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Australia’s report on the future of agtech coming soon

The horizon scanning report on the future of agricultural technologies is expected to be launched in the “coming months”, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources has revealed to the Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology.

In response to questions on notice about how the department is supporting agtech initiatives — directly and indirectly — the department stated that Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel, on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), has commissioned the Australian Council of Learned Academics (ACOLA) to undertake the project.

The horizon scanning will examine the impacts, opportunities, and challenges technologies are likely to have on the agriculture sector over the next 10 years. It will also include an analysis of scientific, technical, financial, regulatory, ethical, and social impacts agtech will have on Australia.

The report into the future of agricultural technologies will be the second report to be developed by ACOLA. The first examined the ethical development of artificial intelligence and was released last July.

The NSTC was charged with overseeing the development of these reports when the Australian government announced in 2018 it was replacing the then-existing Commonwealth Science Council to be the peak advisory body on science and technology to the ministry.

At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the council would provide independent advice, and that the government recognises the importance of science, research, and technology in “improving the competitiveness of Australian businesses and driving new jobs”.

“The Council will identify Research Challenge projects and oversee horizon-scanning reports into long-term science and technology priorities, providing expert advice on issues such as health, emerging technologies, and education,” the statement read.

“These changes will enable a stronger voice for science and technology in the national conversation, ensuring deeper engagement with government and industry in the policy process.”

The department also informed the select committee that it has been providing financial backing through grants and investments for a slew of initiatives aimed to support agtech development projects.

This includes providing around AU$12 million in funding grant to five agtech companies through the Cooperate Research Centres Projects and another AU$8 million to five other relevant projects under the Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund.

Some of the specific agtech projects that are benefiting from the funding include the development of an autonomous weed control robot, a farm management application, and a blockchain service for the wine industry.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) revealed last September that connectivity, interoperability, data portability, and data rights are the technology challenges that hinder the widespread adoption of digital technologies for agricultural businesses.

ACCC commissioner Mick Keogh said the adoption of digital technologies by agricultural businesses could facilitate improved productivity and ultimately continue growth for the sector.  

“In the past, Australian agriculture was able to increase output, despite low productivity growth, by expanding the amount of land and water resources utilised by the sector,” he said.

“That option is no longer available, and in fact the amount of land and water resources available to the sector has declined significantly in recent decades and is predicted to shrink further.

“Consequently, a key focus of efforts to increase the annual value of agricultural output in Australia must be on improving agricultural productivity.”   

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