Agriculture is having its moment in the sun. Growing global demand for food supported by a significant injection of new capital is creating opportunities not seen in the industry for a very long time. To capitalise on opportunities agriculture needs to attract and retain new people, with new skills, to solve big problems. It is the new thinking that will drive the industry forward.

This year we participated in two rounds of iPREP, a six-week program which runs in Western Australia that is a collaboration between universities. It provides an opportunity for PhD students who have finished their thesis but not yet got their results to gain industry experience. We had six students, two physicists, an entomologist, a molecular biologist, GIS expert and a statistician. Even more interesting they were from six countries, Romania, Brazil, Iran, Iraq, Mongolia and Australia. They knew very little about agriculture and nothing about using data to improve fertiliser decisions.

What they lacked in knowledge they all made up for in problem solving skills, their thinking wasn’t constrained by past experience. We presented the problem and they went about solving it using out of the box thinking. The result was process that allow us to deliver the customers’ order. The work they did wasn’t research, it had real commercial implications. While it is important to have some people with the skills and experience in agriculture, solving big problems can be achieved by using skills from outside the industry.

The traditional skills of plant breeding, crop nutrition, soil science, agronomy will continue to be important, but the process students go through to gaining these skills constrains their thinking. While it is important to respect the scientific process used to develop the knowledge that is taught to students. We must also be prepared not be to challenge the science, especially in this new age of technology.

To develop true innovation in agriculture we must be prepared to take a risk, attract and employ new people with new skills. Who knew that skills learnt looking for blackholes, discovering new gas deposits deep underground and understanding the Chinese electricity market could be applied to improve fertiliser decisions for farmers. We didn’t, but we do now.

‘Industries don’t get disrupted from within, they get disrupted from outside’


Original article published on LinkedIn, 12 December 2018