Food. The world loves it and needs it.
In the past few years, a combination of consumer-driven trends, concerns towards climate change and a global food shortage crisis have inspired leaps in innovation across the agriculture industry. Coinciding with great advancements in technological capability and the increasing affordability of devices, it is of little surprise that many agricultural innovations are centred around data and improved connectivity.
Historically, advancements in one of the world’s oldest industries have been driven by mechanical inventions. Now, we are at the doorstep of Agriculture 4.0, where the established norms of farming practice are being disrupted by new technologies, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT).
In 2018, the World Government Summit collaborated with Oliver Wyman to produce a report titled ‘Agriculture 4.0 – The Future of Farming Technology’. It identified four main developments that pose a great risk of global poverty and hunger, namely: population growth, overuse of finite resources, climate change, and food waste.
The global population is predicted to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, requiring at least a 70% increase in available calories to sustain everyone. Problematically, as the global food demand rises, so does the cost needed to generate those calories.
Input resources are also in shortage; by 2030 the world’s water supply will fall short of meeting global needs by 40%. Already, we are seeing climbing costs of energy, nutrients, and labour which are adding increasing pressure the profit margins of farms.
Suitable arable land is at risk of running out. One quarter of the world’s arable land is severely degraded, requiring major restoration before it can begin to sustain large-scale crops; restoration that costs time and money.
In addition, volatility in the weather, caused by climate change has resulted in more extreme temperatures and increasingly frequent, prolonged and destructive severe weather events, creating undesirable economic outcomes if crops are damaged or fail as a result.
Lastly, there has been increased social pressure centred around sustainability, health and freshness motivating shifts in farming practice. Consumers are pushing for farm practices to be more ethical and sustainable, for higher standards in farm-animal welfare and food transparency, and to cut down on chemical and water use.
In order to combat these pressures, the world looks to the revolutionary developments of Agriculture 4.0 as a viable solution.
Some of the fascinating new techniques proposed involve the likes of drones, automated tractors, and even blockchain.
Smart systems and devices are one of the many aspects of IoT that has seen a major uptake in the past decade, and are predicted to become the norm in farming technology. Sensors are already used across most farms collecting, recording and analysing relevant data. However, data can still be used more cleverly, and this would be achieved by interconnecting the sensors through IoT.
For example, soil can be automatically sampled by GPS technology and its quality monitored. The probes can be connected to irrigation and nutrient distribution equipment, which in turn can water or feed the soil according to the provided data. Precise quantities of water and nutrients can be used, preventing water waste and saving input costs. Farmers can make better choices when informed by smart data.
Visual scanners attached to drones can check produce has the ideal characteristics signifying its readiness for harvest, and signal to automated tractors to retrieve it. With blockchain, data collected at all points from growth to harvest to sale also has the potential to massively improve food traceability.
Remote monitoring has also been used for livestock, taking body-sensor data and movement tracking to optimise individual feeding and care plans. Some farmers are already doing this through ear tag technology to keep track of their cattle’s body temperature, health and location. The key advantage of smart-livestock monitoring is that illnesses can be detected early, allowing for early medical intervention and mitigating risks of the entire herd falling ill and producing contaminated food.
With smarter and automatised farming equipment, time and labour pressures faced by farmers can be alleviated, as well as even improve the overall output of the farm.
Analysis has shown that smart-crop monitoring and smart-livestock monitoring can contribute $130-175 billion and $70-90 billion, respectively, in additional value to the sector by 2030.
As such, we see how innovations in Agriculture 4.0 can benefit all levels of the supply chain and help ensure its stability. Farmers can develop more efficient practices, saving time, funds and labour and retain higher control over their assets. Distributors have the data to source product and are able to position themselves to have maximum advantage in the market. Manufacturers can improve their production process and data can help them devise strategy to better target their customer base. Customers can be assured that the provenance and quality of their food has been adequately managed from farm to shop.
So far, introducing technology to the agriculture industry appears to be highly beneficial for all. Today, there are already 800 million people suffering from food scarcity and hunger, and this number will only increase as the population grows and climate change worsens. Overhauling the existing system would be productive towards resolving the global food shortage, and Agriculture 4.0 has positioned itself as an ideal step forward for the industry.
Mileson Qiang Guo is an entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of The Institute for Emerging Technologies and Social Impact (ITSI). He founded ITSI to foster debate and discussion about the social impact of emerging technologies amongst industry pioneers and policy leaders. The Institute aims to cultivate original research, share ideas and connect people with the shared goal of harnessing technology for the greatest social and economic benefit.