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Rural Queensland

Australia’s Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud has welcomed the release of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) blueprint, Talking 2030: Growing agriculture into a $100 billion industry.

“A bold vision for a bold industry,” Minister Littleproud said.

“The Coalition Government is investing to grow agriculture and supports NFF’s ambitious vision for agriculture to become a $100 billion industry by 2030.

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy and this won’t be, but with a clear strategy in place and good policies in place, the sector will be prepared to take on the challenges ahead.

“Agriculture has always been one of the key drivers of the Australian economy and was the largest contributor to national GDP growth in 2016-17, driven by our dedicated, resolute and innovative farmers.

“We are a trading nation and our future growth in agriculture depends on opening up more markets and adapting to consumer preferences.

“More than ever before people are interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced. Australia stands to benefit as a producer of high quality, highly sought after produce.

“The trade deals we are putting in place in Asia and across the world will be a key driver to reaching this target—70 per cent of our agricultural production is already being exported.

“Asia is expected to be the 2nd largest contributor to future world population growth, growing by 750 million people by 2050, so that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

“Our investments in the Inland Rail, water infrastructure, rural R&D, innovation and technology will also help drive the sector over the next decade.

“I have a real sense of optimism for the agriculture sector and the potential it has for the future.

“Thanks to NFF President, Fiona Simson, CEO, Tony Mahar and the team at the NFF for developing this comprehensive roadmap for agriculture for the next 12 years.

“I encourage everyone to get involved as the NFF heads around the country on its Talking 2030 tour.”

View the report at:  www.nff.org.au  Ω

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Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is organising an international challenge to boost vegetable production using artificial intelligence and autonomous greenhouses. The challenge is sponsored by Tencent, Holdings Limited, a Chinese multinational investment holding conglomerate whose subsidiaries specialise in various Internet-related services and products, entertainment, AI and technology both in China and globally. The goal of the challenge is to produce a cucumber crop within 4 months with a high level of production and a high resource use efficiency.

International challenge: Autonomous greenhouses - YouTube

International automonous greenhouses challenge

The world population is growing and consumers are demanding more fresh, healthy products, such as vegetables and fruits, which are sustainably produced. Greenhouse production is a very efficient way to produce fresh vegetables and fruits with a high content of vitamins and minerals on a small production area; ideal for production close to large cities!

High production volumes can be reached in greenhouses, which are typically up to 10 times higher than in open field. At the same time, greenhouse production is much more water efficient compared to open field production. Recent research results of WUR have shown that in extremely controlled greenhouses only 5 litres of water is used to produce 1 kg of tomato. The controlled environment enables the reduction of pesticide use to a minimum leading to the production of safe products without residues.

In the future even more greenhouses will be needed to produce our food. For that to happen, the ‘green thumb’ and the knowledge and experience of a grower is essential. At the same time, there is a lack of skilled workers in many countries worldwide.

Currently, significant advances are being made in automation, information technology and artificial intelligence (AI). Automated information and AI can help the grower to oversee all the information needed and to make better, complex decisions. Could AI be able to outperform the human controlled greenhouse production in the future?

Wageningen University & Research and its sponsor would like to challenge computer scientists and horticultural experts to form multidisciplinary teams to both challenge themselves as well as the state-of-the-art in human operated greenhouse production in order to make a large step toward the Autonomous Greenhouse. If the capabilities of an AI driven greenhouse can be demonstrated, it will imply a significant opportunity to drive horticultural productivity while reducing resource use and management complexity. AI might help us live healthier lives and make it possible to produce more vitamin rich food in greenhouses for growing human populations.

What is the goal?

Automonous greenhouse cucumber challenge.

The goal of the challenge is to produce a cucumber crop within 4 months with a high level of production and a high resource use efficiency. For that, selected teams will get the possibility to operate a greenhouse compartment at the greenhouse facilities of WUR in Bleiswijk, The Netherlands. Teams need to achieve the goal by growing the crop remotely controlled, supported by measured values of greenhouse climate and crop development and also webcam footage.

The teams will have to make choices with respect to the control settings in order to control the crop growth remotely. They also can add their own sensors/camera’s to generate additional information. Each team will be able to extract necessary data from the greenhouse compartment and add their own ICT/models/machine learning algorithms in order to decide on the control settings for the next day/period. They will send the control settings back to the system (the greenhouse climate computer) in order to control the actuators automatically or send instructions for crop handling in order to reach the goal. WUR will continuously measure pre-defined performance criteria per compartment and share them with each team and the public.

Who can join?

Participants can be students, experts, start-ups and companies. Wageningen University & Research are looking for multi-disciplinary teams, combining the following expertise: ‘green thumb’/crop physiology/crop management & artificial intelligence. Teams are encouraged from different countries and continents to participate. Teams have at least three individual members (see rules). Good English language skills are required.

How to join?

Register your team and all individual members here. Describe your background, skills and motivation for the challenge. Contact WUR for any questions or more information. WUR can help teams via its LinkedIn group Autonomous Greenhouses to come in contact with experts with a complementary background if needed to complete your team.

