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Next-Generation Digital Transformation in Agriculture

Agriculture is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most important industries in the world, but at the same time is one of the sectors which will face the most challenges in the years to come. According to the World Resources Institute, with the world’s population expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, it is estimated that 56% more food will need to be produced by that time as compared to 2010. (1) At the same time, agriculture already uses 50% of the vegetated land in the world and is responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural irrigation also currently uses 70% of the world’s freshwater consumption. (2) Farmers often operate with very thin margins and global trade tension and logistical issues can have devastating results to the sector, while many governments who rely on food imports are increasingly exploring ways to improve food security.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of IT solutions now available in the market which can help tackle many of these issues. The concept of using such tools to embrace Digital Transformation is not new, as technological solutions that enable precision agriculture have existed for many years. However, as key technologies such as cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and 5G continue to mature and develop, new solutions are constantly being commercialized, which can help increase the efficiency and sustainability of modern agricultural business practices. There is also an increasing focus on IT solutions to aid in the development of sustainable agriculture in emerging markets, given the relatively higher degree of importance agriculture has in these countries as for example it is estimated that 70% of Africans rely solely on agricultural income. (3)

For these reasons there has been increasing momentum in agriculture sector to embrace Digital Transformation using a variety of technologies. Some of the most notable recent examples include:

Robotics in Agriculture – John Deere (4)

One of the standout announcements at the recently held CES 2021 was the new Series X line of tractors and combines from John Deere. John Deere is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world and has been advocating for technologies such as IoT and Big Data to be increasingly used for several years, but this new line of equipment brings agricultural automation to the next level. This new series of machines is able to prepare soil, plant seeds, care for plants as they grow, and harvest crops and at the same time collects a variety of data about current conditions via the more than three hundred connected sensors on every vehicle.

Some of the key Digital Transformation technologies these machines use include artificial intelligence, computer vision, in-field machine-to-machine communication, and self-driving capabilities. The self-driving capabilities alone have showed significant improvements in recent years as the latest machines can now navigate curved paths and make complete turns. While this iteration represents the next generation of farm automation, a human driver is still required in order to operate the machine, but these robots indicate that the industry is one step closer to having completely automated farms.

AI in Agriculture – Pinduoduo (5)

Artificial Intelligence is a key technology which is increasingly being used to optimize agricultural practices and is seen as especially important in some countries were farmers are quickly aging and retiring. Recently an interesting competition was held in China to demonstrate the prowess of AI in the sector which featured a contest which pitted several technology-focused teams AI versus traditional growers to see which team could produce the most strawberries. The technology-focused teams used AI algorithms based on historical growing data to determine optimal levels of water and fertilizer while the traditional teams relied on their expert knowledge.

Overall, the teams which relied on technology instead of traditional expertise significantly outperformed the traditional teams. Overall, the average yield of the technology teams was 6.86 kilograms over the four-month competition, which was 196% higher than the average traditional team yield of 2.32 kilograms. Interestingly the technology teams also had a higher return on investment compared to the traditional teams as presumably using precision agriculture significantly reduced waste. According to event organizers, the average technology team outperformed the average traditional team in terms of return on investment by 75.5%, and hence demonstrated that there is a strong business case for precision agriculture to be adopted by the industry at large.

Blockchain in Agriculture – ZhongAn (6)

Blockchain technology is another Digital Transformation tool which holds great promise for the agricultural sector, as creating an open platform to share data can significantly increase the transparency and traceability of the agricultural supply chain. A recent of use of the blockchain in action in the sector can be found in China, where insurer ZhongAn has created its “GoGo Chicken” service to monitor the health of organic chicken. Chickens are fitted with a leg-mounted GPS tracker which constantly monitors the health of the animals which is then uploaded onto the blockchain.

Using this service allows all members of the supply chain to monitor the health and wellbeing of animals, and sensors measure environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. Video analysis is used to measure overall animal health and the company is even planning to use facial recognition technology to identify specific animals. Blockchain technology allows individual animals to be traced quickly in the event of a food safety issue, and the service helps to mitigate risk for ZhongAn as an insurer. Going forward services such as this can even be used as a tool to measure potential disease outbreaks, which often results in the culling of hundreds of thousands of animals.

IoT in Vertical Farming – Vertical Field (7) (8)

Vertical farming has been gaining increasing attention recently, as this new agricultural method offers several potential benefits as compared to traditional farming. For example, according to Plant Lab, one kilogram of lettuce grown in an open field requires 250 liters of water compared to 20 liters in a greenhouse and only one liter in a vertical farm. Vertical farms also have a higher yield per square meter and consume significantly less power, and interest in the sector has grown significantly since the onset of COVID-19 as governments are keen to reduce their dependence on imports and vertical farming can produce a variety of crops year-round.

Given the fact that vertical farming happens in a confined space, IoT solutions can play a huge role in optimizing operations, and there are many examples of this happening in the market. For example, Israel’s Vertical Field, which specializes in the sector recently signed an agreement with Emirates Smart Solutions and Technologies (ESST) to deploy vertical farms in the United Arab Emirates. These facilities will be equipped with IoT technology from the beginning with features such as IoT software, embedded sensors, and in-house monitors to ensure optimal growing conditions.

Digital Transformation for Rural Agriculture – Precision Agriculture for Development (9)

While many of the leading Digital Transformation solutions in the agricultural space rely on the latest innovations in IT technology, this is not always the case, particularly in emerging markets. Even the most basic applications of digital technology can have a huge impact in such locales. A recent study published in Science found that farmers in rural areas who received digital advice on agricultural agrochemical practices were 22% more likely to implement such advice compared to traditional mediums and delivering US$10 in benefits for very US$1 spent.

As such there are several organizations who are helping to optimize and modernize agricultural practices in emerging markets through the use of basic digital technology. One such organization is Precision Agriculture for Development which is an organization working with local farmers in several emerging markets in Asia and Africa. In the Indian state of Odisha alone the organization is delivering free, crop specific advice to over 800,000 farmers. In many cases many of these farmers still do not have access to the Internet, and hence information is disseminated via voice messages and text, enabling Digital Transformation for those farmers even with very basic communications tools.

What Does the Future Hold for DX in Agriculture?

Going forward the agricultural sector will face increased challenges as the world’s population grows, and the future is now even less certain given the effects of COVID-19 and the subsequent restriction in cross border trade. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of IT solutions which can help farmers optimize operations in a more sustainable fashion, and these tools will only grow stronger as technologies such as IoT and AI continue to mature. The future is likely to see mass adoption of AI to assist in decision making, and farms which can operate with few to no people will likely become a reality in the coming years. New agricultural practices such as vertical farming are likely to adopt a “digital first” strategy from the onset which will see Digital Transformation increasingly interwoven into one of oldest and most important industries in the world.

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(March 5, 2021)