Originally published in the New Zealand Herald

Tim McCready talks to Agritech New Zealand’s Peter Wren-Hilton about the future of the agritech industry, NZ’s place in the world, and how to build an agritech company from here

Herald: What are the big challenges and trends shaping the agritech industry globally?
Peter Wren-Hilton: The biggest long-term challenge is how to feed a global population of close on 10 billion people by 2050. This will require an increase in food production of 70 per cent. This is against a backdrop of more extreme weather events that impact on agricultural production, climate change, a major shift of population from rural to urban areas, changing land use, as well as the regulatory and consumer concerns of environmental impact.

The question facing the agritech sector is: how can technology and innovation meet these challenges in a more environmentally sustainable way while managing at the same time to increase food production to meet the demands of population growth?

One significant emerging trend over the past five years has been an exponential increase in venture investment into the global agritech sector. This funding is allowing agritech companies to deploy new technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and big data into platforms that can help address these major challenges. We are beginning to see this trend take hold in New Zealand with the recent announcement of a new agritech-focused venture fund based out of Palmerston North.

Herald: Which areas can New Zealand agritech lead the world in?
Wren-Hilton: New Zealand has a deep understanding of food production and an extensive scientific community in both the public and private sector to support it. Our farmers and growers are naturally innovative and this has seen New Zealand lead in many areas of agri-technology over the years.

Today, I would highlight two specific areas where New Zealand excels: genetics, together with robotics, automation and sensing.

In genetics, New Zealand has a number of strengths. From the ability of Plant and Food Research and Zespri to develop new kiwifruit cultivars to the development of new growing systems designed to make harvesting with robots and automation platforms easier. As the country faces increasing labour shortages in its horticulture and viticulture sectors, particularly during the peak picking seasons, these technologies will help our growers produce more fruit by automating the harvesting (picking) process. Companies working in New Zealand’s robotics, automation and sensing agritech space are leveraging the benefits that these genetic developments are bringing. This excellence is today being recognised offshore and there is a significant opportunity for New Zealand to increase export sales to help farmers and growers overseas address the same labour issues.

Herald: How do we overcome the challenges that come from building an agritech company from here?
Wren-Hilton: At Agritech New Zealand, we understand the challenges faced by many of our early stage, emerging agritech companies. We work closely with government agencies such as Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) to bring overseas investors and potential global partners into New Zealand to connect and engage with the country’s agritech ecosystem. We also take delegations offshore to meet potential partners and customers. With the twin challenges of access to capital and distance to market, this is an activity that many of our smaller emerging agritech startups otherwise struggle with.

Herald: The ‘all of Government’ agritech taskforce was recently launched. What are the goals of the taskforce and how will it support the sector?
Wren-Hilton: The ‘all of Government’ agritech taskforce was established at the back-end of 2018 to identify common initiatives that a number of government agencies could work on collectively to support the growth of the agritech sector. The government realised that innovation and technology can potentially address some of the major challenges mentioned earlier. The joint taskforce means that rather than working in silos, initiatives can now be managed across government departments, working as one to get better results.

The taskforce is working with Agritech New Zealand to get input and feedback from industry into the draft strategy document published by Minister Parker in Wellington earlier this month. By working with industry, it is our intention to ensure the initiatives and actions undertaken address real issues to provide long-term support for both the agritech and wider primary industry sectors.

Herald: Last month you took a delegation of agritech companies to the US. What were some of the highlights from the visit?
Wren-Hilton: This was a very focused group of 20-plus researchers and entrepreneurs in the agri robotics, automation and sensor space. Last year, Agritech New Zealand signed a strategic Partnership Agreement with Western Growers, the largest producers of fresh produce in North America. Last month’s delegation spent a week with Western Growers, speaking to their members to get a better understanding of the major challenge they were facing: Labour shortages. It meant that hundreds of millions of dollars of fresh produce was not being picked and the problems are getting much worse. Whole sectors of the specialty crop sector are at risk. Western Growers believe that New Zealand agri technology can help them address this challenge. Some prototype New Zealand robotic harvesters are already being tested on Western Grower properties.

I have been organising these offshore visits for several years now with the support of Callaghan Innovation and NZTE. By maintaining ever-closer relationships with these major offshore partners, the future for New Zealand’s agritech sector is looking increasingly bright.