Irrigation NZ - Agri Innovation Workshop profiles global agricultural trends

Media Release: Irrigation New Zealand, Thursday 10 May 2018

Technology, changing farming models, changing consumer food trends and a need to reduce environmental impacts are already driving rapid changes to farming internationally, Ashburton farmers were told last week. 

Over 280 people attended a series of presentations with a focus on innovation in agriculture, hosted by MHV Water, BCI and Ashburton Lyndhurst Irrigation last week.

“We hosted this event to share knowledge, enable innovative thought and to challenge mindset.  As irrigation schemes we are passionate about working with our farmers to support them. The afternoon provided practical solutions that could be implemented now, along with world class speakers who challenged our thought processes and stimulated discussion on what to consider as we continue on our journey for improved water quality outcomes,” Melanie Brooks of MHV Water says.

Karl Russell of Te Runanga O Arowhenua opened the session with a message that actions taken today would shape the environment for our children and grandchildren in 20 years time.

Keynote speaker Roger Dennis, from Future Agenda - the world’s largest foresight project - shared with farmers his thoughts about how a changing world affect them. Mr Dennis says a number of key trends are clear. The population density of major cities will grow and this is creating localised resource shortages; while technology and automation will continue changing more quickly than policy can respond to and climate change will create extreme weather events which will play out in uncertain and unpredictable ways. 

Mr Dennis sees technology changing agricultural production systems significantly. In the Netherlands technology is now used to grow tomatoes indoors under controlled conditions using sensors, precision irrigation and other advances. This allows one kg of tomatoes to be produced using eight litres of water rather than 225 litres normally used to grow this crop.

His advice for farmers is to start thinking about how changing technology and trends will affect their operation. “You want to have conversations that are difficult which start you thinking about where things might go in the future.”

Kaila Colbin, the Chair of the Ministry of Awesome and the New Zealand Ambassador for SingularityU spoke on exponential technology and its impact on agriculture. Ms Colbin says that new farming models are now operating. The world’s largest indoor farm, Aerofarms near New Jersey, supplies New York supermarkets with food with zero food miles and is 135 times more productive per square foot than a traditional farm.  Bio-engineered food is also available which meets a range of consumer requirements like shelf life, food safety and tastes as good as traditional food, and the cost of this food is now falling quickly.

She said New Zealand farmers needed to have a point of difference by providing quality produce through sustainable production and they needed to communicate their difference to consumers.

Nick Pyke, the former head of FAR, said New Zealand had “some of the most skilled food producers in the world,” and was fortunate to have lots of water, a temperate climate and soils which were not degraded.  Farmers needed to look at the impact consumer food trends such as plant proteins, nutritional beverages, ancient grains, and high value oils had on what they are producing. 

The Global Head of KPMG Agribusiness, Ian Proudfoot, spoke about the need for farmers to position themselves closer to their consumer. Products were worth six times more than what producers were paid, with the other money going to other organisations in the value chain. Companies such as Kaipara Lamb and Aunt Jean’s Dairy had built a closer direct relationship with consumers by investing in their brands to tell their story. Technology, consumer expectations for more sustainable production and personalised diets were some of the trends which were already affecting farming.

Three speakers looked at options to reduce nitrogen leaching. Dr Catherine Febria of the University of Canterbury spoke about bioreactor research. Bioreactors are holes constructed in the ground filled with woodchips which filter water and remove some of its nitrogen load before it enters waterways. They are relatively cheap to install and have a long lifespan.  Dr Glenn Judson of Agricom discussed Ecotain studies showing the crop can reduce nitrogen leaching by up to 89% while Phil Beatson of CRVAmbreed spoke about their work to reduce leaching through animal genetics.

Toni Laming of the Lincoln Hub spoke about the role the newly established Hub plays in bringing together research, education and industry to support research into improving the primary sector’s economic and environmental performance.