Described as the world's least digitized industry by McKinsey analysts (joint last position with hunting), the food producers of the world could only agree that agriculture has struggled to avail of the breakthroughs in technology that have transformed other industries. Uber has disrupted transportation, Netflix the movies, Airbnb the hotel business, online money movers who hold no cash now dominate banking and we purchase apps from companies who don’t make them. Yet, farming seems to have changed little in the 10,000 years since the first animals were domesticated, and many believe that it will change little in the coming decades.
However, I contend that this view is myopic and fails to recognize the degree of disruption already happening in farming. Sean Moffitt, managing director of Futureproofing, listed the 30 new technologies that both are currently seeing the greatest dollar investments and that industries will require to futureproof themselves for the next decade. Here's a look at the 10 digital technologies from that list that I see as the most relevant to food and farming.
Those who associate farming with bucolic country living might not realize that the new generation of farmworkers doesn’t aspire to pick fruit, pick up animals or do many of the common backbreaking tasks associated with farming. Robots now milk cows, pick strawberries and cut up carcasses in processing plants. Robotics in farming represents a global market of over $5 billion (AU$6.94 billion) and is projected to double in the next five years.
2. IoT And Sensors
The ability to track produce and live animals, detect health issues and evaluate the environment inside the farm or the uptake of moisture from the soil in real time is of huge value in addressing the major challenges of climate/sustainability, animal welfare and tracking in the food supply chain. The explosion of IoT devices in other industries (46 billion devices are connected) could pale in comparison to the opportunities represented in agriculture, already an $11.4 billion (AU$15.82 billion) market.
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Many careers in food and farming rely upon learning by doing, rather than explicit knowledge transfer. This creates real challenges, such as how to avoid human error, misunderstandings and cognitive bias. AI may sound the death knell for extension agents, farming experts, consultants and professional expertise, but, more likely, it will alter how those professions function. More accurate data will be available faster but will still need interpretation. As an example, consider how AI has changed the healthcare industry: Jobs have been changed but not replaced.
4. 3-D Printers
The ability of 3-D printers to repair machinery, print food or even make a prosthetic for a valuable animal provides a clear advantage to farms worldwide. It's even clearer in times of disrupted supply chains (eg. Covid-19) or in regions of the world with their own distribution challenges (eg. Africa). 3-D printing on the farm and in the food supply chain creates real efficiencies and savings.
Already surveying 20 million hectares of China’s cotton crop, the ability of drones to go where humans can't and see things not readily observed from the ground creates real insights into pest protection, fertilizer and herbicide application, irrigation and harvest timing. More