Digital transformation generally refers to all sort of technological changes that affect all aspects of human society. Among all the fields of application in recent years, digital transformation is increasingly gaining ground also in agriculture sector. to improve the efficiency of global agriculture through the creation, maintenance and enhancement of free, reusable, open and specialised digital infrastructures for data and applications. This will enable the development of a global data infrastructure for agrifood that will help address climate change and food and water security. In this JOurnal article we look at how this digital revolution is taking hold.
What is Agritech?
Agritech can be defined as the set of applications and integrations of state-of-the-art technologies with production and control processes in the agri-food sector. Generally speaking, the objective implied in the use of digital technologies in agriculture is to improve the performance of companies on the market, both in terms of efficiency and improvement of profit margins.
This objective must also be traced back to the need to guarantee the long-term environmental sustainability of agricultural activities, given the progressive deterioration of climate and soil, as well as the marked trend towards an increase in the world population in the years ahead.
The technologies used are mostly digital and they largely involve the use of hardware and robotic or mechanical components to achieve sustainability and efficiency. From an economic point of view, current and foreseen data suggest a significant explosion in the size of this market.
Beyond the nominal amount of the market value, it’s interesting the annual growth in investments in agritech, which stands at an average value of 12%.
The most interesting aspect of agritech today and also in the near future probably concerns the combination of its operating dynamics (i.e. how technologies are implemented and used in production and monitoring processes) and the R&D activities.
The technologies used and the possible software solutions
Currently, there are several possible specific technological applications for agriculture, each of which has a certain degree of intensity in the use (also combined) of robotics and software. The solutions that can be used in the agritech context give rise to various farming practices, currently in testing and consolidating phase, each having clear implications in terms of app development. The technical projects planned for the agritech world are part of a set of technologies that will enable easy and common access by creators and consumers of content from the agricultural ecosystem. These will include:
Let’s examine them in detail.
Precision farming means an advanced agricultural management concept that uses digital technologies to: monitor, measure and analyse the needs of fields and crops. The precision farming approach is mainly oriented to the collection and production of images, followed by their in-depth analysis.
Precision agriculture adopts a management approach that focuses on (near real-time) observation, measurement and responses to crop, field and animal variability. It can help increase crop yields and animal performance, reduce costs, including labour costs, and optimise process inputs. All this can help increase profitability.
At the same time, precision farming can increase occupational safety and reduce the environmental impact of farming practices, thus contributing to the sustainability of agricultural production.
(A wide range of material related to the agritech sector is available on the dedicated portal of the European Commission’s DG EIP-AGRI).
The keyword is optimisation of resources. For example, it is possible to reduce the quantity of fertilisers by measuring the different levels of nutrients present in the fields, saving on costs and reducing the environmental impact. Not coincidentally, the technologies most used in precision agriculture include:
Smart farming refers to the use of data from monitoring systems, and in general from sensors, to optimise agricultural processes as a whole. In this case, the focus is on the use of acquired data, i.e. how they can be used to make decisions. The goal is to create value from data.
To know in real time if a field is well watered it is sufficient to have a tablet connected to sensors, but in order to have a system capable of suggesting more complex solutions, then it is necessary to have platforms or interfaces that can manage big data with machine learning. One of the most interesting uses is certainly related to the possibility of making predictions to intervene promptly at local level. In this way, the presence of parasites could be prevented or at least reduced, reducing costs and the impact on the environment.
It is clear that the integration of different hardware involves the production of an extremely heterogeneous quantity and quality of data. This is also one of the reasons why, when you want to develop a project in the agritech sector, it is suitable choosing reliable partners who can develop customised solutions.
Among the optimisation techniques that have been developed in recent years, there is also vertical farming. The basic idea is rather simple and consists in saving the space necessary for agricultural production activities, with the aim of reaching higher levels of environmental sustainability. The quantity of fertile soil, due to climate change and desertification, is a variable but crucial component for agriculture. To this, it must be added the constant increase in the world population that pushes to increase production.
Digital transformation in agritech sector
Digital transformation is a crucial factor to improve agricultural production and preserve the environment. The use of digital technologies is not reserved exclusively for large producers, because even small companies can optimise processes and resources.
It is undeniable that there are some resistances in favour of already known production techniques, just a matter of time and knowledge and awareness on new technologies will improve.
Consumers also play an important role because with their choices they can influence the market and consequently the production processes. Just think of the use of blockchain in the agri-food chain, used to protect local products from counterfeiting and provide full transparency to consumers.
The future of agriculture will necessarily be connected to precision agriculture and the smart farm. Nations such as Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana are concrete cases in which the introduction of new technologies has led to the improvement of agricultural production and economic development.
In Accra (Ghana), Google has created its first lab in Africa dedicated to artificial intelligence and, among the applications developed, one in particular helps farmers to recognise cassava diseases.
Despite the good progress made, there are still difficulties in accessing finance for scaling up and commercialising innovative agro-technologies.
These challenges can be overcome if governments take a proactive approach to improving funding gaps and the robustness of technology infrastructure in developing countries.
Furthermore, the use of new technologies will be crucial to make agriculture globally sustainable.