Highlighting innovation – 10 Billion Mouths to Feed

New Farmlands Chief Financial Officer, Kevin Cooney, discusses agri-tech trends for the agri sector.

Tech Week is a week-long technology showcase event occurring in different centres across New Zealand throughout the week from 21st to 23rd May. It highlights latest innovations in technology across a range of sectors.

On 23rd May, “10 Billion Mouths to Feed” is the agri-tech industry component. This is just the second year of agri-tech having its own conference and already it's shaping up to be world-class.

I spoke at the event last year when it was “Farming 2020”. The thing that struck me talking to start-up companies and investors, having also been previously involved in forming partnerships between a large bank and start-ups innovating in areas of interest to the bank, was not only the great innovations being developed but also just how fragmented this important industry is in New Zealand. While there are pockets of excellence in various regions with amazing stuff being done, the reality is this effort is hard to scale to national, let alone global applications.

Another insight for me came from a conversation I’d had previously with an offshore venture capital fund targeting New Zealand agri-tech companies for investment. While New Zealand produces less than 3 percent of the world’s food, nonetheless they saw strong value potential in the potential of innovations in our agri economy to solve feeding the other 97 percent of the planet. They bring the capital connections and experience to scale these opportunities.

That’s great of course. But I thought if they can see that opportunity for scale, then why can’t we? And moreover, how do we develop the collaborations for identifying and growing these opportunities for export to the world from New Zealand owned by New Zealanders. This entailed looking into what we were doing to build a national vision and strategy to this end.

It turns out, not much.

Let’s put this opportunity into perspective. Israel’s agri-tech industry, one of the top 5 globally is a $10b export industry in its own right. That’s more than 10 times New Zealand’s industry. A recent report singled out their “smart farming” businesses as growing 3 times faster than other segments of their agri-tech industry. And Israel is two thirds desert with just 14 percent arable land. Their industry also attracts almost 7 percent of total global capital being invested into agri-tech. That’s a huge number. Ireland and the Netherlands have national strategies focused on driving value from their agri industries.

New Zealand by contrast has no national-level vision for this strategically important sector. One person deeply connected with Silicon Valley told me that his contacts in the US noted that they struggled to understand New Zealand agri-tech as an industry (unlike Israel). They see lots of parties from New Zealand but none when asked could talk to a clear New Zealand story or vision for their industry.

Having national coherency on this matters because it’s the basis for galvanising the networks and connections so critical for creating globally relevant companies off the back of our valuable innovations.

Consequently, at that talk last year and other events showcasing agritech, I along with others called out the need for New Zealand to create a clear vision for the industry and to nurture a coherent nationalscale ecosystem for ensuring the discovery, growth and scaling up of our best tech ideas and companies.

To get this moving, last year we formed a steering committee to scope a national agri-tech strategy, which we termed the agri-tech cluster, for want of a better name. Chiefly through the work of Peter Wren- Hilton, that has since morphed into New Zealand AgriTech. Peter and NZ AgriTech have been instrumental in organising “10 Billion Mouths to Feed”, including having some of the most influential investors in food and agri-tech in the world attending. US fund, Yamaha Ventures is a major sponsor of the event for example and have recently also announced an investment into a Bay of Plenty robotics business. Others include Bayer, Finistere Ventures and Pepsi.

Their participation is a clear endorsement of the value in our agri innovations. We owe it to our industry to work with them to develop this and I plan on working closely with my colleagues in the co-operative to ensure this potential is developed for the future success of our members.