Aussie agtech investment does not match its importance to the nation

Australia’s place among the biggest global food producers could be to blame for its worrying lack of urgency and investment in agtech, says Farmbot managing director Andrew Coppin.

If the Australian agriculture industry is to become a A$100 billion industry ($699 million; €601 million), a stated goal of the National Farmers’ Federation that is endorsed by the government, there needs to be a drastic increase in both private and public investment in technology.

As a nation, Australians have become accustomed to ‘the good life’, so to speak. Riding the mining boom helped us avoid recession even in the bleakest of world economic conditions. We’ve also never come close to going hungry – our farmers produce 93 percent of our domestic food supply and we still produce enough to export two-thirds of our total food output.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks of being ‘The Lucky Country’ is this worrying underinvestment in agtech. If we are well fed and well paid, there is less incentive to take risks. But with the climate becoming more erratic, droughts more frequent and international competitiveness raging, without a significant upswing in investment in our agtech sector to propel its development, Australia faces being left behind.

Australian’s love to think of themselves as a nation of ‘battlers’ who punch above their weight and this may be true of pure food production, but in agtech, we lag behind nations such as New Zealand, Israel and even Singapore, which is made up of less than 1 percent of arable land.

But investment in Australian agtech must be more than just blanket public investment in nebulous strategies, programs and consultations. Both private and public investment should be looking at the current agtech innovation sector for opportunities to collaborate in a meaningful way and support proven success stories.

The federal government recently announced an investment in digital agriculture, with A$86 million set aside to establish eight adoption and innovation hubs across regional Australia and the development of Digital Foundations for Agriculture Strategy. A great start, but we must see sustained investment, alongside impactful action and a national agtech strategy.

The groundwork has already been set  

We don’t have to start from scratch as there is already a flourishing ecosystem of individual start-ups with skin in the game when it comes to growing innovative businesses. Australian agtech companies have had years of success built on investment in research and in fostering deep connections with producers.

There are many success stories like Farmbot, Maia Grazing and AgriDigital, which are already exporting Aussie innovation or are primed to expand internationally. And unlike our ability to export food and fibre, our ability to export innovation is not constrained by our population or arable land size.

According to a 2019 report, the global market for agtech innovation products and services is a circa $500 billion per year business that’s growing at 8 percent plus per annum. The size of the prize and potential is significant and uncapped for Australia if we develop a plan, invest in and support it.

Knowing that Australia is a relatively small market, there is a huge multiplier effect on offer for private investors, as well as for the growth of the wider Australian agriculture industry. With ongoing investment, thousands of Australian jobs could be created, many of which will be skilled jobs in regional and rural areas. This opportunity is akin to what mining services and technology has been to the mining sector – a secondary but still impressive industry that is a wealth creator with global application.

World class goals

With no formal national policy around agtech adoption or investment, a group of stakeholders from the industry formed the Australian AgriTech Association. The industry body was established to foster a world-class agtech ecosystem, to partner with the private and public sectors and to help create a prosperous future for Australian agrifood innovation.

Outside of domestic development, innovation and job creation, one of the association’s core objectives is to develop and promote the market for Australian agtech products and services to a global audience of customers and investors. With the small but committed industry working in synergy towards this goal, the potential returns for investors is massive.

The message from the Association is simple. Both public and private investment in agtech, should be an absolute priority to build a sector that boosts local agriculture, and develops new sovereign capital and exports.

With a more volatile climate and uncertain international trade, Australia can no longer rely on the status quo. Investing in agtech will help shore up our agricultural future and propel a newly emerging sector, which we should be a global leader of, into its next phase of growth.

Andrew Coppin is managing director of Farmbot, an Australian agtech company specializing in remote monitoring and the Internet of Things. He is also a founding director of The Australian AgriTech Association.