Right now, we’re facing two major global imperatives: climate change and food security.
We need to meet growing world demand for more sustainable and healthy foods in a way that also looks after the land and meets the growing expectations of consumers.
Innovative science and technology can support agriculture and food industries to adapt and solve some of our most critical challenges.
The opportunities are wide-ranging - from building climate resilience, to delivering next generation biotechnology to create new industries.
So, let’s take a deeper look at future trends and some of the research opportunities shaping the agriculture and food industries.
Building resilient and sustainable agriculture
We have all seen the growing interest of consumers, shareholders, governments, and businesses in the sustainability performance of the agrifood sector. Increasing numbers of groups have a growing stake in what the industry does. There’s the rise of movements like regenerative agriculture and concerns about our rural industries’ social licence to operate as we journey to Net Zero.
Thanks to more than 100 years of innovation, Australia has one of the world’s most sustainable agricultural industries.
The sector has much to celebrate in demonstrating existing sustainability credentials, but we need to innovate and find new ways to support farmers and the supply chain to adapt to a changing climate.
Sometimes claims of sustainability performance can be hard to quantify. We need to look at new ways of bringing the relevant data together so that the sector can provide more robust, relevant and timely measures of sustainability performance.
Beyond just reporting, organisations can then use this information to monitor and improve their performance. A good example is greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Tools like FarmPrint can calculate a farm’s greenhouse gas footprint and quantify reductions due to changes in farm practice.
Another example is demand for succinct and relevant measures of farm animal welfare outcomes that can be used by farmers, processors and retailers to give confidence to consumers. Measuring welfare is not an easy task and is a great science challenge. It involves sensing animal behaviour, measuring environment factors including stressors, and integrating this across the lifetime of the animal.
Data and digital capability underpin everything we do. Thirty years ago, the major digital innovation shaping agriculture research was building, improving, and using simulation models of farming systems, and using them to predict outcomes, all without the array of data that is now available to us. Models were our way of “filling in the blanks”, extrapolating our empirical understanding from field studies, which then guided further research. We have moved on a lot since then.
Now digital applications in agriculture are informed by the ready availability of satellite data, weather records, detailed soil maps, farm practices being recorded by management software, prices and costs in the market, and product tracking beyond the farm. Industry stakeholders, such as input suppliers, logistics and handling, insurers, bankers and governments, can also use information for more informed decision-making and greater efficiency.
The company, Digital Agriculture Services, is able to stack and synthesise multiple data layers for every farm in Australia that they have geolocated, and then apply the information to diverse customers to inform their decisions.
Data and digital is also transforming the way we do research, conduct experiments, progress genetic improvement of plants and animals, and communicate our results to end users. Enabling greater speed, automation and more informed decision-making. Digital decision tools, including better climate forecasts, will be critical in enabling adaptation to a changing and more variable climate
Next generation biotech
The first wave of biotech to sweep the agricultural sector was in the form of genetic transformation and the creation of genetically modified (GM) crops. A lot of big promises were made, but not all were realised, including improved photosynthesis or nutrient uptake by crops. But since the late 1990s, GM cotton and canola crops, have been leading the way. GM has generated significant benefits – from greater yields to reduced pesticide use – for farmers, agribusiness and consumers.
Now, next generation science will use biotechnology in two new ways to create food products at scale and more sustainably while able to cope with future climate challenges
Firstly, precision fermentation will allow us to manufacture molecules, compounds, active ingredients and products using synthetic organisms, such as yeasts, to convert into food and livestock feed. These microbes will be powered by biomass, sourced in part from agriculture. Instead of paddocks growing crops, pastures and livestock, the “factory” will be stainless steel vats growing colonies of microbes at work.
Secondly, gene editing will allow us to more precisely engineer the genome of target crops and animal organisms. Whether this will be acceptable to regulators and consumers remains to be seen. That’s why science is crucial for testing and ensuring the safety and efficacy of new techniques and products before those products come to market. Robust data is needed to grow confidence in the science and build trust with regulators and the general public.
Adding value across the supply chain
Australia has traditionally produced and exported raw commodities with little attention to the benefits of value-adding. In fact, about 70 per cent of produce, including grains and meat is sent overseas as bulk commodities. An exciting frontier for research is to explore seamless integration of production and processing science, to create new value-adding opportunities for Australian farm produce.
Another significant opportunity is the use of agricultural waste, given around a third of all food that is produced is lost at some point across the food supply chain. Much of this agricultural waste is a by-product of processing, but there is opportunity to harness this waste to create high value products.
Waste recycling is part of a bigger movement towards the circular economy to improve environmental outcomes. There are many great examples where this is already happening in agriculture. The new frontier is to think about how industries might collaborate so that one industry’s waste can become another’s value input.
For example, Nutri-V is an Australian company that’s using CSIRO science to turn fresh vegetable waste into powders for use in a range of new retail food products.
Growing the future of Australian farming and food
At CSIRO, we have big ambitions for innovating Australia’s agriculture and food industry into the future.
Research and development will continue to support the sector to navigate climate change while reducing the environmental footprint. But we need to ensure this doesn’t happen at the expense of growth and productivity. There’s a range of opportunities to create higher value products for domestic and international markets.
More productive and sustainable farming will not only improve the livelihoods of rural communities it will lead to safer and more affordable food and fibre options for all Australians.