Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Rethinking the use of technology in food production


Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Rethinking the use of technology in food production

Comment: The Future of Food, a new document from a Professor Sir Peter Gluckman-led team at the University of Auckland, features the importance of technological development in sustainable food production. With the changes wrought by Covid-19 worldwide, Jacqueline Rowarth comments, it couldn’t have come at better time.

Online technologies achieved a new prominence in everyday living during lockdown.

Keeping up with friends and family, continuing with business meetings and education, and procuring new objects of need, want or desire were all enabled in a way that would have been impossible only a few decades ago.

The ability of users to manage the technologies increased, and the technologies themselves changed; new programmes were launched and some of the shaky connections through rural broadband improved. People across the country and the world engaged willingly.

The same willing engagement is evident in food producers – particularly in New Zealand, where a small percentage of the population (approximately 4 per cent on the land and another 11 per cent in support industries) look after half of the land area. Technology keeps them in touch with ideas and potential opportunity.

Rural businesses at the forefront

There have been well-documented difficulties with new technologies and systems but despite the frustrations, rural businesses – which include those operated directly by farmers and growers – have been at the forefront of stimulating, adopting and adapting technological advances.

Doing better is always the goal.

The importance of technological development in sustainable food production features in the new document from Koi Tu: Centre for Informed Studies at Auckland University, which is led by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman (immediate-past chief science advisor to the Prime Minister).

The Future of Food is part of a series under the general title “The Future is Now”. It states that “innovation must focus on finding new, more sustainable production methods, improving supply-chain efficiencies, and incorporating innovations from other industries, such as the use of drones and artificial intelligence”.

Impeccable timing

The ideas in the document aren’t new, but the fact that they have been collected together and issued from an august body at the University of Auckland means that they might gain traction. And the timing is impeccable – Covid-19 has changed people’s thinking about what is important in life. Safe, nutritious food is high on the agenda.

The Koi Tu document states that horticulture is “well placed to adopt precision technologies, with data and sensors to manage resource inputs” and robotics are being developed for harvesting and processing.

These systems are also being advanced in agriculture. Robots are measuring pasture, and hyperspectral scanning of hill country is occurring for fertiliser requirements. Precision irrigation is already world leading and laser-cutting in abattoirs has reduced waste and increased carcass value.

More technology use necessary

The increased use of technology is worldwide, but more is necessary. In the last couple of months, nature research journal Nature Sustainability has featured several articles highlighting how sustainable intensification of production on existing farmland and with fewer inputs “is an aspirational and data-hungry challenge”.

Scientists working in Europe have calculated that optimising fertiliser inputs and allocating 16 major crops to the most appropriate land would reduce the area required to maintain current production quantities by nearly 50 per cent.

Sustainable intensification closes the yield gap between developed and developing countries and spares natural ecosystems from food production requirements.

It isn’t just cropping that is benefiting. Last month US management consulting firm McKinsey focused on food sustainability and suggested that digital and biotechnologies could improve the health of ruminant livestock, requiring fewer methane-producing animals to meet the world’s protein needs.

More science funding needed

New Zealand researchers are making big contributions to advances, particularly in leading the agricultural greenhouse gas research. They could do more with an improved science funding system – what the Koi Tu document called “taking research seriously”.

Authors concluded that “to be strategic, the science system needs to fix its splintered nature and the misplaced incentives on which it is based”.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Workforce planning vital

The authors also suggested that workforce planning requires addressing, with the development of a positive strategy for the food sector, including higher education in agriculture incorporating technology.

The late Hon Jim Anderton indicated that workforce planning was vital for the food production sector back in 2008. Now New Zealand needs a revamp not just in higher education but also through schools.

Teaching through the lens of food

Julian Cribbs, author of The Coming Famine, has suggested that every subject should be taught through the lens of food. Technology and innovation are clearly part of the mix.

If we have a food-production-literate population (in New Zealand and the world), we would be able to protect the environment better. The land-sparing approach enabled by sustainable intensification can also indicate areas best left as habitat, helping to balance agriculture and conservation.

Sustainability balancing act

The authors of the 16-crop study suggested that it is the balancing act, rather than any singular focus, that embraces the spirit of sustainability.

Sustainable food production – optimal food (weight of product, carbohydrate or protein) for fewest inputs (fertiliser, pesticides, land) and lowest environmental impact (GHG and nutrient losses) is already far better in New Zealand than most countries can achieve. More is possible with education, technology development and adoption.

The Koi Tu document explains the challenges and opportunities.

And, yes, investment in rural broadband connectivity is part of the solution. The rural sector welcomes the recognition of difficulties and support for improvement from CBD Auckland.

• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com


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