Many in the New Zealand agri-food sector are not ready for the changes that new technologies are about to usher in, a Massey University report warns.
The changes would not be incremental but disruptive and game changing, if technologists were to be believed, said report leader Professor Stephen Kelly.
He predicted that in about five years’ time the impact of cloud computing and related disruptive technologies would hit, with a specific focus on business effectiveness, sustainability, and biosecurity. This was about when investments by telecommunications companies would start to make broadband available to all.
“If you’re looking at the agri-sector, they’re an agile group. They’ve been using technology, they’re applying it to improve efficiency and effectiveness, there’s nothing you can criticise them for in terms of their willingness to look at what’s available to provide a better solution.”
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“The concerning part is if the technologists are correct and cloud computing provides availability of data that should create more knowledge, that’s where I’m not sure whether industry is quite ready for it.”
While the industry was not peopled with Luddites, there was a view that “tomorrow will be similar to today, just with more technology”. This was not how technologists saw the future.
They envisage there will be a wave of data but many businesses will not be able to analyse it or make the decisions that are needed to be made from it.
“We did some work in Ireland some years ago looking at how small food processors worked with information supplied by Tesco. The firms couldn’t afford to buy the data and even if they did they didn’t know how to analyse it, so we packaged it up for them and it completely changed how they marketed their products.”
Kelly pointed to exceptions such as Fonterra which was using new technologies and communicating to its partners about what technology was appropriate and how they could use it to improve their business.
The report, called Disruptive Technology in the Agri-food Sector, had input from nine Massey academics.
Other developed countries were ahead of New Zealand. In the United States about 80 per cent of farmers use some kind of smart farming technique and it is an emerging phenomenon in Australia and Europe.
Traditionally in New Zealand farmers and businesses had adopted the approach that technological change would be incremental, manageable, and supportive of the status quo.
Rather than viewing new technology as critical, they had bought it under an “all you can afford” rather than “strategic imperative” principle.
Kelly said the report was not looking for policy to be created to deal with the issue, but felt it was more about raising awareness.
If some of the challenges were not met, New Zealand’s agri-food sector faced the following threats: reduced demand for meat and dairy products in traditional markets because of perceived health and environmental concerns; agri-food competitors based in other countries with similar climates, larger land areas, and cheaper input costs; and biosecurity risks.
Two issues that stood out were biosecurity and sustainability, and these were things new technology could help with.
“The sector needs to get ahead of the game, not only because compliance will force them to, but also because consumers are demanding issues like sustainability,” Kelly said.