The Key to Farming’s Future Lies in Information

Andrea Koch and Alex McBratney
Published: August 29, 2016 - 12:05AM

There has been growing optimism in Australia's agriculture sector in the past few years, with fast-growing Asian markets and new free trade agreements promising big increases in exports of food and fibre. As mining slows down, agriculture is being seen as the big growth industry. But as the dairy industry is discovering, simply ramping up production won't necessarily produce the right returns for farmers.

Australian agriculture has relied on a model of producing bulk commodities cheaply and keeping ahead of the world through the adoption of technology. In today's global markets, however, it will be increasingly difficult for Australia to compete with this low-cost commodity approach as other agricultural nations power up.

A painful example is unfolding in the Australian dairy industry, where the price paid to farmers for milk solids has been slashed. In spite of attempts to add value through processing and packaging, the industry has been caught by simple economic reality – a global over-supply of commodity milk.

Shocks such as the dairy industry crisis can be avoided in the future by changing the long-accepted view of Australia as a bulk commodity producer. Australian agriculture needs to get out of this mindset and find new ways to differentiate food and fibre products for large and even mass markets.

This fits with a big trend in food purchasing. Increasingly food buyers are demanding quality products of known provenance at good prices. They want to know how the food is produced, what the environmental footprint is, and they want specific nutritional qualities. Put simply, they want a whole lot more information about what they are consuming.

Adding information about how food is produced can transform Australia's low-cost commodities into highly value-added products.

In dairy, this is already happening. Single-source milk is the premium market example, where the customer is buying milk from a known farmer, farm, breed of cow, approach to soil and pasture management, and even the genetic history of the cows. A2 milk commands a nutritional price premium; it is differentiated at the farm through the selection of particular breeds of cows that produce milk with a difference, and this difference is carried right through to the customer.

To de-commoditise Australian agriculture, information about how each "commodity" is produced must be captured behind the farm gate, and then carried through the supply chain to the customer. So often farmers are producing products that have high differential value through the way they manage their soil and water, or how they treat their animals, or how they grow their crops. These approaches translate into food with much higher nutritional value and lower environmental impacts, but this value is lost the minute the product gets past the farm gate and into the commodity supply chain.

We now have the technology to change all this. Sensors are being imbedded into every aspect of farm systems, generating streams of information about soil moisture, plant and animal health, and a raft of other factors. Capturing this information tells the unique story of how food is being produced on each farm.

By creating new smart, sensorised food supply chains, it will be possible to digitally stamp provenance information on food and fibre behind the farm gate, and carry it right through to the customer. Instead of producing half a dozen bulk commodities, Australian farmers could be producing tens of thousands of value-added products of specified quality and known provenance.

This new approach to agriculture can be referred to as digital differentiation. The key challenge is to design, build and implement these new digital information supply chains – not just for dairy, but for all agricultural products. By adopting this approach, Australian farmers can start to realise the full economic value of how they are producing, not just what they are producing, and might just break the boom-bust vagaries of competitive global markets.

Andrea Koch is an Adjunct Associate Professor and Alex McBratney the Dean, Professor of Soil Science, of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney.

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