Australia has a well-earned reputation for innovation in agricultural technology. What comes next might be a surprising link of innovation and migration policy.
Agricultural machinery has moved a long way since the days of a farmer perched on a tractor on those funny little triangular seats. These days precision agriculture means GPS guided machines that can plant this year’s crop between the lines of last year’s crop. Laser levelled fields make maximum use of irrigation water.
But like all sectors, innovation needs to be ongoing.
There are parts of the Federal and NSW budgets that should be linked here, together with a pressing problem revealed by the pandemic.
First to the budgets.
Back in the 1970s at my secondary school, we had a lunch time talk promoted as ‘AI: A cow of a business, no bull.’ When I was in the workforce in the early 1980s, AI had already moved on from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Intelligence with the commercial development of expert systems.
But over the next forty years the description of AI was just as apt. AI remains an area where future promise continues to outweigh current delivery.
A centrepiece of the Morrison Government’s ‘back to the future’ Digital Economy strategy incorporated in the 2021 budget was an Artificial Intelligence action plan.
As the AFR’s Chanticleer noted one of the frustrating parts of this strategy is that the AI expertise that had been developed by the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Centre of Excellence (better known as NICTA) before it was gutted and merged with the CSIRO to form Data61.
Chanticleer made two other observations, the first was the value in recruiting great leaders into University research roles where they can also teach, and of partnering with leading global firms.
Interestingly the government announcement gave an example of local food manufacturer BlueEsky looking to ‘speed up their operations with AI and robotics.’
Robotics really consists of three disciplines; the machinery to move and grasp etc (actuation, locomotion and manipulation), the devices to sense the environment and finally the intelligence to control movement, interpret inputs and make decisions. But robotics need not be limited to factories.
Fruit picking robots are already being developed in the academy and commercially. (It is worth noting also how orchardists have started to espalier their trees – which both improves light distribution and access to fruit.)
In NSW, the 2021 Budget included $48 million for an expanded Farms of the Future program. This is specifically focussed on constructing and operating a Long-Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) in the five target regions. This will enable communication across wide areas and complements existing mobile and broadband services.
While the focus is on accessing static sensors, one of the original ALP Digital Economy projects focussed on using sensors to track stock movements which enabled fertiliser use to be targeted and reduce run off.
Wide area communications of course does not only help with sensing, but also with control. What is, after all, the differences between the advanced ag machinery with a driver sitting in air-conditioned comfort and a driverless truck in an Australian mining site?
The answer is simply connectivity. The more intelligence that is built into the remote agent the less throughput that is required of the connectivity.
Now to the problems revealed by the pandemic.
Mid-pandemic, we are being reminded just how dependent our agriculture sector has become on migrant workers, be they backpackers or Pacific Islanders.
The recent UK free trade deal has removed some of the work restrictions on backpackers from that location and prompted a suggestion that even when borders open, we will still be short of workers.
The proposed new agricultural worker visa to be offered to ten ASEAN countries has horrified long term professionals in immigration policy.
Speaking on ABC’s The Drum Abul Rizvi (at 41:20) noted that he had worked for twenty years at the Department of Immigration and that one thing they said to themselves over that time was that ‘Australia should never become a low skill guest worker society.’ They said that because they could see the exploitation of these workers that has occurred in the US, Europe and gulf countries.
One of the real problems with meeting the demands of employers for low paid workers by importing low paid workers is that you remove the incentive for the investment in the more enduring solution, which in this case is robotics.
The other sector that has been high on the list demanding access to imported workers has been the tech sector. The same problem occurs there of course, that allowing importation of workers reduces the incentives to invest in our own development.
More worrying however is the experience of overseas students doing postgraduate study in IT in Australia. They are entitled to work domestically for two years after their graduation but report that Australian employers are reluctant to take them on. That is a topic, however, for another day.
The other huge impediment to AgriTech is the structure of Australia’s agriculture sector. One of the reasons so much Australian agricultural land has been acquired by international investors is because they are willing to make big investments in technology.
Our largest pool of investment funds, superannuation, finds long-term investing in agriculture unattractive because of the liquidity requirements imposed by our rules around superannuation choice.
Australia has a huge opportunity to increase the productivity and value of our agriculture sector.
Realising that opportunity doesn’t require the diversion of water from environmental flows nor increasing the amount of land cleared for agriculture. It is about applying technology to our farms and not trying to rely on a low-paid and exploited underclass of guest workers.
David Havyatt has provided government relations advice to NNCo which is a LoRaWAN provider.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.