Growing our food businesses isn’t about growing more food

First published on Choose Brisbane 

Wiley’s Brett Wiskar explains how we feed our domestic and international markets with less cost and while achieving more is all about thinking differently.

Food nourishes, provides sustenance and gives energy for our endeavours. And, if you’re lucky enough to be part of the food value chain in Australia today, food is an exciting, rewarding, challenging and opportunity laden industry.

Domestic and international demand for our top quality produce grows by the day so is it any wonder that most Australian state and local governments are seeking to cultivate our food industries as a key pillar of economic development? Food is a gateway to the economy of the future and an opportunity for communities to feed, grow, innovate and thrive together.

For the last 50 years our ability to grow our food businesses relied purely on our ability to grow food. More food meant more sales or customers and, in turn, more revenue. Times and businesses change and the industry is more now nuanced. Our food supply chain cannot scale without innovation. Expecting year on year growth via the same means is not sustainable. The new paradigm is contingent on extracting efficiency from food production that historically left a step change in yield in the hands of mother-nature.

The market is no longer content with merely more food, our markets want more quality, more nutrition and would like it faster, cleaner, safer, cheaper and more sustainably. “More transparency on its provenance too please while you’re at it”. Providers delivering food without addressing these additional concerns are missing the market and risk falling away. Those businesses that successfully adjust will dominate.

The question begs, how can we feed our markets, both domestic and international with less cost and while achieving more on so many fronts?

To be amongst the leaders we’re required to challenge the status quo of the industry. Opportunities can be identified through careful examination of the existing supply chains and businesses, seeking out a new ways meet expectations.

Without delving into the food supply chain’s adoption of a litany of buzzwords like Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, UAVs (Drones) and Autonomous Logistics, what are the concepts that are having an impact. Let’s explore the changes empowering leaders of the Australian food industry to provide greater value to our markets.

Lean supply chains – we are seeing globally supply chains compressing. Concepts like disintermediation and vertical integration are eliminating steps that were once businesses or industries of their own. This is leading to a smoother, less time-consuming and costly path from the farm to the consumer. Elimination of steps means more margin for those in the supply chain and less layer of costs into the final retail price. It also means more control and transparency throughout.

Automation – the challenge with growing food is it takes up a lot of land and when it comes to processing it’s highly repetitive. These two aspects mean human labour is often inefficient at tending, picking, sorting, processing and packing. Automation across the supply chain is not new but machines are now cheaper, smarter, faster, more accurate and less time consuming across a range of tasks. This means a cost effective scalable enterprise.

Value-added Agriculture – when it comes to food crops, concepts like shelf-life can be dramatically influenced by rapid chilling and packaging on farm. The opportunity for agricultural businesses to undertake their own ‘insitu’ processing or the early stages of value-adding provides greater margin for the farmer and often results in greater outcomes for the customer through improved quality of product.

Robotics – beyond pure process automation we’re now in an age of robotics that allow machines to undertake tasks that were previously impractical. Rather than robots automating what we’ve always done there are now opportunities to do things we could not. Two Queensland examples illustrate this perfectly. QUT’s AgBot II and commercial venture Swarmfarm have developed robotic solutions with a new value proposition. Their farming robots diminish the volume of pesticide used by physically removing a weed (mechanical hoe in AgBot’s case) or microwaving the weed as it’s detected by the robotic vision system. This is not a case of a robot taking a person’s job, it’s a robot doing a job people had long since handed over to a chemical.

Incidentally the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is one of the world’s leading centres for robotics systems, specifically around using autonomous systems to replicate sight and make decisions. The organisation is a collaboration between four major Australian universities and is headquartered by QUT in Brisbane.

Innovation frameworks and funding – Australia has three levels of government, all seeking to support the food industry in its development as a contributor to our economy and sustainable employment. Local, State and Federal agencies are all seeking to engage with and support the food industry. In many cases they are also looking to fund R&D and Innovation efforts to develop our industry as a world leader.

Science / Education – our schools, universities and research centres are some of the best in the world and are producing outstanding skills, talented graduates and innovation that can create a step change in our industry. CSIRO are at the forefront of science focused on food and agriculture and are always looking for commercial opportunities that have impact. If we want better food, we can’t leave it to mother nature and CSIRO are changing the game on many fronts.

It’s been said countless times that we’ll need to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Our ability to achieve this isn’t about scale it’s about efficiency and that will come from innovation.

For our food supply chain to scale we must innovate first with a view on eliminating inefficiency so that as we scale the benefits are compounded. New systems, processes, products and thinking is more important to Queensland food sector than more hectares.

To provide our markets with more quality, more nutrition and faster, cleaner, safer, cheaper and more sustainably, is about changing our approach. The rewards for those who adapt will outweigh the rewards for those who seek only to grow.

Brett Wiskar, Commercial Technology and Innovation Director at Wiley.