I recently attended Techweek, New Zealand's annual festival of innovation, which this year included 540 events in 24 locations around the country. Following my visits to this event and to local farms and universities, I came to the inescapable conclusion that New Zealand is clearly punching above its weight when it comes to ag innovation. This is all the more remarkable considering that the local agricultural economy is heavily dependent on exporting lamb, beef and dairy, even as consumers around the world are turning to alternative protein sources. I suppose adversity forces one to either adapt, or perish!
New Zealand agriculture is dealing with the same issues facing other industrialized societies: increasing urbanization, high cost/low availability of labor, stricter environmental regulations, traceability in the food chain (particularly relevant for an economy based on farm exports), market volatility and shifting consumer preferences. While some of these may seem overwhelming, our Kiwi friends have figured out something that all of us should remember – the answer to these issues is more ag innovation, not less. New Zealanders are pulling together – farmers, researchers, entrepreneurs and government – in a very conspicuous effort to encourage investment in and development of new agricultural technologies.
A good example of this is the New Zealand company, Robotics Plus, who are developing robots capable of pollinating and harvesting kiwifruit right off the vine. Their vision is to supply quality fresh produce to the global market while maintaining a competitive price point against processing alternatives. While there are many other high-tech developments underway or in development, New Zealand agriculture hasn’t lost sight of the consumer and is developing new food varieties (such as smooth-skin kiwifruits) and technologies that can pack, track, and deliver safe, blemish-free foods around the world.
Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer
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Perhaps because they inherently understand that the value and beauty of a diverse landscape is tied to the preservation of its precious vegetative, soil and water resources, New Zealand’s government and people rightly take pride in being a global leader in low emissions agriculture. In a rising tide of greenhouse gas, New Zealand’s methane emissions were up by only 5 percent compared to 1990, while emissions per unit of production were down one percent per year over the past 15 years. Not satisfied with incremental improvement, the country is pursuing a zero emissions economy by 2050.
Like the strategy Bayer is pursuing, New Zealand is fostering a network of incubators and accelerators to create its own innovation ecosystem to encourage collaboration among entrepreneurs and investors to solve problems that are common to farmers worldwide. One of these is Sprout Agritech Accelerator, which plans to fund, train and mentor ag startups and provide them an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a hand-picked group of investors, corporate partners and potential customers. This type of effort is being repeated all over the globe. Innovation “hot spots” are springing up in the U.S., Israel, Australia and the Netherlands – just to name a few. And all of them are seeking the breakthrough technologies that will be needed to meet the world’s future global food security needs.
While visiting New Zealand’s Plant and Food Research center, I tasted one of the newly developed smooth-skin kiwifruits that can be consumed skin and all, and it was delicious. I also sampled another variety, which was not so delicious and therefore will go unnamed. But that’s the thing about innovation: you never know what you’re going to get until you try. And at Bayer, we will never stop trying. Innovation isn’t meant to be easy, but when it works, everyone gets to enjoy the fruits our labor.