CEAT established its Fellows Program in late 2020 to harness relevant expertise to tackle agritech industry challenges and transform how industry and our research community collaborate and to grow next generation agritech capability. Below is an interview between Denise Higgins and one of our inaugral Fellows, Dr Rohan Rainbow.
Denise: Rohan what’s important to you about being a CEAT fellow?
Rohan: During my career I’ve had a lot of opportunity to engage with industries across Australia and also with a range of commercial companies and research organisations over many years. Through the lens of these experiences, the Fellowship gives me the opportunity to focus on what is actually needed by industry going forward for the next twenty to thirty years to both increase sustainable production but more importantly to maintain its Social Licence to produce in the global landscape. I now have time to think about what those technology needs are and how we could approach that through dialogue with industry.
Denise: What benefits do industry fellows offer the university that don’t come from other sources?
Rohan: Our producer level experiences. I’m very fortunate, I grew up on a farm, so I’ve had a lot of grass roots level experience. More importantly however, it is engagement with industry—for me not just grains but in horticulture, viticulture, cotton, rice and sugar. I understand how producers have progressed their production processes; made their businesses more resilient to the impacts of climate change and climate variability. At a very technical level I have the ability to integrate experiences, to really understand where the gaps are and where the needs are for industry and producers and apply technology to solve their very real problems.
Denise: So, starting where the real needs are of producers and industry…rather than what we think their needs are?
Rohan: Yes, essentially moving beyond—we’ve got a solution looking for a problem—instead the key is to develop technical solutions to the issues that industries are dealing with. One of the challenges that producers do have is that they don’t have the ability to see through the looking glass of what could be. What are the technical opportunities? Through my relationships with the research community and technology development sector, I can see where these technologies could potentially take us into the future.
Some of those technologies don’t actually yet exist in a functional form but there is potential for them to be developed. I am interested in how these potential technologies could fit within the production system and within the value chain to not only grow production and market confidence but also consumer confidence in how that product is produced.
Denise: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing agriculture, specifically in relation to agritech?
Rohan: If you look at what’s currently causing us pain it is climate variability. So, whether it’s the impact of frost or drought or too much rain, these sorts of things, are having a profound impact on production systems. For producers this is a very real issue that they have to deal with on a day by day basis and it puts their businesses at risk.
Other areas that have become pressing are agricultural trade and market access and also accessibility to critical production inputs. We’re in an interesting place currently in the global market space. Particularly with what we are observing in Asia, which is creating a lot of challenges for Australian producers.
Essentially, today we want to be able to demonstrate world’s best practice in terms of production. The question is how do you demonstrate that? Agriculture technology, particularly digital systems and sensor systems that support the validation of those production practices will go a long way towards addressing the need for that transparency. A big challenge going forward concerns standards. We actually have to play in the global marketplace space and work with others overseas to formulate global standards around how we communicate digitally across the value chain.
Denise: Rohan given that context and the challenges you’ve outlined, what would you like to achieve or contribute during your fellowship?
Rohan: I’ve reflected on what has actually given us the greatest boost in our agricultural production systems and capability in the last twenty-five years. Apart from plant genetics, crop protection and biotechnology, looking back about 70 percent of the technology that has delivered gains in our plant production systems originated from the military space.
These technologies encompass global positioning, telemetry and crop sensing systems—the types of technologies that actually give us the capability to monitor in real time. Given where these emerged from you have to ask what else is over the horizon? There is significant opportunity in military sensor technology and in the redirection of some technologies designed for military conflict application to address pest and disease issues or weeds within an agriculture context. How can we capture value for producers out of these future technologies?
Understandably these technologies are advanced and often classified in a secret context. Is there a way that we could facilitate a faster transfer of those technologies from the military space into agriculture? Such an approach would need to ensure both technology security and deal with concerns around foreign agent issues. To achieve such cross domain application and deployment we need to build a functional relationship within the research sector and with those working in the military technology research. There’s currently no mechanism to really do that properly and give confidence to government and also to the military technology companies and researchers about how that could work. Essentially what I’m going to consider is what do we need to do structurally in this country to create that translation opportunity in the research sector and perhaps scope how we could move forward.
CEAT is in the process of onboarding new Fellows from a range of professional and industry backgrounds and will share further stories and insights in future newsletters and blog posts.