Around the world, the agricultural sector is under pressure and is increasingly turning to technology as a fix. New Zealand agritech has the smarts to offer solutions.
Developing partnerships in the UK and Ireland provides a good opportunity for our innovators, providing access to the levels of investment and channels to market that we need to make the most of these global opportunities.
The UK and Ireland have some great innovative agritech projects under way. One example is the Hands Free Hectare initiative where for two years a hectare of cropping land has been repeatedly planted, tended and harvested entirely by machine. The success of the project recently saw it extended from a one-hectare to a 35ha farm.
We know automation has a significant role to play in the future of agriculture and during a visit to the South West Dairy Development Centre (Agri-EPI's dairy farm of the future) we were told 25 per cent of Western Europe dairy herds will be robotically milked by 2025.
The centre is part of a 5G RuralFirst trial – an initiative with the potential to fuel unprecedented uptake of technology on farms.
I'm pleased to report New Zealand is leading the charge in its agritech initiatives and because of that is a lead provider into these markets. While it's good to see the innovation uptake in the UK and Ireland, it's even nicer to realise that clever companies back home have made some of this tech possible.
Our flair for agritech was recently on show in the market at the 2019 Irish National Ploughing Championships, one of the largest agricultural exhibitions in Europe, and UK Dairy Day, an annual one-day event for the dairy industry, featuring more than 300 exhibitors demonstrations and seminars.
A Callaghan Innovation-led mission brought together New Zealand agritech businesses, researchers and capability providers, for an opportunity to showcase some of our country's highly innovative and exportable agritech solutions. They included smart irrigation management systems, milking technology, farm mapping and water pollution monitoring.
It also offered the chance to explore the local agri industries, research, innovation systems and channel partners. Making new connections and honing product-market fit were top of mind.
New Zealand's agritech exports are estimated at around $1.5 billion a year but those earnings have been flat for the past decade and the uptake of this technology has been low.
Promisingly, a number of New Zealand's R&D-intensive, high- and medium-high technology firms are within the agritech sector, including Gallagher, Scott Technology, Robotics Plus, Tru-Test and Waikato Milking Systems.
Growing our agritech sector has recently become a focus area for our Government in managing for the future, given our heavy export reliance on primary industries. A strategy and action plan are in draft to increase agritech exports, grow the sector and ensure sustainability, and drive innovation and agritech uptake.
Our production methods and approaches to pastoral-based farming are similar to those found in the UK and Ireland, meaning our agritech innovators are uniquely placed to develop solutions for these markets.
From what we have seen, the doors are open, and their ecosystems are willing to help.
Some of our best and brightest – including Rezare, AbacusBio, Waikato Milking, Gallagher, LIC, Datamars (with Tru-Test) – already have a presence in these markets. There's a great opportunity for more Kiwi innovators to join them.
In the UK, New Zealand is viewed as a key partner post-Brexit, with the UK Government stating that we would be one of the first cabs off the rank for a free trade agreement.
Our expertise and relatively mature agritech scene, coupled with the UK's capital, openness and market size, presents an opportunity for both parties to benefit from developing closer links.
While their agritech start-up scene is in its early days and is less mature than New Zealand's, given the scale and resources available to them, this will change quickly.
We know there are some key differences in farming practices between the two markets – which will require New Zealand players to innovate and adapt – but culturally the fit is good, and we are already well respected in the industry.
It's a similar situation in Ireland, where market similarities and a willingness to do business bode well for New Zealand. Ireland is one of the world's leading producers of infant baby formula, producing 10 per cent of worldwide supply. They have 7.2 million cattle and – post-Brexit – will be the only predominantly English-speaking country in the European Union, the world's largest economic market.
New Zealand and Ireland are comparable in size and economic make-up. We have a shared historical experience, cultural attitude and common interest in sport, which resonates well, making it relatively easy to build long-term relationships.
Almost everywhere you turned at the Irish National Ploughing Championships, New Zealand agritech was being showcased – from Waikato Milking technology to Zero Harm Farm's safety platform, and LIC's genetic innovation to Te Pari and C-Dax's pasture measurement systems, not to mention Hansens and Yardmaster.
All this means it's a good time for early-stage Kiwi companies to enter the UK market, where, from what we've seen, they'll find access to great support and good opportunities for certain agriculture sectors.
The magic recipe: creating strong, mutually beneficial links that leverage our expertise, our mature agritech scene and the breadth of our agricultural production systems, combined with the UK and Ireland's capital, openness, willingness and market size.
• Simon Yarrow is group manager of the Agritech sector at Callaghan Innovation