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Big data poised to transform NZ farming

Big Data is a buzz word often used in conjunction with analytics, finance, statistics, or other information technology-related topics. But does it could it have any genuine relevance to the agriculture sector? New Zealand AgResearch senior data scientist, Jeremy Bryant, strongly believes that it does.

The research institute is using big data to explore new ways of working including a multidisciplinary programme called the New Zealand Bioeconomy in the Digital Age (NZBIDA). The programme will harness the power of digital technologies to enable the transformation of New Zealand’s food systems.

The Strategic Science Investment Fund (SSIF) aids strategic investment in research programmes and scientific infrastructure that have long-term beneficial impact on New Zealand’s health, economy, environment, and society. Formed in December 2018, the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) approved a new SSIF platform for AgResearch, the NZBIDA.

The primary deliverable is a proof-of-concept that AgResearch will be both instrumental and necessary in helping transition New Zealand’s pastoral sector to one that is more agile, adaptive, and sustainable. AgResearch is developing up to 22 unique proofs-of-concept to demonstrate how digital technologies will enable this transformation.

“As a country, we recognise that we must transform our whole food production system,” said NZBIDA programme manager and Principal Scientist, Mark Shepherd. “AgResearch believes that digital technologies can help in a number of different and unique ways to achieve the move to high-value foods, diversified landscapes, the need for high-quality products with proven provenance, and much more.”

An objective of the programme is to encourage researchers to “fail fast or find early wins”. Jeremy Bryant explained that they previously had longer horizons for research. However, NZBIDA is about learning and being directed a little bit more by rapid proof of concept findings and using an agile way of working.

They are looking at novel ways to use data whether it be from the farm or a supply chain and figuring out the best way to organise and analyse it with big data technology. While people are familiar with gigabytes and megabytes; big data is getting into the range of peta and exabytes. Huge volumes of data that could extend into the billions or millions of records that need a lot of computing power.

Farm sensors are storing and sending an array of information and new technologies like virtual fencing technology need computing capacity. Big Data has the ability to help make informed decisions and change mindsets based on analytics, trends and information. But while it has enormous potential it comes with its own set of challenges. Key among this is the sheer volume of data.

Bryant said while regular satellite tracking might make it possible to capture numerous images and associated data “pulses”, a farmer would probably only want to see snapshots in time. “Typically, it comes in like a tidal wave and you can’t stop it. You’ve then got to say, okay, we’re getting this information every minute, so, really, I only want to aggregate it for an average for the day. That’s giving me the best insight for what’s happening for that animal at that time, or for the pasture.”

A paper in mid-2019 argues that with the increasing impact of climate change, the next revolution in precision agriculture and agriculture, in general, will be driven by Sustainable Precision Agriculture and Environment which could leverage past technologies combined with Big Data analysis.

Similarly, an article around the same time said that access to insights will make farmers’ lives easier and enable informed decisions, driving the next wave of productivity and sustainability improvements. Agritech companies around the world are taking notice and on-farm tech innovation is moving quickly, particularly as the cost of data capture and analysis reduces.

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