Brexit going nowhere fast while technology forges ahead

One of the great perks of travel is cancelled flights and additional time in airports! I could while away the next few hours browsing overpriced cosmetics, but no, I have decided to use my time inspiringly - penning this column.

As with any international mission, my mind is full of the wonderful and the completely useless. Let's start with Brexit. What an abominable mess. The English are heads down, bordering on apologetic - it is three-plus years since the Brexit vote and no-one is any the wiser how it will play out.

Businesses all over Europe have been quietly preparing despite the absence of information. I heard about a pastry company that trucks pastries from Belgium to England daily. They cannot risk fresh pastries being held up at the border with unknown paperwork requirements, so have quietly built a factory in England to produce pastries there.

They are manning their factory with as many robots as possible, rather than people - many of England's unskilled workforce are Eastern European; who knows their future visa status?

I attended the Irish National Ploughing Championships, a massive agricultural event similar to our Mystery Creek Field days, attracting 300,000 people over three days. There were Brexit tents where farmers could go and work out what Brexit meant for them in terms of changes to subsidised income.

Ireland's dominant agricultural industry is dairy. Farmers in Northern Island, who are part of the United Kingdom and therefore may exit Europe, send their milk in trucks to be processed in factories in Southern Ireland, which remains part of Europe.

What will this mean for those farmers and processors in terms of additional paperwork, or trade tariffs? Complications occur for end-products too: some of Ireland's dairy companies specialise in producing cheddar cheese, the main market for that being the UK. What might the impact of tariffs be?

New Zealand trade experts are here as well. We have not always been treated well in the past; Brexit may change that. The UK especially is looking outside Europe to rebuild trading relationships - there will be opportunities.

The majority of the agritech mission I have been on has focused on the role of technology in agri-food production. Here are my top three highlights:

1: The hands-free-hectare

A couple of young academics dreamed up the idea of cropping a hectare of arable land with robots. This has meant trying not to set foot on the hectare for the past three years.

This has not gone without a hitch; when driverless tractors break down, robots are sent to retrieve them! Seed is sown, crops are sprayed, tested and harvested autonomously and the barley cropped has been used to make ''Hands-Free-Hectare gin!''

The programme has been an international success, especially in terms of profile for Harper Adams University, and now they are developing a hands-free farm.

What was delightful about this visit was seeing two inventive engineers free to innovate and explore - something which is becoming rare in science and technology research.

2: Vision technology

Basically, cameras will be everywhere; not necessarily high-tech cameras, the real science lies in dealing with the mass of data they generate.

How do we use that data to make predictions about animal health or reducing labour? Here is something you hadn't thought of with regards to facial recognition technology. There is a distinct advantage in using such technology for cows versus humans.

This comes about because cows walk around naked, which means more accurate data can be generated more speedily. If humans were to do the same, goodness knows what technological revolution might evolve!

3: Packaging data into bacterial DNA

We are producing data at an unprecedented rate - apparently, about 16 zettabytes every year (a zettabyte is one billion terabytes). this data needs storage and we need denser memory than we have today.

One intriguing solution is to exploit the molecular structure of DNA - a single gram of DNA can hold roughly a zettabyte of data.

Apparently, we can get the data into the bacteria via genetic transformation - getting it out is proving more challenging. The application for such technology in agriculture, who knows yet: cows walking around (still naked) with their lifetime of data stored biologically?

Despite the many advances going on, agriculture is one of the slowest industries to embrace technology. This is not because agriculturalists are Luddites.

The complexities of biological and climactic variation combined with low-margin businesses mean successful technologies must be cheap, easy to use and of genuine benefit - no small challenge for inventors.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

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