Agricultural innovation is more than a passing term – it’s a whole world of improvements to agriculture, dedicated to celebrating all of the different fields of expertise that can greatly improve how agriculture us done. In March this year, Master of Science Agricultural Innovation (advanced) student Angus Dunne, and Bachelor of Science (Biodiversity and Conservation) student E Wen Wong learnt exactly what agricultural innovation means, live in action at an agricultural conference, as part of their studies at The Fenner School.
“My Undergrad is Agro-Ecology and I spent time working in agriculture and grazing extension in the reef space. I was looking for a degree that would challenge my thinking and skill set.” Explains Angus.
For E Wen, a curiosity and concern for the environment came part and parcel with growing up in New Zealand. “I knew I wanted to study something that fed into that curiosity and concern. As I work for a renewable energy developer, I was drawn to the interplay between climate change and biodiversity.”
Angus and E Wen both discovered the opportunity take up a funded place at evokeAG thanks to a post on the student forum Wattle, advertising a specific program offered through the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology [CEAT], an innovation hub hosted at the Australian National University and partnered with The Fenner School.
“I applied because I thought it was a great opportunity to hear some of the leading professionals in this space and would likely create future opportunities.” Explains Angus.
“I came to evokeAG with very specific interests regarding agritech. Chief among these were leveraging spatial technologies to understand crop health, managing agricultural impacts on biodiversity, and a just energy transition” explains E Wen. Angus expected to make connections with other in the industry, build on his degree, and find working examples of organisations or startups navigating the climate and wider social challenges in the food system.
So how did it go? Did E Wen and Angus get what they wanted out of their experience? We asked them to reflect on their time at evokeAG and offer key insights from their day at the conference.
Our experience at evokeAG
Scott Amyx on space
The opening talk on space communicated the value of out-of-the-box thinking in agriculture. Scott’s ideas of drawing inspiration from distant domains and openness to experimentation were an innovative way to start the conference, yet they shone light on the tension between space exploration and the pressing issues we face on Earth. After reflecting on this talk and the rest of the conference, we concluded that the need to value the ecological systems on Earth is paramount; however, working on the challenges of growing food in space may help use to realise these values by prompting us to think differently.
Tim Jarvis’ talk was a highlight
Angus: Dealing with uncertainty was a key theme of Tim’s presentation. In agriculture we are working with complex adaptive systems and wicked problems, and thus the only certainty is uncertainty. Principle-based management which allows the user to adapt with the uncertainty is a potential tool in the tool box. Tim highlights the need for a vision to remain intact during this adaption, suggesting we can change our goals relatively easy, provided our vision is consistent. Key takeaway? Get clear on what you want to achieve and take it one step at a time.
E Wen: Yes, Tim harnessed the powers of narrative and adventure to share lessons on leadership and “pitch environmentalism by stealth”. The idea that we can inspire others by showing them the wonders of the natural world is familiar to me, as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Storytelling is at the heart of many National Geographic initiatives, and it was great to see this spotlighted at evokeAG.
E Wen: I found the break times in ‘start-up alley’ just as insightful as the formal talks. One memorable conversation I had was with Elizabeth Paya from LLEAF, a Greenhouse Film Technology startup. Learning about Elizabeth’s journey from international tax law to working for an agritech startup provided a fresh perspective on where my law and science degrees might take me. As someone still navigating the future impact I seek to make, and how that might translate into a career, I found a lot of value in conversations like these.
If evokeAG and Fenner met in a bar, what would they discuss?
E Wen: I spent my first year of university in New Zealand studying what was, on paper, almost identical to what I am studying now. So far, however, the experience has been vastly different. This is at least in part due to Fenner’s interdisciplinary approach. Fenner draws on knowledge from other colleges and recognises the inseparable link between environment and society. I saw a similar approach employed at evokeAG, with a diverse programme recognising environmental, economic, and social values and the importance of collaboration in finding a sustainable ‘equilibrium’. Fenner and evokeAG also share a solutions mindset. I imagine much of their discussion would revolve around how we can do things differently.
Angus: Yes - I think throughout society we can get to caught up looking at how we are different as opposed to looking at where we are the same or share a common goal. Fenner and evokeAG both wish to see a world where the environment is valued, nutritious food is grown and individuals have the agency to bring an idea into the world ,be it through a startup, book or product. That being said, if you ask everyone at Fenner, you’re going to get 100 different answers, as is true for evokeAG. There were individuals who clearly identify that ecological literacy and whether we view ourselves as a part of or apart from nature is the key question. Where others are focussing on harnessing technology to meet our current challenges, some are doing both.
To Mars? Next steps from evokeAG
evokeAG provided us with great contacts and more than a few new ideas to nurture. A key part of evokeAG was the focus on people, relationships and trust mixed with human-centred design. You could take this perspective that humans at the centre is putting them above the rest of nature or perhaps that working with humans is a prerequisite of working with the environment. The theme of the conference was ‘Down to Earth’. With many nebulous ideas floating above in our minds, the challenge we now face is bringing them down to Earth.
Interested in applying your skills to agricultural innovation, agriculture courses, or expanding your expertise to wicked environmental problems? Take a look at our Agricultural Innovation degrees, get in touch with Dr Rachael Rodney Harris with coursework or experience questions, or if you’re a current ANU student, check out the CEAT website for future opportunities.