10,000 years of agricultural evolution can be largely grouped into just four development eras: Paleothic (early domestication of plants and animals), Antiquity (roughly the 2000 years BCE, in which more efficient farming systems were developed), the Modern Era (roughly 1700 to 1900 when mechanization and fertilizers emerged) and the Green Revolution (1930s-60s, when transformative crop genetics and fertilization practices developed).
As with so many things, the pace of change- even in agriculture- is increasing rapidly, and it turns out that even agriculture is not immune to the changes of the digital age. Technological innovations have the ability to transform every link in the food chain, from seed to fork.
The need to embrace the opportunities these innovations offer is real: in order to feed the nearly 10 billion people with whom we will be sharing this planet by 2050, crop and livestock productivity improvements are essential. Agricultural efficiency is still relatively poor: 7 tons of feed is needed to produce just 1 ton of meat. It takes 880 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk.
Further, climate change is already requiring changes to crop management, and access to fresh water and good soil are becoming serious limitations for agriculture.
Finally, there are competing food requirements. In wealthier areas, food is a relatively small part of the household budget, and consumers are becoming prosumers, with high expectations for the standard and types of food they want. At the same time, global hunger and food scarcity are serious challenges: nearly 800 million people are undernourished. And connecting both is the global food chain: ensuring that there is transparency, traceability and trust between producers, processors and prosumers.
Fortunately, the makings of a fifth agricultural revolution are here, with the potential to reduce or eliminate all of these issues. These eight emerging digital technologies (PwC2016) each have the potential to transform agriculture. They range from the specific technical tools to new ways of seeing the existing system. Some, especially the first ones, sound familiar but their use in agriculture is novel. These 8 digital technologies can be categorized into four each of hardware and software and when combined with the IoT (Internet of Things) can profoundly change the way food production works.
1. 3D Printing: 3D printers are becoming familiar, but their potential is still massively untapped. This is particularly true in the agribusiness arena. There are obvious, easy applications on farm, as in using a 3D printer to create a needed part for a repair, thereby increasing self-sufficiency and avoiding potential losses in production. More ambitiously, it could allow farmers to develop alternative parts to suit their particular requirements. A veterinarian might use it to produce a weight-bearing support for a cow with a broken leg. As costs come down (older materials used to cost around $5-10/cu in, but a material known as PLA has reduced costs to just $0.25-$0.50) the range of uses will expand. Some are already getting creative with other possible uses: Food Ink is a pop up dining experience in which not only is all of the food created through 3D printing, but so are the utensils and furniture. Foodini offers a 3D food printer for home use starting at $2,000.
2. Robots: Robots are already accepted on many farms because they reduce labor costs, particularly for time consuming and repetitive tasks. However, now they are going to the next level: functioning autonomously or through set instructions to offer new kinds of assistance to people. For example, there are wine bots (from VisionRobotics) that are used in vineyards to prune vines, remove young shoots, and monitor the vine and soil for general health. Nursery bots are used in plant nurseries to relocate potted plants (see Harvest Automation for a demonstration of their speed and accuracy). In the livestock industry, there’s a herder bot that will keep cattle moving in the right direction and another robot to mix the feed. There is a rotary robot that is changing up milking machines (DeLaval). Some dairy farmers even say the cows decide when it’s time to be milked! These new generation robots even include “soft robots” made from material and not from metal, for more delicate handling tasks. The robot market in agriculture is expected to grow from just under $1bn/year now to $16 bn/year by 2020 (ResearchMoz, 2016).
3. Drones: Yes, they are a form of robot, but they lend a specificity that should be acknowledged separately. Of primary interest to farmers is the ability to visit and observe parts of the field they cannot easily go during the growing season, and with new camera technologies to collect information not seen with the human eye. Drones are being used in soil and field analysis, planting, crop spraying/monitoring, irrigation and crop health assessment (as in this one minute video, demonstrating how a drone can be used to observe the impact of a crop feeding program). Even companies that don’t specialize in this technology recognize the value: John Deere is incorporating Sentera’s scouting drones in a collaborative effort to extend its own offerings to customers. Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer both have made the foray into drone technology to assist farmers in making fertilizer application and irrigation decisions through aerial images.
4. Sensors: Sensors may soon be the most ubiquitous digital technology in agriculture, as they deliver a tremendous array of functions (covering a wide range of agriculture arenas, from crops to livestock) and very affordable. They can be used to analyze the air, water or soil of a field, for example using the infrared spectrum that is otherwise invisible to the human eye. The resulting information can be analyzed and displayed graphically on a computer, allowing for detailed analysis and providing forecasts and remedies for problems such as drought or disease. Sensors also include wearable technologies for livestock that can monitor movement, estrus cycles, healthy vitals, and general herd identifying information. They can even be used to warn away predators by sensing the animal’s behavior through its movement and signaling flashing lights. In Japan, Tokihiro Fukatsu was a pioneer in the wearables technology industry and many others have followed his research closely to establish their own companies including startups such as TekWear and IntelliScout. Some companies are more specialized, such as Moocall, which focuses particularly on increasing calving rates. Others such as SCR Dairy cover a wide range of services for an entire sector. Companies like Dairymaster offer 24-hour, 365 day support services for its wearable technology. The market for agricultural sensors is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2025.
5. Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI takes the data gained from sensors and converts it to useful information. AI refers to machines that can mimic “cognitive” functions such as “learning” and “problem solving. An exciting example in agriculture is machine vision, where computers process visual data collected via UAV, satellite or even smart phones and provide the farmer with useful information. For example, companies like Fermentrics are using AI to reduce inefficiencies in food production. Using machine vision (image-based automatic inspection) allows for constant monitoring of fields or herds. This information can then be used to reduce irregularities in growth or production and to be identified before they become problems. Most importantly companies like Cainthus are developing algorithms to identify animal behavior and productivity on an individual basis. AI is particularly important because it can interpret information far better than humans and can be used to filter data and allow humans to only become involved when it is absolutely necessary.
6. Augmented Reality (AR): AR, sometimes called mixed reality, is the addition of information, typically by computers or sensors, to that of the real world. It is the middle ground between reality and virtual reality. An example is the ability of computers to see spectrums of light that the human eye cannot pick up, but which might contain useful information for decision making. Food producers can use AR to layout the planting options in a field or by a fertilizer salesman to demonstrate the impact his product could have on his customer’s field. The argument with AR is that it is more than images superimposed on a computer screen, the user needs to actually see the virtual images as part of the real image before him (such as with Google’s Glass or Microsoft’s HoloLens or PokemonGo). The technology is still very expensive, but high-value uses such as identifying pathogenic bacteria in the food chain are likely to be among the early applications.
7. Virtual Reality (VR): Adoption of VR technology will also be slowed by high implementation costs, but as with the other technologies here, the prices are coming down very quickly. A likely early use of VR is livestock video monitoring systems that send data back to a computer program, which in turn constructs a visual representation of the herd or brood allowing the farmer to check in on the cows or chickens remotely. VR is developing into an important training tool in many industries, and is already an important teaching tool in veterinary medicine. A natural extension would be training employees and workers for on-farm work. Despite the many possible applications and uses, this is one technology that may still be a ways off from fully integrating itself into the agriculture industry.
8. Blockchain: As with the other technologies listed, a blockchain is a way of using technology to gather, interpret and share information. In this case, it is the information that goes along the food chain. Having a solid source of reliable information about food (including where it was grown; how it was processed, stored and transported; who was in control at each stage of the journey) has been a challenge ever since people started trading for food. These days, with an increasingly global food chain, and ever more complicated compliance requirements the information chain is even more important than ever. Blockchain is essentially an incorruptible electronic ledger that can track each transaction of a food item’s journey through the food chain. From a legal standpoint, the encryption allows for safekeeping of information, reducing the need for lawyers or legal action.
Essentially, every entity that handles the item submits the relevant data, which is recorded and accessible to anyone else in the chain. In return, they also have access to everyone else’s data and records, so there is full transparency. It is done through a chain of third party providers, and no one entity has the ability to manipulate the data, so it is secure. Farmers and producers can connect to and access the blockchain can make information more available. As the agriculture sector has one of the biggest disconnects between suppliers and retailers, Blockchain has the ability to create direct links among participants of the supply chain thereby ensuring farmers are paid fairly and retailers receive the right products. Wal-Mart who recently began testing a food chain blockchain to monitor its food procurement and sales, both in the US and China. If problems arise, Wal-Mart can immediately trace the food and identify which other stores have the same item, allowing it to immediately remove it from its shelves, and there is a clear chain that will help quickly identify the source of the problem. Given that each year almost one in ten people fall ill from consuming contaminated food, this technology has the potential to directly affect the consumer in a monumental way.
Together, these eight technologies are part of the Internet of Things (IoT):the connectivity of machines in collecting, sharing and analyzing data. The connectivity has dramatic applications in the agribusiness sector, where there are significant geographical and information access challenges. The IoT can be used in both crop and livestock production. For example, InTouch, an IoT enabled platform that ensures an optimal feed mix while providing for real time monitoring to guarantee customers a consistent product (Keenan System). Taking it a step further, some agriculturalists refer to the Internet of Food (IoF) in which all information regarding a specific food could be available to a consumer. Simply by accessing a mobile device, consumers can determine the location, growing techniques, flavor, potential allergies, shelf-life, etc. of the food they are about to purchase or eat. This could take place in a restaurant or supermarket. Non-human commerce, with ‘things’ doing business with each other, is evolving so quickly now it has been termed ‘Digital business’.
These eight technologies discussed in this blog are already in play, representing tremendous opportunities for those who recognize the implications. Not just obviously agribusiness participants- the farmers who recognize that they must be not just farmers of crops and animals but farmers of data- but also food marketers who haven’t realized how connected with the larger business community agribusiness has now become.
If you are involved with any of these 8 digital technologies, or others that have the potential to transform agriculture or food production consider joining the Alltech business Accelerator http://go.alltech.com/accelerator