It’s not about tech, it’s about using tech for good.
In conversation with……… Sarah Hindle, Tech Futures Lab GM
“I’ve always wanted to do something with food and I’ve always been really interested in and concerned about the planet. It has only been in the last 5 years or so that I even knew what Agritech was; and when I did discover what it was, it was my way to do something about all of those things that I am interested in that didn't involve owning a cafe.. And of course, I’m passionate about tech influencing the topics that I feel really strongly about”
In true Sarah fashion, interest in Agritech resulted in her becoming the Chair of Agritech NZ in 2019; “ I wanted to make sure that there was a different, ‘outside’ perspective and I had a deep concern that we were plundering our resources. I also really wanted to learn from passionate people who were driven by the same goals.I wanted to have a voice at that table.”
The truth is, there is no agreed definition of what Agritech is - “think of everything in the food production chain, right from soil quality through to animal management and everything in between. How to bring together the agricultural side of things and the technology side of things.”
Agritech as a topic covers soil - diving deep into nutrients and science and sustainability; it involves regenerative models and the study of animals - their roaming, health, environment; that then includes sustainability and thinking, for example about how to turn waste into fuel - and for that to be amplified and used effectively, it needs scale, and that is where tech comes in. Tech for good - “ Agritech covers so many things that I am interested in.”
In 2018 there was an international Agritech event held in Tauranga called 10 Billion Mouths, based on the expectation that in 2050 there will be that many people on the planet needing to be fed. Using the current food producing model, it would seem that we need to scale up productivity to feed that many people; so presumably we would need tech that would ramp up food production.
“But that’s not the whole story”, says Sarah.
It turns out, one of the challenges is distribution not just production volume. People still starve while we try to invent new ways to manage food waste. The second sticky bit is that even if we choose to continue with our current consumption model and scale up production, our planet quite simply cannot sustain that intensity of yield. Once again, we find ourselves in a position of having to come up with alternatives, not doing so because it’s the right thing to do. The upside of this is that big farm business is now on board with change, as was evidenced in the recent Visionweek NZ panels: all talk around agriculture was on moving from volume to value; sustainability and tech.
This idea of tech in agriculture is multi-faceted: on the one hand we are talking about using tech to assist in the business of farming, and on the other, we are talking about using New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of fine food, to add value to Kiwi-created technologies in the agriculture sector; “so that rather than exporting dead, low value-added stuff, you are potentially supporting the exporting of the technology that sits behind agriculture, such as sensor collars on cows that tell us about that specific animal - instead of selling the cow, we could sell that technology - the technology is infinitely scalable, the cow is not.”
I then ask the inevitable question: “what about machines taking over human jobs in farming?” Sarah looks at me confused. I go on to question robot harvesting and planters”. Yet again Sarah comments: “ That’s not the whole story ,”, it turns out that in New Zealand and well as around the world food rots on the vine because there are not enough people to do the often skilled job of harvesting.
The myth busting continues: those awful images of pigs and cows caged in warehouses and force fed? That’s not our story on the whole - we don’t do that here. Admittedly, not all Kiwi farming is perfect, but New Zealand is considered to be ahead of the agriculture game in many areas as far as forward thinking is concerned, and post COVID, important questions are being asked, specifically regarding intensive farming and our New Zealand story- as in: is that really the best we can do?
So what’s the biggest hurdle facing New Zealand from this perspective?? Sarah reckons it’s getting everyone to look in the same direction: getting a clear vision and strategy to be able to move forward with that “team of 5 million” approach. It’s telling the New Zealand story, not the isolated, independent tech innovator story. “New Zealand is a small country and we work in isolation, we think because we’re small, we're connected, but we’re not; we need to think bigger. And to think globally, we need to unite into team New Zealand when it comes to exports. Our size means we can often have 2 big players (eg dairy) which can foster more competition than collaboration. But to step up we need to look at the bigger picture and prize - and we can do that by telling the New Zealand story” - my lamb tastes salty because it's grazed inthat region of New Zealand where the stream flows over volcanic rock with certain minerals in it, and that stream irrigates the lush, green pastures where our happy, healthy lamb enjoyed a good life.
“Story is all about connection, and technology enables that connection; with sensors monitoring our streams and soil and livestock, tech allows us to tell the story, and be so much closer to the things that we consume.”
And that gives individuals the ability to align their consumption with their personal values. “More and more individuals are interested in where a product comes from: how are you treating the stream? What are you spraying on the crops? And if companies aren’t responding to that then people will not buy their stuff - social licence (the ongoing approval of society) can be strengthened through transparent, unique stories that are built on integrity - if companies won't then people won’t want to work for them let alone buy their products.”
In the same way, new tech is giving old ways new life: “people love to go on a farm, look at how many people go to Field Days at Mystery Creek each year - you can see it and feel it and taste it and CONNECT with it, people love the story and tech can give that story scale. So it’s not just the conversation that you are having, it is the conversation that I am having with 10 billion other people.”
“New Zealand has a great story; if we get our house in order, we could fly. We have Maori heritage that is rich and powerful in wisdom and practice, especially when it comes to the land. There’s Kaupapa that we can draw on where we see ourselves as Kaitiaki, taking on the responsibility of handing down that land to our children. When the mindset changes, then the practice changes. And then we use tech imbued with good. We need to be clear on our roles, vision and strategy, and then create the tech that supports that.
It’s not about the tech, it’s about using tech for good.
“We’ve just got to get out of our own way. Big change needs to happen but there is so much opportunity on the other side, it’s not like we’ve got to make some changes and the industry is going to shrink. There’s this whole wave of opportunities out there. The potential is incredible.”