Technology has improved our lives in so many ways and, as we look back in history, we should consider its use in even its most crudest forms during the first great revolution in agriculture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Britain and subsequently Europe.
Inventors like agriculturist Jethro Tull made significant early strides in crop planting with his invention of the seed drill in 1701 – the first mechanical seeder that efficiently sowed seeds at the correct depth and spacing, covering them for optimal growth. It increased crop yields and sped up planting, requiring fewer workers. As a result, farmers could grow more crops while also thwarting hungry birds, as the seed was directly drilled into the soil, eliminating waste. Tull’s seed drill revolutionized agriculture, paving the way for modern farming practices.
Livestock breeding also went through a transformation at that time, as new methods in sheep and cattle mating were introduced to eliminate genetic diversity, thereby dramatically increasing the size and quality of farm animals. That not only meant more meat to feed an expanding population but also higher milk yields.
Tech pioneers past and present
Spring forward 400 years from the time of early technology pioneers like Tull, and we witness a new revolution in agricultural practices, but this time on a worldwide level. The digitalization of the agricultural sector has the potential to completely transform the industry, fostering efficiency, sustainability, and competitiveness. By optimizing operations and increasing productivity, farmers can enjoy higher profits and a more sustainable agricultural sector. Moreover, the adoption of digital technologies aids in minimizing the environmental impact by optimizing resource usage, reducing waste, and implementing precision farming techniques.
Digitalization brings numerous benefits to both arable and livestock farming. Firstly, it enables farmers to stay competitive by offering innovative solutions and exploring new business opportunities. Secondly, through task automation, digital technologies optimize farming operations, leading to reduced physical and mental workload for farmers and improved working conditions. Lastly, digitalization enhances traceability and transparency of agricultural products, empowering consumers to make more informed choices about the food they purchase. These advantages pave the way for a more efficient, sustainable, and consumer-focused agricultural sector.
However, digitalization also presents some challenges. The upfront cost of implementing new digital technologies can be a significant barrier, particularly for small-scale farmers, as it may outweigh the potential benefits. Additionally, the lack of compatibility between different digital platforms poses hurdles in sharing data and integrating various applications seamlessly. Moreover, the limited availability of reliable and affordable internet access in rural areas hinders the widespread adoption of digital technologies. Lastly, many farmers may lack the necessary skills and knowledge to fully harness the benefits of digitalization, limiting its impact on their agricultural practices. Addressing these challenges is crucial to ensure that digitalization can be harnessed effectively and inclusively across the agricultural sector.
Problems can be overcome, says Aleksandr Aristov
But these are problems which can be overcome with the right investment, planning, and training in place, according to business expert in the agricultural industry Aleksandr Aristov, DEc, who has been involved with one of the largest agricultural holdings for more than 25 years. He states: “It is essential for agri-food system practitioners, farmers, educators, and all potential stakeholders to take digital agriculture seriously, as it is becoming a significant aspect of the food system. The implications of digital agriculture can influence various aspects, including land use, food production, data collection, and resource management, among others. Gaining a profound understanding of digital agriculture is crucial in preparing future food system professionals to effectively address its impact, capitalize on its opportunities, and mitigate potential unintended consequences.”
On the investment front, US financial whizz kid Michael Burry couldn’t agree more. The founder of the former hedge fund Scion Capital, his investment choices have had a significant leaning to farmland. “I believe that agricultural land – productive agricultural land with water on site – will be valuable in the future,” he said, explaining that’s a belief he holds for several reasons. Firstly, farmland has a historical track record of being one of the best-performing asset classes, offering above-average returns with below-average risk. Secondly, it serves as a reliable hedge against inflation due to its limited supply and increasing global demand for food. Finally, farmland offers wealth preservation during uncertain times, as its income and value tend to remain relatively stable regardless of economic conditions.
AI is radically changing the agrarian landscape
Artificial intelligence is allowing farmers to better understand their crops, at scale and at a more nuanced level. For instance, AI-powered computer vision enables the identification of plant health and the detection of pests, complementing traditional sunlight monitoring. Networks of sensors gather valuable data on various factors like temperature, soil conditions, and watering, creating a holistic view of crop health. With this wealth of information, growers can optimize their cropping practices and enhance crop quality, ultimately maximizing agricultural yields.
Data such as this is too much for humans to analyze effectively in a timely manner, therefore, AI, IoT, 5G, and alternative network connections work together to monitor crops or automate previously manual processes. That’s right across the agricultural spectrum and the benefits are almost limitless.
Up there at the top is research and development. Machine learning, including deep learning, can teach systems to detect outliers in data or match this information against known patterns with unprecedented precision and recall. The result is faster innovation and greater efficiency, so reducing or eliminating intervention.
Data Bridge Market Research in the US analyses show that the Internet of Things (IoT) in the agriculture market was valued at $13.76 bn last year and is expected to reach $29.71 bn by 2030, registering a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 10.10 percent during the forecast period of 2023 to 2030. Just to be clear, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are two distinct concepts that complement each other. IoT devices provide the data for AI systems to analyze, learn from, and automate. While IoT focuses on connectivity and automation, AI focuses on analysis, interpretation, and decision-making.
AI in other areas of farming
AI is also used in other intelligent automation areas, like drones capturing crop images for yield estimation and early pest detection. Combining drones and computer vision enables faster field assessments and better pest management strategies. This integration empowers farmers with real-time data for optimizing crop yields and sustainable practices.
Cognitive computing can monitor soil moisture, light and humidity on a continuous basis, and of course, at the consumer end, AI can analyze and predict market demands. AI can simplify crop selection and help farmers identify what produce will be most profitable.
As Aristov Aleksandr adds: “It’s all about utilizing technology for efficiency and quality.”
In terms of risk management, AI provides farmers with forecasting and predictive analytics to reduce errors and minimize the incidence of crop failures. Then, of course, there’s weather forecasting. AI helps farmers forecast temperatures and predict how many fruits or vegetables a harvest will yield. It can also help farmers identify optimal irrigation patterns based on predicted rainfall.
The future of farming is being shaped by continuous research, innovation, and capacity building in the agri-food sector. Multi-financial framework initiatives play a vital role in providing funding for the development and adoption of cutting-edge technologies like AI, IoT, robotics, and digital platforms, which are revolutionizing agriculture and creating a more sustainable and efficient food system. With ongoing investment and collaboration, a promising future awaits farmers, consumers, and the planet as a whole.
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