The broadband revolution

Australia is using broadband to revitalise farming. SA is falling behind, warns Santam’s Gerhard Diedericks.

It is commonly accepted that communication technology powered by broadband and smart devices has changed almost every aspect of commercial activity. This fact has not been lost on the agriculture sector in certain countries.
Internationally, harnessing broadband is not motivated merely for the sake of change; there are many commercial reasons for smart farming.

In Australia, for example, the growing global demand for food has stimulated a National Food Plan that aims to “increase the value of its agriculture and food-related exports by 45% by 2025”. This is according to a new report, “Smart Farming”, released earlier this year by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

The country has agreed that it needs to make a “step change in its productivity” and harness technology and the national broadband roll-out plan to improve sustainable farming by reducing net carbon emissions per unit of food and fibre. It aims to do this by creating low-cost sensor technology, local wireless systems, smart devices, cloud computing and video-conferencing facilities, all running off high-speed networks that spider out into rural areas to drive efficiency and productivity.

According to the report, CSIRO has helped establish several smart-farm initiatives where it has deployed sensors to monitor soil moisture, temperature and livestock, and creating an information stream to support flexible decision-making for pasture and livestock management.

The information, says CSIRO, is supported by ‘information layers’ – fence lines, topography, and so forth – using commercially available technology. Early trends suggest that there are benefits for soil fertility improvements, feed allocation, animal production and animal health monitoring. For instance, remote veterinarians can use something close to video-conferencing to advise farmers on livestock issues.

At a higher level, opportunities to integrate data into vertical supply chains to drive innovation in processing, distribution and marketing are being seen. Researchers are also identifying ways of enhancing biosecurity, food and food security through early detection and monitoring of incidents. This makes it easier to provide consumers with information on the source of food – something that more and more people are demanding. Methodologies for biomass and carbon accounting could become additional revenue streams for farmers through the emerging carbon market.

Local backlog
From a South African perspective, it is becoming possible to address the unmet demand from rural communities for better access to education, health, and other social and communication services. But what Australia is aiming to do is capitalise on a growing opportunity in order to revitalise the sector. It is difficult to see how our farmers can remain competitive in the face of this rapid development.

Few other nations have a backlog in development quite like South Africa. The National Development Plan (NDP) spells out many other challenges faced here, including access to, and redistribution of, land, the need to develop a small-scale farming sector, financing, access to irrigation and other infrastructure challenges. Many of these have seen farmers leave the land with few new young farmers to replace them. All the while, there is a growing demand for produce from a growing population, making food security a major issue.

Rarely have South Africa’s country’s farmers had to face as many challenges as they do today. In an unforgiving country, with water a scarcity, land a challenge and skills becoming rarer, we owe it to our farmers and ourselves to prioritise the resolution of as many challenges as we can – and technology has the happy habit of helping to do just that.

The NDP states that “with the right approach it is possible to reverse the decline in the agriculture sector, promote food production and raise rural income and employment”. It encourages the creation of an enabling environment and notes
the role of “an improved communications infrastructure” in this regard. But without a national broadband rollout, that infrastructure is hampered.

Our farmers are surely desperate to see the many matters they face resolved, even acknowledging that many are complex. The world has not stopped, and as the Australian project shows, our farmers’ competitors may end up so far ahead that we are simply unable to compete.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.