In his book, The Future of Agriculture, Aidan Connolly explores the myriad factors impacting the evolution of agriculture and food production, from robots and AI to biotechnologies and alternative proteins. Here he reviews some of the latest technologies to disrupt the industry.
Farming is frequently referred to as the world’s last industry to embrace the digital revolution, and indeed McKinsey reported that it is the world’s least digitised, but since the first species of animals and crops were domesticated and cultivated, there are many examples of how farming innovates. Now the pace of that innovation is increasing.
‘Technological transformation offers possibilities for the agricultural industry to adapt and thrive in a changing world’
– AIDAN CONNOLLY
Here are 10 digital technologies most relevant to food and farming that will help to futureproof the industry.
The rapid increase in the use of robots in farming has created a global market exceeding $5bn and is projected to double in the next five years.
Whether the task is processing meat in factories, picking fruit from trees or from the ground, pushing up feed or cleaning out manure, the market for robots is growing quickly as the labour market for farm workers dries up.
Even dairy farms are transferring the task of milking cows to robots, and when cows decide when they will be milked, it increases cow comfort and milk production is reportedly higher.
The internet of things (IoT) is exploding in all sectors (50bn devices are connected) and farming is no exception.
The ability to track produce such as vegetables, flowers, sensors to record the movement and health of livestock animals, detect changes in the farm environment or how plants take up water from irrigation systems in real time are all essential to address the challenges of climate and sustainability, animal welfare and food safety in the supply chain.
Agricultural IoT devices are reportedly worth $11.4bn and the market continues to grow as more use cases are being found.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Farming knowledge has relied traditionally on word of mouth; advice and experience was passed from one generation to the next.
Training has relied on learning by doing, rather than explicit knowledge transfer.
This created real challenges, such as how to avoid human error, misunderstandings and cognitive bias.
AI may sound the death knell for extension agents, farming experts, consultants and professional expertise, but, given the experience of other industries, it is more likely to alter how those professions function.
More accurate data will be available faster but will still need interpretation. As an example, consider how AI has changed the healthcare industry: jobs have been changed but not replaced.
3D printers are already being used to create replacement parts for farm equipment, print food or even make a prosthetic for a valuable animal, and these are all invaluable to the functioning of a farm.
Covid-19’s disruption of supply chains shows how 3-D printing creates real efficiencies and savings on the farm and in the food supply chain.
Drones are used to manage 20m hectares of China’s cotton crop. Drones have the ability to go where humans can’t and see things not readily observable from the ground, creating real-time information on the effectiveness of pest protection, fertiliser, weed control, irrigation and the timing of harvests.
Extended reality and the metaverse
In a Forbes article, I highlighted the role that extended reality (XR) can play in food, since the human eye is limited in what we can see while XR can use a broader spectrum and interpret this to manage crops, animals and food production, with the potential for improving health and food safety practices.
Virtual reality (VR)
VR is increasingly being used at universities to teach students and show how animal digestion and organs work (without vivisection), to show consumers how plants grow and to visit farms virtually.
Using the same technology as Bitcoin, blockchain is simultaneously perhaps the most exciting and most misunderstood technology, creating transparency in a food business that’s often failed to keep consumer confidence.
Blockchain is a huge opportunity for the food industry and Canadian companies are using it in the beer supply chain, Walmart is using it in its global food chain, and the FDA have blockchain as a tool to address consumer concerns about provenance and food safety.
Data is often called ‘the new oil’, except that like the world’s leading producers of oil can attest, more of it doesn’t necessarily make you rich.
By 2025, it is estimated that 175 zettabytes of data will be stored globally.
The capturing, controlling (or protecting) and processing power of data analytics can unleash meaningful new insights for farmers and food producers.
Cloud-based computing services use real-time connections to the internet to offer more flexible resources and economies of scale than conventional server-based or even edge options.
The requirement for connectivity – especially 5G – represents a genuine challenge when many farms aren’t connected, exacerbating the rural-urban divide. This can only be bridged through an investment akin to rural electrification.
The imaginary farm of our childhood storybooks masked farm life realities, from physically gruelling work to limited control and understanding of the natural processes of animal health and weather, as well as isolation.
Technological transformation offers possibilities for the agricultural industry to adapt and thrive in a changing world.
Conversely, the consequences of leaving agriculture undigitised are stark. If the world is to realistically transform our food chains, delivering sustainable, climate and welfare-friendly, abundant, affordable food, digital disruption and transformation is essential.
Aidan J Connolly is president of AgriTech Capital, advising on innovations and technology investments, he teaches on three AgriFood MBA programmes and is a contributor to Forbes magazine. His most recent book The Future of Agriculture is free to download at www.agritechcapital.com/books.
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