By Davide Ceper, CEO at Varda
Over the past few years the agriculture industry has witnessed a sharp increase in the demand for greater transparency and disclosure on farming practices by regulators, consumers, food manufacturers or supermarket chains. These trends, in conjunction with the growing awareness of the massive environmental impact of farming-related activities, have been a powerful force for change and innovation in the sector.
This quest for the holy grail of reliable farm & field data has prompted a proliferation of digital platforms, innovative services and industry-wide initiatives, which promise data insights with just a few clicks for all customers.
While it’s true that the digitization of agriculture has exploded in the last decade (just to give an example the latest agricultural machines are capable of generating 1 GB of data per hour, while ever more powerful and numerous satellites and sensors scan fields on a daily basis) the hard reality is that - despite the immense investment in capital and human energy dedicated to making food production “nature-positive” - the goal remains elusive.
According to widely accepted estimates by the IPCC and other international bodies, activities directly and indirectly related to agriculture account for about ¼ of global GHG emissions and consume more than 2/3 of the global freshwater supply. To make matters worse, the statistics about desertification and native vegetation loss are appalling: according to the FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment of 2020, 10 million hectares of forest have been lost yearly between 2015 and 2020 (or about 30,000 football fields every day, to better grasp the scale of this catastrophe).
I recently attended a Future Food Systems event where discussions focused on these and other concerning issues, such as the 12.8 million tonnes of food waste generated annually, or the massive scale of biodiversity loss for which unfortunately there is no precise metric for impact assessment.
The result is that farmers, who are already under huge pressure due to more frequent extreme weather events, less predictable rainfall and reduced soil fertility, are increasingly faced with demands to comply with a multitude of protocols and data sharing requests to determine the environmental impact of their crops.
«There are also several challenges in tracking the use of sustainable ag practices. For instance, the scalability and reliability of data collection efforts remain questionable. »
In addition, due to the nature of commodity markets, there often does not seem to be a clear differentiation advantage, for example, in terms of price or market access, for those brave growers who invest in regenerative agriculture.
When dealing with agricultural data, two of the key issues are the enormous fragmentation and complexity of the supply chain and the limited penetration of data standards, which make aggregation of data from different sources and collaboration among industry participants a very challenging task.
When Varda was created to accelerate the transition towards a nature-positive food system through better access to farm & field data, we realized that the industry was missing a unified way of identifying the main unit of agricultural production: the field. In fact, every company in the industry defines fields with its own (internal) identification system, exacerbating data fragmentation and limiting the interoperability of tools. Through better connectivity, farmers could use the information to boost their yields and derive more insights to manage their resources even more efficiently.
Therefore, if we want to tackle the issue of data fragmentation in agriculture, the first step is to ensure that every stakeholder can rely on a shared infrastructure to identify and find agricultural fields anywhere in the world. This is what inspired the creation of Global FieldID™, a universal geospatial system that assigns a unique identifier to virtually every field, and can be queried via a simple API, either using a GPS location or sharing a field shape image, when available.
Just as a city requires streets and squares with commonly accepted names, so does agriculture, if we truly want to foster collaboration and innovation at scale.
By establishing a shared geospatial reference for fields, industry players can communicate more effectively, improving the interoperability of digital farming tools and promoting data exchange across the entire ag & food value chain.
«This common language can facilitate more efficient and collaborative decision-making processes, benefitting the whole industry. »
Most importantly, once the system is widely adopted, farmers would be able to comply with data sharing requests using a more convenient mechanism than time-consuming ad-hoc data entry activities.
After signing our first global partnership with Syngenta and Yara, we will focus for the rest of the year on expanding coverage of the service to key agricultural countries (starting from the US and Brazil) while connecting the most widely adopted FMIS (farm management information systems) and digital farming platforms, with the goal to expand adoption of this new standard through which – we believe – forward looking companies and farmers will be able to drive the transition to a more sustainable, resilient, and transparent food system.
We must act now to make global food production resilient and environmentally sustainable.
Solving the issue of data fragmentation is crucial not just for the agricultural industry, but also for global food security. That's why it's imperative for the food and agriculture sectors to unite and put in place efficient tactics to dismantle data siloes, enhance information sharing and promote more effective collaboration.
A new universal language for agriculture is a necessary building block to make this vision a reality.
Davide first discovered his interest for sustainability and agriculture while working for McKinsey’s Sustainability Practice in Brazil. He has since spent the past ten years leading innovative businesses in the agricultural industry. After working at Yara International and Isagro S.p.A, his passion for regenerative agriculture led to the opportunity of launching and leading Varda as its CEO.