“Does agritech affect the person in the street? Absolutely,” says Peter Wren-Hilton, Executive Director at Agritech, an innovation hub using technology to find alternatives to traditional farming methods.

“Consumers are concerned about sustainability and provenance and are becoming more focused on environmental effects. It’s that area where agritech has such a huge role to play,” he says.

Agriculture is New Zealand’s largest single export sector. Dairy, milk and honey are responsible for 27% of our total exports worldwide. Innovation is reaping its own rewards for a nation which has an ancient and unbreakable relationship with land, sea and sky. Approximately 900 agritech firms are operating currently in New Zealand; their products and services are generating $1.5 billion in agritech export revenue globally.

From GPS for cows and robotic kiwifruit pickers, to tackling food production inefficiencies and global warming, New Zealand agritech is at the forefront of these developments and out to solve the planet’s big issues.

Top of those environmental concerns is Co2 emissions. Around 70 billion farm animals are produced for food each year, worldwide. The livestock industry contributes 7.1 gigatonnes of Co2-equiv annually, representing 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions.

The latest figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations state that ‘cattle raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power, are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.’

While Co2 accounts for 81% of all greenhouse gases, methane is more potent, trapping 84 times more heat in a 20-year period. The good news is that New Zealand contributes a mere 0.17% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is projected to meet its unconditional 2020 emissions target by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol.

“We pride ourselves on being very efficient grass farmers, and that’s still a very strong ethos for New Zealanders and New Zealand farming,” says Mark Aspin, General Manager at the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc), which provides knowledge and tools for farmers to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.

Mark suggests that there’s still plenty more work to be done as a nation. “We’re going to have to do something about agriculture’s contribution [to greenhouse gas emissions] because it’s such a large part of our emissions output and of course agriculture is a massive part of our economy, employment and infrastructure. It’s what our country is built around,” he says.

And contrary to popular belief, around 90-95% of the methane released by cows is from ‘cow burps.’ A mere 5-10% is released as flatulence and manure. The PGgRc is currently working on the ground-breaking development of a vaccine that targets methane-producing microbes in the rumen (the first and largest stomach of a ruminant).

“The vaccine is an exciting concept. When you vaccinate the animals with these bugs, or with the proteins from those bugs, you do get antibodies. So, what we’re trying to do is get the immune system to create enough antibodies to get to the rumen and against the methanogens so they can slow them down and stop working.”

Mark acknowledges that there’s a long testing, trialling and regulatory process ahead – from lab bench to animal trials and the market place – but this kind of work can help make New Zealand a frontrunner in tackling climate change.

“This is something New Zealand has led since around 2007. The nature of this kind of approach is that if it works, you could vaccinate your animals as part of core farm practice and animal welfare. It means that any farm system around the world could reduce its emissions.”

Over in Paeroa in northern Waikato, AgriSea sells a seaweed solution to farmers as an alternative to traditional fertiliser. New Zealand native seaweed contains an adundance of minerals, vitamins and amino acids that provide many health benefits for cattle. Furthermore, diets that contain small amounts of seaweed will reduce methane emissions from belching cows by 80%, according to new and preliminary findings by Penn State University in the USA.

Out in the field, Auckland and Waikato-based start-up Halter has created the world’s first high-tech cow collar, which uses technology to create a simpler, more ethical and sustainable farming future.

Using the adjoining app, farmers can monitor animal welfare more effectively (it will alert the user when a cow is lame, sick or on heat), enable optimised virtual break fences to manage precise pasturing, and use live maps to keep track of cow movements.

When a cow walks to a particular point where you would normally find the fence, the GPS position knows exactly where that cow is, and effectively encourages the cow not to go beyond that point. This keeps the animals ‘close to home,’ stops them wandering into dangerous areas, and saves time for
the farmer who is able to track herds more efficiently.

New Zealand’s ‘open air laboratory’ is seen by the agritech industry as the ideal testing ground to make agricultural practices safer, simpler and greener. Its location on the world map, multiple climates and unique geography and topography is something that should be tapped into, according to Peter.

“Within a relatively small country, we’ve got numerous environments, where we can test and trial different technologies which can then be sold to the rest of the world. That’s something that New Zealand has only become aware of in the past three to five years.

“We always looked at ourselves as being very distant from global markets. Now it’s possible for European and North American companies to come down to New Zealand to conduct ground-breaking research and development when their season is effectively ‘closed’.”

Down on the farm, Robotics Plus is a Tauranga firm that is taking horticulture into the next century and beyond. It has developed a robot which picks kiwifruit, and its apple picker is attracting interest from the US. Robotic pickers don’t get tired and can work 24 hours day, so automating the fruit picking process can solve the crippling labour shortage currently being experienced in America.

Unofficial estimates suggest there are as many as two million farmworkers in America, and a significant percentage of them are migrant workers. However, this figure is experiencing a year-on-year decline as the workforce is returning to native countries in numbers larger than seen before.

Utilising robot pickers also means less waste, as more ripe fruit can be picked, and that means more available food for human consumption. Launching later this year, New Zealand will be taking ownership of the global food challenge with a new agritech initiative.

The world’s population will reach 10 billion people by 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production. Farm2050 has been established to solve this issue and is backed by several globally-recognised companies.

As more and more global organisations ask New Zealand to find solutions to the world’s biggest environmental and societal problems, its agritech sector is acknowledged as an influential, creative and innovative thought-leader and pioneer. 

Reported by Ben Whittacker-Cook for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue

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