AgTech: Feeding future populations
The agriculture industry is currently the world’s oldest and most digitally immature industry in the world. However, this needs to change as by 2050, it is expected that there will be an increase in the demand for food by about 70%. This, along with an increasing global middle class, particularly in Asia, pushes farmers to elevate their production potential in order to take advantage of food and fibre exports. With increased adoption of emerging technologies, the agriculture and farming sector, which has traditionally relied upon manual labour they operate, is beginning to shift their practices. These technologies are solving new and old problems, reinventing the way farmers work by creating new jobs and changing existing tasks. While considerable progress has already been witnessed in this industry, many new technologies are still being refined in order to produce enough food to feed future populations. This article will explore some of the benefits Agricultural Technology (AgTech) brings for farmers and ultimately the consumer, as well as the hindrances that stand in the way of its adoption.
There are a multitude of ways to use technology in agriculture such as robotics, biometric sensors, electronic identification devices, GPS, etc. For livestock farmers, increased efficiencies can be sought through the use of robotics that promote autonomous feeding, milking, egg collection and sorting, early detection and treatment of animal health issues. Similar benefits can also be sought from a variety of crop farmers who utilise GPS, sensors, the Internet of Things and advanced analytics to retrieve real time soil moisture readings and alerts for blockages or leaks in irrigation around the farm. GPS can also be used to virtually map out an entire farm, with every plant having its own GPS coordinates, making up a virtual farm that can be stored in the cloud. This virtual farm not only helps farmers lay out their fields in straight lines effortlessly, but also makes way for further technological adoption of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, automation and sensors. In particular, both livestock and crop farmers can gain advantage from AgTech in the increased control and flexibility that it provides. Farmers are able to control many aspects of the farm such as irrigation and crop spraying through apps on their phones or tablets, promoting remote access and the ability to respond quickly to changes.
Further examples of how farms can utilise AgTech to be more smart:
Despite the numerous benefits that AgTech provides, there exist roadblocks that are inhibiting its potential for further growth. First and foremost is cost, although AgTech can be sought after to reduce costs from the rise in wages, its high investment cost is a big deterrent for many farmers, especially smaller farmers. Currently less than 20% of acreage is currently directed by digital agricultural technology.
Additionally, there exists internet connectivity issues for many farms due to their remote locations. In order for farmers to take advantage of emerging technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and farm management applications, they require internet connectivity throughout the farm as a first step. Currently, there are a variety of new players and technologies available for farmers to meet their connectivity needs, such as LPWANs, which assist in connecting IoT devices to a network beyond the reach of traditional networks.
The third challenge revolves around the complexities and uncertainties regarding ownership of agricultural data collected from digital AgTech. In a survey conducted of 1000 Australian producers, it was found that many farmers were not aware of the details of the contracts they entered in with regards to data produced through the use of digital agriculture technologies. This results in the owners of technology possibly taking advantage of producers’ data and profiting off of it.
Lastly, for Australia in particular, current government programs lack a commercialisation direction, with researchers focusing on publishing research papers as opposed to paying attention to solving current problems in the market. In particular, when compared to other countries, start up interest and investment in AgTech is very limited, with a great potential for improvement.
The agriculture industry is set to significantly benefit from the use of AgTech in order to meet the growing world population’s demand for food. There is a plethora of options for digital solutions that can help farmers achieve more efficient production as well as reduce waste and increase the quality of produce. These include the adoption of IoT, robotics, sensors, GPS, etc. While there currently exist many barriers to adoption, Australia’s expansive, fluctuating and arid climate is perfect for testing solutions that can be taken to the rest of the world. Hence, with more focus and prioritisation, Australia has the potential to lead Agricultural Technology globally.