and better equip our startups with routes to global markets in low-carbon technologies. It’s tough — but economic geography, investment challenges and weak domestic competition are not excuses.
In fact, our greatest opportunity might just lie in our greatest challenge: New Zealand’s much maligned agricultural emissions. Government and the pastoral industry have invested tens of millions already, and with tens of millions to come, the potential to export our methane emissions solutions to a decarbonising world is enormous. As Paris Agreement targets ratchet up over coming years, countries will look south to New Zealand for their agricultural answers. Intellectual property stemming from ruminant vaccines, inhibitors and low-methane feeds will join the development of leading-edge methods for breeding low-emitting ruminants. Overcoming New Zealand’s high levels of agricultural land intensification must also be turned from a problem into an opportunity. Reversing (and then eliminating) the estimated 29 per cent increase in nitrate leaching between 1990 and 2012 demands that improved tech meets improved management.
Agriculture can yet become the solution to (instead of the source of) our major environmental problems. Innovative Kiwi farmers have been the envy of the world for decades; Innovative Kiwi AgTech companies can join them.
‘The impact of R&D subsidy on innovation: a study of New Zealand firms’, Adam Jaffe and Trinh Le, Motu Working Paper 15-08, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, 2015