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NZ's agritech sector 'urgently' needs to focus on AI

When it comes to New Zealand agriculture, artificial intelligence (AI) is a game changer and companies can, and should, be doing much more in this space, according to a new report.

The new AI Forum of New Zealand report ‘AI for Agriculture / Ahuwhenua i te Atamai Iahiko’ examines the New Zealand and international AI industry landscapes for agriculture and investigates AI’s potential impacts for New Zealand’s place in the global food value chain.

AI Forum executive director Ben Reid says their research shows New Zealand urgently needs to increase its focus on the core foundations needed to operate in an AI enabled future, particularly using data throughout the food value chain, not just behind the farmgate.

"The rapid development of AI technologies presents major opportunities and challenges for our country. New Zealand needs to actively engage with AI now in order to secure our future prosperity," he says.

Agriculture and horticulture play a dominant role in New Zealand’s economy with food exports - dairy products, meat, fruit, wine, fish and seafood - making up around 40% of New Zealand’s $80 billion annual exports.

However, the agriculture sector continues to face significant ongoing challenges including climate change, low productivity growth, labour shortages, increasing regulation and environmental sustainability, the report says.

The report identifies how AI can be used in diverse use cases throughout the food supply chain: yield optimisation, addressing labour shortages, meat alternative research, food quality assurance, isolating disease outbreaks in animals and plants, waste reduction, biosecurity and conversion efficiency.

AI technologies can also be applied to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture in New Zealand and supporting more sustainable practices.

“On the food testing front, we are seeing the application of AI help develop new test methods and interpret complex test outputs faster, and machine vision used as an alternative test method in some applications,” says Reid.

“We are starting to see digital twins of farms and orchards emerge which simulate operating and business models to allow smarter, no-risk cause and effect modelling,” he says.

An innovative research project supported by Callaghan Innovation uses machine vision AI for animal identification - applying facial recognition for sheep to reduce the cost of tagging and improve animal tracking.

Darren Wilson, chief digital officer of research partner AsureQuality, says with the accelerating rate and scale at which we can produce data, it is only through using emerging AI capabilities to collect, collate, curate and crunch these datasets that we can stay ahead of our competition and meet societies challenges head on.

“As a country we need to leverage our knowhow in food production, whilst meeting the challenges of supplying food in an increasingly discriminating world. The good news is that we are starting to see the building blocks emerge.

“While there is some agricultural AI activity in New Zealand, it is disproportionately focused behind the farmgate, the report says. On-farm commercial activity to date appears to be focused on sensors, precision farm data with smarter alerts, robotics and decision support,” Reid says.

“In the end, how we progress in shaping New Zealand’s place in the worlds food system will depend on how boldly we step up to the AI horizon. The conversation and activity in AI need to lift from behind the farmgate to include the whole value chain. AI is the 21st century’s number 8 wire - enabling New Zealand to achieve a premium position in the global food supply,” Reid says.

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