Innovation inertia

A great idea to improve agricultural production has a lot to overcome.

Afterbefore has a list of the 10 big things we must have to achieve global food security to 2050 and beyond

Here is a closer logic look at one of them

Producers knowing about new innovations and how they can be financed together with help to overcome their uptake inertia.


Suppose that you invent a new form of fertilizer.

It is cheap and relatively easy to make from any leftover biomass. Not only does it do a great job of exchanging nutrients with plant roots, but it also builds soil health by adding carbon, improving structure, and supporting moisture retention. You even have evidence from field trials that show it improves pasture yield by at least 10% for as long as a decade from just one application.

All up it’s a legend.

Your problem is that no one is buying it. Over 50,000 tons of the stuff is piled up in warehouses and sheds across the country and you can’t seem to give it away.

What is the problem? You biochar works to improve yield and you have reduced the asking price to the levels of a standard superphosphate hit, so the phone should be running hot.

Well, there is the answer, biochar. What on any sensible planet is that stuff? Never seen it before, have no idea how it works and you are asking me to cough up a bunch of cash and spread it on my paddocks that are like children to me.

“Naw, mate. It’s not gonna happen.”

In agriculture, any innovation has to be de-risked. No easy task when dealing with producers who have a lot to lose. Cash they don’t have spent on the promise of increased returns using a product none of their mates use with unknown side effects.

Farmers are already playing a roulette style game of risk and reward with the weather. Asking them to double down on a funky new fertilizer is a big call.

The best you can do is to politely ask them to test it. A small trial perhaps in the corner of a paddock, ideally for free. This is, of course, pushing the risk back onto you, the innovator, who has hawked his savings and his house just to get the prototypes tested and then given away most of the equity to fund the first serious production run.

But what about the extensive field trials the CSIRO completed. Surely the science counts for something.

Well not really. This is not a logic game you see. In its early days, any innovation is for the risk takers, those that want to be different just because it means being different. It is not about the product being useful or better than the current alternatives.

No sane person would have carried the huge bricks that were the first mobile phones that cost an arm and leg to make a call. The early adopters did it because they were the early adopters. Likewise, few farmers are likely to put it out there and risk ridicule. You will need to find the handful that will like this kind of punt.

What this tale describes is uptake inertia and that is a people problem.

Innovations have to be funded for long enough to overcome the psychological barriers to uptake more than they need to show off their technical credentials.

One way to get biochar to sell is to piggyback on more established innovations like precision agriculture or to focus hard on traditional sales tactics in districts where soil gets maximum benefit from such amendments. Alternatively get the innovation subsidized through peak body or even government endorsement although both these options come with their own issues.

What you will need most is patience.

Innovations in agriculture take time to break through, perhaps longer than in many other sectors. In other words, they need money and that can be hard to come by in a sector that investors see as challenging.

They also need thoughtful marketing and tenacity in its delivery for the naysayers will be vocal.

And like innovations anywhere, a good helping of luck goes a long way.

Afterbefore believes that agricultural innovation is vital to food security. Our modelling helps to test and communicate production risk from innovations to farmers and investors. Contact us for help.

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