Overpopulation, land degradation and environmental emergency? Technology is the key to open up a new era for agriculture.
The Ag sector: “the least digitalized industry”?
Digitalization and technological development are opening up new growth prospects for many industries; however, some analysts claim that agriculture hasn’t significantly been transformed by the digital revolution yet. For instance, McKinsey & Co., one of the world's consulting giants, has argued that agriculture is still the least digitalized among human activities.
This point of view states that while tech disruption has redefined the operations of many sectors, agriculture seems to have changed little since it was first practiced 10,000 years ago. This view, however, does not take into account the very recent developments that are transforming the agricultural sector.
Climate change and labour shortages in agriculture are huge challenges, which are triggering an ‘agrotechnical’ revolution that hopes to address some of these problems through hi-tech innovation. The Agtech sector is attracting the attention of venture capitalists, who invested $10.5 billion in innovative business projects in 2021 alone.
There are clear incentives to strengthen the resilience and productivity of the agricultural sector through digital technologies as the industry tries to increase production to meet society’s nutritional and economic needs, while trying to protect natural resources. Start-ups are sprouting up or experiencing a sudden growth: +58% on average per year. Here we provide an overview of the technological innovations that will bring us face to face with the agriculture of 2050.
One digital revolution, three different paths
When analysing the greatest agricultural revolution of the past 300 years, we see that technology can have many applications in agriculture: from cultivations to irrigation, soil treatment and traceability. The digitalization of agriculture can be seen to have developed through three main pathways:
1 – Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Big Data to collect and understand large amounts of data,
2 - Blockchain and Metaverse to guarantee supply-chain transparency and bring to the forefront realities from the farms through virtual reality,
3 - Smart tools: drones, IoT and sensors for better monitoring and to support labour supply for agricultural activities.
Agriculture produces large quantities of data that are often not integrated across tools and not easily interpretable, leaving their potential largely untouched. Information and communication technology (ICT) is changing this, creating new software solutions for mass storage and optimized connectivity, bringing benefits for the whole sector.
ICT can optimize fertilizer usage, irrigation or help cope with increasingly unpredictable weather circumstances, to name a few advantages. The systematization and analysis of large amounts of technical data (Big Data) can be translated into useful insights that can be transmitted from farmer to farmer and be scaled up. For example, data sets certifying the success of a particular farming practice can be easily transmitted to other production sites, making operations more efficient through knowledge sharing.
Technology has also been changing the way supply-chains operate. The implementation of digital technologies such as blockchain is allowing several players in the food industry to monitor the supply-chains with great precision, communicating the value and quality to the end customer.
Blockchain may prove to be a relevant technology in agriculture especially in traceability processes. Lack of traceability means slower financial transactions and often intensive manual labour to cover the due diligence. In addition, counterfeits can appear at every stage of the supply chain and have negative consequences for all stakeholders.
Virtual Reality (VR), Extended Reality (ER) and Metaverse can also provide an exceptional tool to get a wider overview of the land. These are also means to train human resources in plant and animal management and to teach students how to breed animals and deal with plants and crops.
Digitalization has also started appearing on farms also in the form of smart tools that can be a game changer for farm-level processes. Thanks to drones, IoT and sensors, farmers are capable of monitoring production more efficiently. For example, tele-piloted drones are enabling accurate soil mapping, environmental sensors are offering 360-degree monitoring of the crop area from a hydrological, climatic and mineral perspective.
The Internet of Things (IoT) connects all these sensors and vehicles, enabling producers to exchange information to improve the quality and output of the overall production. A combination of all these innovations automates production and relieves the farmer from repetitive and time-consuming operations.
The mission that drives many players in the Agtech world is to harness technological innovation to improve production, with the least depletion of natural and agricultural resources, ‘produce more with less’, and improve the way we make use of agricultural resources.
Soil health is at the centre of these discussions in the farming and food industry as it’s at the base of a productive food system. Research by the UN shows that more than 40% of the world’s land is degraded by human activities, posing a growing threat to the food supplies and sources of income of many individuals. Using land in a smarter way, understanding it’s properties and how to better conserve its fertility is of paramount importance.
Recognising the importance of soil data collection, Varda is operating the Global Soil Program: a comprehensive soil knowledge platform that collects large amounts of data in order to provide detailed insights on soil health and through data sharing, create a holistic picture that can help make better decisions regarding land management.
If you are interested in learning more, visit the section of our website.