Angus Dunne (second from left) is a Masters of Science student at the Australian National University, with a focus on Agricultural Innovation. He told CEAT Innovation News about his experience attending the recent evokeAG 2023 agri food tech conference.
As a soon to be graduate of the Master of Science Agricultural Innovation, evokeAG provided more than a few light bulb moments. I have been grappling with the theory and application of innovation over the past 18 months through study, so was keen to see what that might look like in practice. evokeAG showcased a different pathway to innovation in agriculture: the potential of entrepreneurial businesses in the food systems.
Traditionally, significant changes in agriculture and land management have required government funding or policy change, a process which is slow and more suited to incremental change than to true innovation. With the growth of the Australian and international agri tech sectors, with the right funding a start up can identify a need, develop a product to meet that need and take it to the market, all while bypassing the traditional mechanisms for change. If it works and is needed, logic follows that market adoption will be driven by the users. While this is a simplistic explanation; the wider community and infrastructure to facilitate this style of innovation, research and adoption, is considerably different to Australia’s past models.
As an attendee at the evokeAG conference, I was able to experience the diversity of start ups working in the Australian agriculture industry, and listen to wide-ranging discussions around funding models, trade barriers, logistics and leadership. I left the conference with no doubt of the role for ag tech in Australia’s future and the excitement that it is generating. A recurring theme throughout proceedings was the need for relationships and trust. In almost every discussion – from how do you decide to invest, to how do we move natural capital markets forward – trust and relationships are front and centre.
I have two observations of the conference and perhaps wider society at this junction; the first is that only a handful of speakers addressed the challenges ahead with urgency. While I believe it is fundamentally important that we celebrate our success and progress along the way, I think it can be dangerous when this celebration masks the very real changes and challenges awaiting us.
My second observation is nearly all of the start ups and discussions focused around the capacity of the ag tech sector to reduce the emissions of current processes and practices. The elephant in the room was the wider conversation of how we draw down existing and future emissions. Sam Trethewey of the Tasmanian Agricultural Company put it well when he said that the fundamental issues facing Australian agriculture don’t require a tech solution, they require an ecological solution. This thread of ecological literacy shone most brightly in the discussion of Indigenous knowledge with the recognition that food systems and innovation have much to gain from listening to and partnering with Indigenous Australians.
Finally, I found a presentation by Tim Jarvis on lessons from Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s leadership, inspiring from the get-go. Dealing with uncertainty was a key theme of Tim’s presentation. In agriculture we are working with complex adaptive systems and wicked problems, and thus the only certainty is uncertainty. Principle-based management which allows the user to adapt with the uncertainty is a potential tool in the tool box. Tim highlights the need for a vision to remain intact during this adaption, suggesting we can change our goals relatively easy, provided our vision is consistent. Key takeaway? Get clear on what you want to achieve and take it one step at a time.
In the wider context of adaption and mitigation to climate change, industry variety, the health of humans and landscapes, I don’t think working in any area holds as much promise and potential as our food systems. Perhaps, with the exception of education.
Angus was one of six students supported to attend the evokeAG conference through a CEAT sponsorship