The issue of waste in agriculture is a pressing concern that nobody wants to overlook. So, how exactly is technology playing a role in addressing this matter?
This question has been on my mind, and I'm eager to hear your thoughts as well. Producers, business owners, and industry groups are already leveraging data and technology to minimize waste in food supply chains. From day-to-day on-farm management to labour force coordination, the application of technology is evident. However, there is still untapped potential for Australian farmers and the industry to explore.
Last year, I had the privilege of participating in the NorVicFoods breakfast panel at Shepparton. It was an engaging discussion featuring Andrew Plunkett from Plunkett Orchards, Olympia Yager from Goterra, and Nick Hilliard from Second Bite. Dr Gregory Harper from the University of Melbourne skilfully moderated the conversation. The topic continues to gain momentum, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share the insights we discussed on stage.
The audience comprised a diverse range of participants representing the entire supply chain - farmers, agri-food business owners, government representatives, scientists, and entrepreneurs. They were exposed to the magnitude of the food waste issue and shared insights into the challenges and opportunities that lie within the agricultural sector.
Each year, Australians waste around 7.6 million tonnes of food across the supply and consumption chain. This amount equals about 312 kg per person, equivalent to around one in five bags of groceries or $2,000 to $2,500 per household per year.
– Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.
What we mean by waste
Some people use different terminology, and this can be tricky to navigate. There's the product that's wasted (e.g., removed from the food chain before it reaches the supermarket shelf) and that product then becomes true waste. But this 'true waste' — think mushy, rotten vegetables — is being reimagined to be useful. It now doesn't always need to end up disposed of as landfill. For example, organic waste can create valuable products, such as maggots, which become feed for animals via intelligent waste management systems like those developed by GoTerra.
To help solve the waste problem, we need to consider the broader aspect of wasted resources or inputs. For example, when an apple or tomato becomes wasted when it doesn't reach the supermarket shelf (as was its destiny), the resources that went into producing them become lost. The producer invested money to grow the apple or tomato and received no return. At a moral level, food rotting in fields unable to be eaten by anyone doesn't feel right for any of us in the ag industry. So, it's great to see a focus on food waste.
I see the growing focus on rethinking waste as an untapped resource as a great opportunity! Data and technology can help to maximise these untapped 'waste' resources rather than see them forgotten and lost to the supply chain.
Read more about how Australia’s National Food Waste Strategy classifies food waste.
How technology and data is playing a role
Technologies are available now (and emerging rapidly) to determine projected yield, detect biosecurity threats and allow consumers to see information about the food in their kitchens.
People from individual growers to industry bodies are embracing digital agriculture — using data collected by different types of technology across the supply chain from paddock to the consumer. Everything from devices, sensors, and virtual reality to robotics and artificial intelligence is part of the growing tech industry. Increasingly, in day-to-day operations growers are using technology such as satellite imagery, on farm weather stations, and soil moisture probes to give them greater insights into production.
Yield the biggest deal
In my opinion, the most important end goal to reduce food waste is having a deep understanding of potential yield. Technology is available now that scans orchards to count buds to know how many apples will soon be on the trees. It enables planning of resourcing with greater confidence and reduces potential crop waste at harvesting time.
Sensors and traceability
Sensor technology can detect pests or mould early so food producers can spray efficiently and reduce overall pesticide or herbicide use. Traceability, through connected technology, has value for food security and consumers. Currently, technology allows a wholesaler overseas to see precisely where that Australian produce grew. Consumers can see a picture of the tree by scanning a QR code. That technology allows consumers to know where the food's coming from and to see the people behind the product.
Labour and skills shortages
A lot of people are talking about the current labour shortages across many industries. Many agricultural regions can't escape this. (See this heartbreaking story from the town of Griffith in Left to Rot, produced by ABC.)
Some people are concerned that robots will replace the jobs of half the people in the town. I believe this is far from reality. We'll never get rid of human labour entirely, but it may change.
Technology can help with a better understanding of the labour services that are needed so that growers can more effectively plan. An example: if we know what diseases are out there or what quantity of fruit is likely, earlier in the season, producers can have greater foresight to get a labour force in.
At an industry or regional level, sharing data with employment agencies and regional businesses means they can help manage and help support that industry moving forward. There are also great opportunities within agriculture for producers and businesses to collaborate with tech startups, university students, and young people to help steer this digital revolution in the right direction.
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Australian tech potential
Australia has produced some phenomenal digital agriculture and agtech companies recently. Some have moved overseas to develop their technology in specific niche markets, such as almonds. But I see huge potential in the Australian tech industry continuing to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and working actively with producers to address the needs and challenges they’ve identified. Innovators in the technology space must deliver relevant solutions.
My hot tip for technologists and innovators?
Solutions can be something other than improving yield or generating cash in producers' pockets, they can be a simple improvement in efficiencies. The outcome for producers could be half an hour of free time in a day to have a coffee with their partner in the morning, or simply time to drop the kids at school.
Collaboration is crucial to making life easier
We need to establish connections between various technologies across different systems. Currently, many farmers are overwhelmed with information and have numerous apps on their phones. This is what motivates us - simplifying the process. We aim to integrate technologies, alleviate the burden on food producers, and contribute to a better planet.
The agricultural sector is experiencing a surge of technological advancements and excitement. However, our priority lies in making the lives of farmers, growers, and the supply chain easier.
If you would like to delve deeper into this topic or discover how Sensand can help streamline data for more informed decision-making, both on land and beyond, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me.