Important dates

All subscribed teams fulfilling the criteria will be invited to the pre-challenge Hackathon at beginning of June to present your team, show your skills and pitch your approach in front of an international jury of experts at WUR, The Netherlands. The five best teams will be selected to participate in the Autonomous Greenhouse growing experiment taking place 1 September – 14 December 2018. The final event will be held in week 50 (December) at WUR, The Netherlands.  Ω

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World Water Day – held on 22 March every year – is about focusing attention on the importance of water. The theme for World Water Day 2018 is ‘Nature for Water’ – exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.

A range of Western Sydney University experts have come together to share their views on water sustainability and what it will take to ensure that the 2.1 billion people living on the planet have access to safe drinking water.

Groundwater: An invisible resource under threat

Basant Maheshwari, Professor of Water, Environment and Sustainability within the School of Science and Health at Western Sydney University, says water management needs to be considered in any urban development to ensure that cities remain liveable.

“Government policies need to be modified, to ensure that adequate attention is given to water and food security issues,” says Professor Maheshwari.

Professor Maheshwari says, in many developing and developed countries, the management of groundwater is a significant issue.

“When groundwater is pumped in excess of yearly recharge, it threatens drinking water supplies, food production and livelihood of people,” says Professor Maheshwari.

“However groundwater is an invisible resource, and as such it is difficult to monitor water levels and track where the water is flowing – which makes regulation problematic.”

Drawing on the outcomes of a study in India, Professor Maheshwari says there is a potential to achieve a sustainable future for groundwater resources through participatory, village level monitoring and management.

Future cities will more heavily rely on treated sewage

Unless cities get smart about conserving their natural water sources, cities are likely to rely more heavily on recycled sewage in the future. Dr Ian Wright from the School of Science and Health at Western Sydney University says drinking recycled sewage is a very confronting topic. But once you get past the ‘yuck factor’, it’s clear that there is a great potential for treated sewage to supplement existing urban water supplies.

“Many Australian sewage treatment facilities already discharge their effluent into the dams, rivers or reservoirs. The water is blended into a natural water source and undergoes further treatment before it is used for drinking water. This is referred to as ‘indirect potable reuse’ – and is very common,” says Dr Wright.

“No Australian cities currently use ‘direct potable reuse’ – which is when a city’s water is directly sourced from a sewage treatment facility. But it will be the way of the future, if measures aren’t put in place to account for the country’s booming population.”

Greater Sydney is forecast to gain another 1.74 million residents in the next 18 years. Dr Wright says the region’s main waterways – such as the Hawkesbury-Nepean River – may not be able to cope with the extra treated sewage and urban runoff that will flow into the river systems as a result.

“The river should not take more sewage effluent. Instead, pipe systems should take the recycled sewage to all new developments, for use in gardens and toilet flushing – which would relieve some of the pressure on the increasing demand for drinking water.”

Harness stormwater in urban areas

Dr Dharma Hagare, a Senior Lecturer in Environmental, Sustainability and Risk Engineering within the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, is part of a research team that is improving the capacity of urban centres to source and store their own water.

“The research team is developing a broader understanding of the processes that are involved in the loss and consumptive uses of water, and is developing optimal strategies to minimise losses and increase the efficiencies of consumptive uses,” says Dr Hagare.

Dr Hagare says urban centres are heavily reliant on imported water. However, if there was a means to source and store water from within urban centres – such as through the collection of storm water in aquifers – the need for imported water would significantly reduce.

“If rainwater and stormwater were properly harvested and utilised along with treated wastewater, the demand for imported water would reduce and the sustainability and liveability of urban centres would significantly improve,” says Dr Hagare.

The challenges posed by bottled water

Professor Gay Hawkins from the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University says water is a common good that must be carefully managed and shared for the benefit of all.

“One of the biggest challenges facing access to safe water in the future is the phenomenal growth in bottled water markets around the world. This is one of the most unsustainable ways to deliver potable water and is threatening many natural sources of supply,” says Professor Hawkins.

Professor Hawkins’ research shows that investing in strong water governance and building public trust is essential to the future of this precious resource.

“Bottled water markets are growing fastest in places where safe public infrastructure is not developed or is in steady decline, leading to a loss of trust in the water supply,” says Professor Hawkins.

She highlights Sydney Water as an organisation that has worked hard to build trust in a safe and efficient public water utility.

“Sydney Water have run campaigns promoting the benefits of tap water and also celebrating Sydney’s magnificent water catchment as a shared common resource. These are powerful examples of how the future of water depends on trust in utilities, careful management and community engagement.”

The importance of respect for nature

Dr Jessica Weir from the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University says treating nature with respect is essential to ensuring we have access to fresh water supplies into the future.

“The extraordinary water cycle traverses the globe, carves out landscapes, and flows through us all. It is powerful and intimate. Water connects our histories, cultures and stories,” says Dr Weir.

Dr Weir says any decisions about fresh water should be taken very seriously.

