AgTech News Dashboard: 17 August 2020

In this edition of the news dashboard powered by AgTech Finder we examine the way in which agtech is supporting Australia’s biosecurity efforts. Through artificial intelligence, blockchain and 3D printing, researchers are managing to stay ahead of some of the most serious threats to Australian agriculture. An Australian digital platform for comparing and purchasing farm inputs goes international, and nanotechnology that applies polymer coatings to crop inputs promises greater precision and control for growers.

Image: Purple Hive Project, Bega Cheese Limited

Agtech safeguarding Australian biosecurity

Australian agriculture has long benefited from the continent’s distance and isolation from the rest of the world. This has enabled Australia to remain free of some of the most serious pests and diseases that have devastated agriculture and horticultural industries in other countries.

But increasing globalisation and mobility has meant that the threat of incursions is ever present, and occasionally, breaches occur. In 2016, an outbreak of white spot disease in prawns cost the prawn industry more than $100 million, and impacted industries up and down the supply chain.

There is enormous potential for agtech to support Australia’s biosecurity efforts, and recent breakthroughs are proving that it will be critical to preserving Australia’s pest and disease-free status across a range of primary industries.

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Farmers Business Network expands to Australia with Farmsave acquisition

US-based Farmers Business Network (FBN) is expanding to Australia after announcing the acquisition of local startup Farmsave.

Already operational in the US and Canada, California-headquartered FBN offers farmers a digital platform for comparing, pricing, and buying inputs for their businesses. Close to 12,000 farmers are members of its network, covering over 38 million acres across the two North American countries, according to Baron.

Based in Perth, Western Australia, Farmsave provides a similar online marketplace and price index for inputs, allowing farmers to purchase supplies more efficiently. It has more than 5,000 farmer members from across Australia signed up to its platform.

Baron said that Australian farmers face similar challenges to their US and Canadian counterparts when it comes to buying inputs due to the amount of consolidation in the industry, particularly in chemicals and seeds.

“We believe that growers’ incomes have been under an enormous amount of pressure, in part due to highly consolidated interests and the lack of basic market needs like price transparency on the most important inputs that farmers need to purchase,” Baron said.

“We got really excited when we met Dirk [Butter, Farmsave founder] because he has exactly the same philosophy of creating an online membership to give farmers the ability to do business in the fairest way possible and get the best deals they can in the market.”

From July, Australian farmers will be able to join FBN, and Farmsave’s existing members will be migrated to the US company’s platform.

First published as Farmers Business Network expands to Australia with Farmsave acquisition, AgFunderNews, 21 July 2020.

Vive’s nanotech-powered crop inputs receive a boost

Canadian start-up Vive has recently received new funding to further develop its precision crop input technology. Vive has developed the Allosperse delivery system, which uses nanotechnology to enhance existing chemical and biological inputs for farmers. Essentially, this takes existing chemical or bio-based inputs that farmers are already accustomed to, but delivers them in a new way using nano-scale technology.

“We take the existing product and wrap it in these small polymer particles. When we do that, those particles now control how the active ingredient interacts with its environment and how it behaves when it’s on the farm,” CEO Darren Anderson explains.

For example, an active ingredient that typically falls apart when mixed with certain types of fertilizer could be enveloped in Vive’s polymers to be co-mixed and co-applied with fertilizer and other inputs. For farmers, this means less labor time and greater overall efficiency in their input application programs.

Vive has so far focused on developing a line of its own branded products, but has increasingly garnered interest from existing players in the ag inputs space keen to work with it.

Anderson says, “It’s differentiated value-added products that create new market opportunities for some of these older chemistries.”

This involves both traditional chemical-based inputs and the emerging bio-based segment. Like many others in the field, Anderson thinks there are challenges around biological inputs when it comes to consistency and efficacy. Vive has been combining both types in an attempt to offer farmers the best of both worlds: chemical reliability, plus bio’s benefits.

First published as Vive’s nanotech-powered crop inputs land $5.4m funding, AgTechFunder News, 28 July 2020.

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Shutterstock/Iaremenko Sergii

Blockchain offers food safety at speed of thought

The deputy commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, Frank Yiannas, says blockchain technology can help consumers and farmers during a food safety crisis.

One of the biggest benefits to the blockchain technology in food production is it helps health officials immediately trace the source of contamination in a food safety problem.

“Often when there are food scares, public health officials have a very difficult time tracing back those foods to the source quickly,” Yiannas said.

He referred to an e Coli outbreak in 2018 that was linked to romaine lettuce. People across the country were becoming ill, but the FDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) couldn’t quickly trace the illnesses back to the source.

“Rightfully so, we did what consumers would expect us to do: a public health advisory,” he said, noting that through the advisory, consumers were cautioned to not eat romaine lettuce.

The problem with doing that was that the agencies knew not all romaine was contaminated.

“So in essence, you damage the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers who probably produced a perfectly safe product,” Yiannas said.

That could have been avoided if the lettuce producers were using blockchain technology.

A trial involving a package of sliced mangoes compared the time it took to trace those mangoes back to the source farm. A US FDA team of people took six days and 18 hours to trace the package. Another package, which utilised blockchain, took less than three seconds from scanning a code on the package to trace the product to the source.

“That’s food traceability at the speed of thought,” said Yiannas. “If there’s illnesses, we can pinpoint them quickly, prevent additional consumers from getting ill, but if there’s contaminated product, we can pinpoint the scope of those advisories and recalls and not necessarily damage the livelihood of farmers that are not involved.”

First published as FDA: Blockchain offers food safety at the speed of thought, WattAgNet.com, 13 July 2020

FreshChain digitises end-to-end traceability

The Australian government has invested in an advanced blockchain traceability system that will help protect the country’s safe food image and boost export opportunities for farmers.

Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said North Sydney-based FreshChain Systems will use A$195,000 in Traceability Grants Programme funding to digitise end-to-end traceability in horticulture across Australia.

“FreshChain's end-to-end traceability system has broad applications across all food, fibre and agricultural products for authentication, provenance, food safety and consumer engagement,” said Littleproud.

“This system ensures food safety, biosecurity and traceability will benefit all participants in the supply chain.

“It supports the National Traceability Framework and protects the Australian brand in export markets by preventing food fraud, reducing food waste and maintaining consumer confidence,” he noted. “It’s important during these challenging times have a resilient fresh food supply system.”

Littleproud highlighted innovations like FreshChain would help the industry become more transparent, allowing domestic and international consumers gain a real time insight of the origins and safety of agricultural products. FreshChain director, Greg Calvert, said its goal is to help build a resilient fresh food supply chain where systems speak the same language to enhance Australia’s reputation as a supplier of fresh and safe food.

First published as FreshChain digitises end-to-end traceability, FruitNet, 4 August 2020.