Around the world, the agriculture sector is currently in the throes of a momentous shift. Consumers are demanding changes in the food system; labelling and traceability demands are surging; and more environmentally sound practices are expected. Digital agriculture can be seen as the savior to many of the pressures agriculture faces.
As the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has highlighted in its latest Global Assessment, changes are needed at many different levels of global food production system to reduce hunger and poverty, improve public health, and reverse ongoing biodiversity losses.
Thus, there is the need to deploy new advances in the fields of geographic information systems, robotics, and data collection and analysis, which can be grouped together under the rubric of “digital agriculture”. It has the potential to render agricultural production systems dramatically more efficient and environmentally sustainable. Such innovations can also help to get food more directly to market in a way that has huge appeal to consumers.
Examples of such innovations include precision agriculture approaches, in which cutting-edge methods of data aggregation, analysis, and machine learning are applied to farming practices to more accurately assess and manage environmental conditions, input usage, and farmer interventions. Satellite guidance of automated farm machinery can reduce redundant movements and save fuel. Accurate field mapping and surveying can ensure that seeds are ideally spaced, and water, pesticides, and fertilizers are applied when and where they are most needed.
The benefits of such precision approaches can often be most effectively leveraged when combined with integrated data platforms, which provide a single interface through which producers can combine the above-mentioned field management techniques with weather forecasting, satellite imagery, and financial and market information, to most effectively address the myriad variables which affect their livelihoods.
Advances in robotics provide new ways for these analyses to be operationalized. Current research into automated workflows, advanced image processing, and new mobility and grip designs have made it possible for machines to take on ever more of the painstaking and often back-breaking labor required for a successful crop. Specialized and self-directed machines are being developed for a wide range of applications, including precision pest control, soil analysis, plant-trimming, and the harvesting of soft fruits and vegetables.
Digital agriculture can help make farmers lives physically safer and easier in other ways, for example, through automated mixing systems for plant protection products. These systems mix the correct volumes of plant protection product and water, thereby obviating the need for farm workers to agitate tanks and mix and measure their content themselves. This prevents operators from having to handle the plant protection products directly, thereby minimizing their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
In spite of the substantial benefits which can be realized through digital agriculture, the rapid advances in this field also raise a number of questions and challenges that will need to be addressed. These range from data usage and privacy policies, to intellectual property rights, to public perceptions of new technologies. Finding suitable paths forward will be essential. Yet concerningly, digital agriculture and its proponents remain under-represented in policy forums and public discussions. The digital agriculture sector will need to be much more collaborative in its outreach and advocacy efforts, if it is to fulfill its potential for reducing hunger while helping to preserve the planet. Digital agriculture has that opportunity to be seen as the solution, but it will need to act quickly and concertedly to make full use of its potential as a sector.