“To protect our safe drinking water, we need to establish more respectful terms of engagement with fresh water ecologies, and respectfully consider water for what it is: a key, life-sustaining force,” says Dr Weir.

“We also need to understand that, as humans, we are not simply taking water from nature for our personal/discrete use – we are living within the water cycle, and are dependent on nature for survival.”

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The allure of container farming has introduced many new farmers to indoor agriculture. The portability and low fixed costs have expanded the possibilities for grow sites for many people. Industry players estimate that there are between 250 and 300 branded container farms in the world, with likely as many homegrown operations in existence.

This growing practice has not only captured the imagination of the media, but it has also attracted entrepreneurs and investors. A container farm’s size, cost and ability to grow in extreme temperatures have made it a great option for the right kind of farmer. While they do have their niche and their own challenges, container farms have several advantages.

Container farming

Number 5 – Encourages New Farmers
The concept and introduction of container farming has been a fantastic contributor to indoor agriculture. Research indicates that around 80% of container farmers are new to the practice. These new farmers have transitioned into the industry from professions like construction, finance and consulting. While they viewed other options somewhat confusing, they viewed container farms as a manageable option to farming. As farming as a whole is seeing an aging workforce with an average of 60 years’ old, globally , indoor farming is enticing a much-needed new group of farmers into the industry.

Number 4 – Investor Interest
Container farming has captured the interest of investors, including well-regarded venture capitalists. Both equipment suppliers and growers have been able to raise funds from a variety of different sources. In the past year alone, Paris-based strawberry farmer Agricool, Boston-based equipment provider Freight Farms and Brooklyn-based grower Square Roots have each raised rounds. Although they are small in comparison to investments raised by plant factory companies, they have increased significantly recently, with 2017 seeing over 18MM raised, more than double the funding of the prior year.

Number 3 – Speed to Market
Fixed structures require a longer process of site selection, design, manufacturing, permitting and construction. This process could take more than a year. With container farms, however, some suppliers can deliver a fully-operational container farm in just a few months. Once you are sure your farm meets all of your local zoning requirements, preparing your site involves identifying or pouring a level concrete pad and connecting water and electricity.

Number 2 – Flexible Siting
Container farming is a great option for growing in many different situations because they can be sited in food deserts and harsh environments. With the proper permits and zoning, they can essentially be placed anywhere that can bear their weight and has a level surface. Unlike a fixed structure, they can be relocated. Their flexible siting opens possibilities to locate an indoor farm in diverse locations like alleys behind restaurants, corporate campuses, urban rooftops…the possibilities can be endless.

Number 1 – Comparatively Low Price
At its lowest, the cost of entry into container farming could essentially be a mix of new and used equipment from local stores and online vendors. These costs have been reported as low as US$15,000-$20,000 per fully-operational container farm. As technologies continue to improve and become more readily available, fixed costs can continue to decrease. For example, in 2017, the prices for LED lighting were forecast to fall by more than 40% by 2020. Since lighting makes up around a quarter of total fixed costs, this represents a significant cost saving to container farmers. For a new, fully functional unit, such as the Leafy Green Machine manufactured by Freight Farms, farmers can own a container farm for around US$85,000.

Want to know more? Don’t miss the 6th Annual Indoor Ag Con 2-3 May at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Make sure to catch the session What Farm Structures Work Best for Indoor Grows? with special guests Brad McNamara, CEO of Freight Farms and Erik Ijntema, Export Manager for Certhon. You can find the complete speaking agenda here. Want to attend? You can register here. Want to join a variety of exhibitors? You can register to exhibit here.  Ω

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More than 20 scientists from across the globe gathered in New Zealand to discuss a new method to stop insect pests reproducing. Experts from South America, Africa, India, Canada and Europe met in Palmerston North to discuss advances in the sterile insect technique – a new weapon against insect pests. The technique involves releasing large numbers of sterile insects into the environment, providing mates for the existing population but no offspring. The technique is being developed for a range of pests, from sugar cane pests in South Africa to navel orange worm moths in California.

The working group is supported by the Joint Division of FAO and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which coordinates global efforts in this area.

Local expert, and host for the meeting, Professor Max Suckling, Science Group Leader Biosecurity at Plant & Food Research explains, “we release sterile insects that mate with the wild population, and their eggs are sterile so the pest numbers just crash.”

“In New Zealand, we are investigating this technique in a few isolated apple orchards, where sex pheromones are also being used to suppress pests, for example, as lures in traps.”

The meeting had a field trip to orchards where sterile codling moths have greatly reduced the wild strain of the pest, using insects released from unmanned aerial vehicles.

Plant & Food Research Team Leader Dr Jim Walker says, “the combination of pheromones and sterile insects looks very promising for suppression of codling moth, a major pest for our apple industry. Being able to replace traditional chemical methods with new biologically-based controls will further enhance the apple industry’s reputation for pest-free produce with no chemical residues.”

For further information contact: Emma Timewell, Communications Manager, Corporate Communications, Plant & Food Research Mt Albert. Email: media@plantandfood.co.nz. Ph: +64-9-925 8692  MB: +64-21-2429 365 Ω

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