Agritech our next big export industry?

Agricultural Minister Damien O’Connor and Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford, with a GPS-it drone at the Agritech ITP launch at Zespri.

Can New Zealand grow its agritech sector to better serve – and encourage more uptake from – Kiwi farmers and growers while also transforming it into a thriving export market?

That’s what the Government wants to achieve via its first Industry Transformation Plan – focused on growing NZ’s agritech sector – launched late-July at Zespri’s Mount Maunganui head office in front of representatives from across the primary sector spectrum.

Announcing an $11.4 million investment into implementing the ITP, as part of Budget 2020, Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford said his Government believes it can grow the agritech sector into a stronger economic contributor “increase agritech exports, and advance sustainable primary production in NZ”.

Key actions

The Agritech ITP – which sets out key actions to lift productivity of the sector – was co-developed with industry by a multi-agency agritech taskforce led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Key actions his government is supporting include commercialising new products, and establishing a horticultural robotics academy, says Minister Twyord.

“The Bay of Plenty has an exciting future as the home of a high-tech agricultural research and business community. We’ve picked this [agritech] as one of our first ITPs because we think it’s got the potential grow into a major cluster of large businesses that can export and take on the world by harnessing the really good science and the day-to-day experience of farmers and horticulturalists here in the BOP.”

Minister Twyord says everyone knows NZ has great farmers “but interestingly we haven’t really realised the potential of our agritech firms”. “They’ve all stayed quite small; they’ve been focused on solving problems in NZ. We think there is potential to grow them into large firms that can export their products, inventions across the globe and create a lot of well-paid jobs for NZers and generate export we need as a country.”

To help achieve this vision, the Minister says the ITP has a detailed plan to address challenges faced by the sector in a holistic way, with a specific focus on getting better at commercialising our Intellectual Property, attracting more capital investment into the industry, reorienting towards to delivering solutions for global markets “and ensuring we have skilled workers that we need to develop and use that agritech”.

Industry representatives will be a key part of governing this work, with industry organisation  Agritech NZ working to develop advisory groups to give input into delivery of each of the plan’s workstreams.

The Minister hopes growing agritech in NZ will also help lift levels of productivity domestically. “Over the last 30 years NZ has experienced productivity growth that is low by international standards. GDP growth has been largely achieved by more people working harder and longer, rather than improved productivity.”

Agricultural Minister Damien O’Connor was at the launch to release an industry-led report, ‘Aotearoa Agritech Unleashed’. It recommends strategic opportunities for the sector to pursue include: a strengthened commitment from the sector to the ITP as a joint government-and-industry strategic approach; developing a Trans-Tasman agritech strategy; and maximising local adoption of NZ agritech. 


A February 2020 MBIE report on the Agritech ITP says though innovations are being developed, uptake of some technology amongst Kiwi farmers has been slow. Minister O’Connor says availability of data, data analytics and decision support tools, and connectivity – particularly in rural areas – all inhibit uptake.

But he believes there’s a growing awareness among farmers, and a new generation coming in, that are more connected directly to consumers. “They kind of understand what they [consumers] are looking for – and so farmers will be looking for more modern tools.

“And while basic agritech got us to where we are now, it will be the new agritech that takes us to where we need to go. This will give acute awareness of everything we do in our production systems, environmental management etc – that we can sell to our consumers.”

Agritech NZ executive director Peter Wren-Hilton says NZ’s agritech industry working together and now collaborating directly with government is a rare-but-respected model.

“What other countries are finding very difficult to do is get all of the different stakeholders together; they still compete with each other, so this collaboration we have is almost uniquely Kiwi.

“The advantages are lots of industry representatives are able to talk to government the way they are today; and the fact now there’s now a joint plan that will be funded by government but led by industry. So it’s not a case of the report going back to Wellington to sit on a shelf, it will be very proactive.”

But adoption is challenged by one main issue – a lot of agritech systems don’t talk to each other globally, says Peter.

“Part of this ITP is to see how we can open up data so we are able to get more interoperability between agritech systems. If we do that, we think there will be way more uptake of this technology by farmers.”

Zespri chair Bruce Cameron supports the agritech ITP and the potential it offers NZ’s primary sector. “Anything that is about an investment in innovation and when you also merge that in with collaboration and NZ agribusiness, it has to, in the end, be a positive outcome in terms of ability to function and bring value for our markets.

“So it will not only bring innovation and new techniques and improvements, it will also bring more value back in over a shorter amount of time.”

Asked if Covid-19 has brought agritech’s potential to the fore, Minister Twyford says: ‘Yes’. “I think we have an advantage right now; the rest of the world is looking to NZ, a global safe haven for business. “People are looking to invest in NZ, they are watching to see what we’re doing here – and this agritech sector has so much potential.

“And while Covid has delivered a huge hit to the global economy – people still need to eat. People are looking for safe, healthy high-quality and sustainably-produce food – that’s the opportunity.” 

And so both ministers believe innovation and investment in agritech will play an important part in delivering their government’s Covid-19 primary sector recovery roadmap ‘Fit for a Better World’.


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