The Digital Evolution of Agriculture

By: Gareth Llewellyn

Agriculture is at the beginning of a major evolution, the likes of which have only been seen a handful of times before. From mechanization (the introduction of tractors and combines in the 1920s) to the Green Revolution (the adoption of fertilizers, herbicides and other chemicals in the 1960s and 70s), this level of change only happens every 50 years or so. However, what may surprise many is that the evolution of agriculture is at the beginning of is its Digital Evolution – the adoption of software, connected sensors, smart devices, machine learning, big data and other such technologies – an evolution which most other industries have been going through for over twenty years. In terms of digitization, agriculture is very much at the back of the curve.

It is worth remembering at this point that agriculture is different from other industries. The reason it tends to lag in its evolutions is that it is one of only a few industries where nature still plays a crucial role. Because of this, if things go wrong in agriculture they cannot easily be corrected – farmers do not just lose a week of factory-time; they cannot simply revert back to previously successful iterations and apologies for a few hours of inconvenience. When something goes wrong in agriculture, it can mean losing a whole season of crops or an entire herd of animals. Think of it this way, some technology companies iterate their software 30-50 times a week; most farmers have that many chances to get things right in their entire lives.

Because of this, those involved in agriculture tend to be a little warier, take a little longer to trust new ideas, and so the industry is slower to evolve. This is all fine and sensible and has worked well for the industry in the past, however today agriculture faces a new challenge. The digital technologies available to agriculture (and beginning to be adopted) should not be viewed only as a possible way to reduce labor, lower cost and increase yields. These technologies offer the most viable solution to the demands being placed on the industry by consumers – to lower environmental impact, increase traceability, improve animal welfare, remove non-natural inputs (such as agrochemicals, fertilizers and antibiotics), and to do all this whilst still increasing output. After all – we have a growing population to feed.

This is an incredibly complex and challenging list of things to try and deal with. Particularly when we consider many experts cannot yet agree on which technologies may be best – for example, leading scientists have not yet agreed on how we even measure the lifecycle impact of agriculture on the environment, let alone how we can apply technologies to improve it. It is therefore unfair for us to ask farmers (who already work 12-16 hours a day to produce the food we eat) to do this. A sound assessment requires research, a review of all the possible technology solutions on offer, figuring out which are genuine and which are snake oil. Then, farmers must determine the ability to pay for, incorporate and manage a suite of different technologies in the hope they offset these inputs with income. Farmers are typically the last to find out what processors and consumers are actually willing to pay for at a premium.

I believe it is up to us, the technology providers, to provide the answers. We need to work together to create a common, open ecosystem that enables data to be combined and shared to the benefit of the farmer, whilst also allowing each technology provider to protect its intellectual property. Some large equipment farmers have tried a version of this, creating a closed network of partners where data is collected and presented in standard ways. The problem with this is they don’t necessarily offer farmers the best technologies – just the ones they own or which are willing to play by their rules.

At GrowSafe we are building our systems with an open platform in mind. We recognize that it is simply not practical to ask farmers to run lots of different apps, review multiple data sources and try to interpret what they all mean. The responsibility must sit on us, the technology providers, to work together to come up with a way of getting our data to farmers in an easy, helpful and valuable way. We’re open to working with anyone who is bringing genuine value to farmers and we believe that over the next few years our customers will reap the rewards of this approach. After all, our customers must always be the ones who matter most.

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