Digital agriculture: innovation for the new normal

  • The pandemic’s impact on agriculture
  • Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
  • Visions and predictions for the agriculture sector
  • Closing thoughts

As the world starts to prepare to enter the post-pandemic phase, the agriculture sector looks ready to initiate a digital transformation of its own that will put it firmly on the road to recovery and enable it to return to a new and improved ‘business as usual’. The years before us will be highlighted by a remarkable display of human ingenuity and resourcefulness, from which the agriculture sector will emerge reinvented. Innovations in agriculture are set to empower all stakeholders throughout the supply chain – from farmers to consumers – to emerge in a better overall position.

The pandemic’s impact on agriculture

Similar to what happened in other sectors, agriculture’s supply chain was severely disrupted by the pandemic. As a result, specialty crops growers, as well as grain and cattle farmers, all experienced a major drop in exported produce. This, in turn, led to a significant decline in prices for a wide range of agricultural products, including corn, soybean, and cattle. Wheat prices, on the other hand, grew as people cleared bread and other wheat-based products off of supermarket shelves fearing a potential shortage. The agricultural sector certainly did experience a shortage, albeit a labour-related one. As countries implemented movement restrictions, closed their borders, and suspended visa processing in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, seasonal workers from abroad found themselves unable to go back to the fields they worked in during previous seasons, causing major productivity issues throughout Europe and North America.

Among numerous structural changes in the agricultural sector instigated by the pandemic, the increased adoption of digital agriculture is probably the most significant one. Technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, drones, precision farming, and blockchain will become an increasingly common feature on farms around the world, helping farmers automate various tasks and address the growing worker shortages, increase their productivity and resilience, reduce costs, monitor the condition of their crops remotely and optimise yields, reduce fertiliser use, and minimise their environmental impact. When it comes to changes in consumer behaviour, the upcoming period will be characterised by a shift towards more personalised, plant-based nutrition as people seek to give their immune system a boost. Furthermore, with nationwide lockdowns and the images of empty store shelves still fresh in their minds, consumers may decide to rethink their priorities and pay more attention to locally-grown food in the near future.

Challenging times call for remarkable innovations

The recent crisis, while resulting in the breakdown of the produce supply chains and other disruptions, has also given ‘digital agriculture’ a boost and has sparked a new wave of innovation across the agricultural sector that could forever change how we produce and supply food. In fact, quite a few agri-businesses seem to be faring very well – even during these challenging times – launching remarkable and promising innovations. 

Drone-aided pollination

The pollination process is naturally performed by bees. Unfortunately, due to declining bee populations, farmers around the world have been forced to conduct this process manually using tractors equipped with low-efficient fans. But now, the Israel-based Blue White Robotics (BWR) has come up with a better solution. In a joint effort with the New York-based Dropcopter, the company is using drones to pollinate date plantations in the Arava region and the Jordan Valley from the air. Pollinating a 15,000-acre plantation manually typically takes about four weeks, but drones can do it much faster, saving farmers a great deal of time and money.

Tractor-sharing app

Recognised as one of the least mechanised regions of the world, Africa’s agricultural issues predate the pandemic by many years. Unable to afford a tractor of their own, many African farmers are forced to work the land by hand or use livestock. Thanks to the Nigerian agritech startup Hello Tractor, that may be about to change. The company has developed an app that allows farmers to get in touch with commercial tractor owners and hire their machinery for short-term use. Each tractor available on the platform is equipped with IoT-driven software and connected to the cloud, enabling farmers to see its exact location, its characteristics, and a calendar of availability for hiring.

Online farm management platform

Managing a farm can be an arduous task, which becomes even more challenging during a global crisis. Thankfully, technology can offer a helping hand. The UK-based crop production and grain marketing company Frontier has developed an online farm management platform called MyFarm, which enables farmers to manage, store, and analyse all data related to their farming business, as well as share the pertinent information with other stakeholders. The platform also provides farmers with a real-time overview of grain markets, along with price alerts, allowing them to make better-informed decisions and ensure the continuity of their business.

Visions and predictions for the agriculture sector

The pandemic will undoubtedly accelerate the adoption of digital technology within the agricultural sector. “COVID-19 has put us on a digital fast track, farmers are going online. They are rapidly innovating, creating ways of selling their products to keep themselves afloat. We are seeing the world become far more agile through the use of technology,” says Alison Sunstrum, the founder and CEO of CNSRV-X. Her views are shared by Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt, the founder of The New Fork, who believes that “digitalisation and innovation need to hurry up if we want to meet the challenge of feeding everybody and dealing with climate change.” De Wildt is particularly invested in blockchain, which she describes as being “part of the next Industrial Revolution.”

Trendwatcher, futurist, and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk predicts that the upcoming digital transformation, spearheaded by technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, drones, and self-driving harvesting systems, will revolutionise every aspect of the food production process, resulting in a smarter, more efficient, and more sustainable agricultural system. Genetic engineering will also take on a more prominent role in agriculture, allowing us to create more nutritious, healthier, and sturdier plants. New advances in hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics systems will make urban farming a more attractive proposition, placing food production closer to consumers and allowing us to grow food throughout the year.

Automation is expected to become a key tool in helping us address pandemic-related challenges. “There was already a trend for automation and mechanisation before the pandemic, and the extra labour shortage risks due to COVID-19 will accelerate automation adoption,” explains Arzum Akkas, a pro­fessor of operations and technology management at Boston University. “Automation can assist the farming industry in three ways. The first is in reducing labour costs substantially. Second, you are faster and can generate more output for a given period of time, meaning a reduction in cost per unit. And the third component is mitigating risk. COVID-19 has created and will continue to be a risk problem with regards to the availability of labour. By switching to automa­tion, you are controlling that risk.”

Some experts also believe that the future will bring a major change in our eating habits. “Obviously, plant-based foods that simulate meat are a thing. Taking vegetables and plants and converting them into something that we know and love, like a meat analogue or a meat substitute, is a massive, massive transformation from an eating perspective,” says futurist Brian Frank. Likewise, global food futurist Tony Hunter expects the emergence of new types of food products, such as those manufactured using synthetic biology, algae-based products that can grow in seawater, milk proteins and other cell-based products, and cultivated meat and biomass products.

Closing thoughts

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the agriculture sector, bringing forth a new set of challenges and accelerating the adoption of innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, drones, IoT, and genetic engineering within the sector. With the steady population growth showing no signs of slowing down, these technologies will play a key role in helping us produce enough food to feed everyone, transforming every step of the food journey in the process.

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