In this year’s agenda, Auckland-based author Ian Proudfoot, KPMG’s global head of agribusiness, points to 2016 as the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, embodied by smart production, automation and data exchange. And unlike the previous three revolutions (industrial, technological and digital), this fourth one will have a dramatic impact on the farming sector.
“Given it is centred on the fusion of physical, digital and biological technologies, the agri-food sector will be at the centre of much of the change that occurs [in the fourth revolution],” he says. “It will reshape how food, beverage, fibre and timber is produced, processed, distributed and consumed around the world. Similarly it will revolutionise the clothes we wear, the fibres they’re manufactured from, and the materials used to build our homes.”
And the role of fast internet? When KPMG surveyed industry leaders for last year’s Agribusiness Agenda, they put the delivery of high-speed broadband as the number two priority for the sector, behind biosecurity. This year, broadband has dropped to number four, and the agenda gives it only fleeting mention in its 68 pages. But that doesn’t mean broadband isn’t important; in fact it’s critical to practically everything discussed in the document, Proudfoot says. It’s just that broadband is an enabler, a given. The report doesn’t talk much about electricity either.
“Internationally, more than $6bn was invested in agricultural technology in 2015, according to the global agtech investment marketplace, AgFunder. That's more than double the 2014 figure and up from $100m in 2005. The speed and scope of new technology available is huge – as is the potential impact. We rely on agriculture to pay for schools, hospitals, roads; we are the only country in the world where our farming sector has such influence. So being at the leading edge of new technology and connectivity is critical.”
Proudfoot says it’s vital that broadband speeds and quality are as good for people in the countryside as for those in the cities – and that means getting fibre to everyone, everywhere. But achieving that is going to require innovation and vision, from both the public and private sectors, he says.
Options might include putting fibre along electricity networks, using the sort of public-private models that are funding rural irrigation schemes, or even teaming up with international infrastructure partners, he says. What about working with an overseas forestry investment company which wants to use sensors to improve productivity in its own New Zealand operations?
With countries around the world looking at data collection and smart technology to improve their agricultural sector, New Zealand can't afford to fall behind.