Reinventing Australian agricultural statistics

Reinventing Australian agricultural statistics

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Lack of access to reliable and robust statistics about agriculture is a continuing frustration for many in the industry. The AFI has experienced this frustration, with the analysis for several of projects over the last few years constrained by availability of appropriate data. The problem of inconsistent or missing data and statistics is not only confined to niche issues or small sub-sectors of the industry but also extends to significant policy areas, such as increasing energy prices and climate change. The dearth of reliable and respected agricultural statistics is not a new issue and indeed gaps in official agricultural statistics have been commented on for many years. What is new, however, is the abundance of alternative data sources emerging in agriculture, such as electronic farm management platforms, satellite imagery, IoT sensors and commercial data. This abundance is prompting stakeholders to question whether official statistics agencies should be utilising this data to provide more accurate, more timely and more reliable statistics covering a wider range of issues for the sector.

Lack of access to reliable and robust statistics about agriculture is a continuing frustration for many in the industry. The AFI has experienced this frustration, with the analysis for several of projects over the last few years constrained by availability of appropriate data. The problem of inconsistent or missing data and statistics is not only confined to niche issues or small sub-sectors of the industry but also extends to significant policy areas, such as increasing energy prices and climate change.

AFI has recently investigated the impact on Australian agriculture of rising energy prices, the exposure to risk and the mitigation options available, and the need for a national climate-smart agriculture strategy. These projects all focus on issues of national importance where there could be reasonable expectations of available data to inform policy development, yet analysis for each of the projects has highlighted the need for the further development of quality data and improved statistics.

The dearth of reliable and respected agricultural statistics is not a new issue and indeed gaps in official agricultural statistics have been commented on for many years. What is new, however, is the abundance of alternative data sources emerging in agriculture, such as electronic farm management platforms, satellite imagery, IoT sensors and commercial data. This abundance is prompting stakeholders to question whether official statistics agencies (OSAs) should be utilising this data to provide more accurate, more timely and more reliable statistics covering a wider range of issues for the sector.

The research presented in Reinventing Australian agricultural statistics has addressed the possibilities and limitations in using emerging alternative data sources to augment or replace official statistics. The report presents a framework for evaluation of sources which could augment the existing agricultural statistics system, developed from a desktop study of available literature, and investigation of potential sources and collection methods.

Findings from the report indicate that while it is certainly possible to use alternative sources, there are many governance and reliability issues in doing so. Industry groups will have a significant role to play in resolving these issues. Official agencies such as ABS and ABARES should retain the key responsibilities of coordination, collection, analysis and distribution of statistics, however to do so effectively with alternative data sources, they will require strong, cooperative partnerships with industry.

In order for the sector to leave behind sole reliance on the five-yearly census process and move into a more responsive, accurate and granular system, the industry has a pivotal role to play in identifying needs and making available existing datasets which could serve those needs. The industry must collectively embrace this role to identify problems and opportunities, promote agriculture’s social licence, educate policy-makers on trends and requirements and to also build trust in the distribution and responsible use of data.

Given the funding limitations, it is fair to say the current agricultural statistics portfolio reflects available OSA resources, rather than the actual needs of the sector. In a time when water management and the impacts of climate change on agriculture are issues of fundamental national importance, this situation is unacceptable. While the Australian agricultural statistics system is in a process of evolution, as yet it is still in a far from ideal state.

Sound decision-making requires informed understanding, which in turn requires a reinvention of the current Australian agricultural statistics system. This research concludes that the system can be reinvented if a common purpose of contributing data for the general benefit of the sector is embraced and pursued by industry and official agencies. This project was supported by Australian Wool Innovation, Cotton RDC, Grain Growers and Meat and Livestock Australia.

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