Why agriculture needs a technological revolution?
Technology is needed now more than ever to deal with the Covid-19 fallout for the food system, which is still playing out and threatening vulnerable populations around the world.
Agriculture is an industry that has always relied on nature, an immutable fact that has seen harvests and livestock wiped out regularly throughout history by heat waves and droughts, by floods and pestilence. But with breakthrough advances in science and technology, we have more tools than ever to mitigate the vagaries of nature.
By connecting to online marketplaces, farmers can now access a wider audience and sell their produce with more visibility and control over pricing. They can also leverage precision farming technologies to monitor what is happening on their farms in real time, with Internet of Things devices and other tools becoming cheaper and more widely available. Further upstream, they can even improve their productivity by tapping onto next-generation seeds, with scientists altering crops at the DNA level to make them pest and disease-resistant.
Technology is needed now more than ever to deal with the Covid-19 fallout for the food system, which is still playing out and threatening vulnerable populations around the world. The agricultural sector will need to embrace innovative technologies to meet the growing global demand for food, which is expected to rise by 70% by 2050. These issues of building a more resilient and just food system are the focus of the United Nations Food Systems Summit to be held in September in Rome.
Here’s a look at some of the technologies that can help us achieve this goal.
Online agricultural marketplaces
Online agricultural marketplaces have emerged steadily in the mobile internet era to help match buyers with sellers, streamlining the process of buying and selling agricultural goods.
"Online marketplaces are like big farmers' markets on the internet," wrote Erica Frenay in an article on the website for Cornell University's Small Farms Program. "You can pay for a "booth space" or a listing, and your products will be presented to potential buyers alongside many other producers' products."
Online marketplaces such as Gurgaon-headquartered DeHaat, which connects small farmers with a network of suppliers of farm input and equipment, allow farmers to easily source farming input while also accessing other services such as farm advisory. Others help farmers expand their customer bases and potentially sell more of their crops at higher prices. Online agricultural marketplaces can provide better ways of aggregating information about pricing and demand, which can then be used by all participants in the farming process, including growers, retailers, distributors and suppliers.
DeHaat will be taking part in a food systems forum organized by Pinduoduo, China’s largest agricultural platform, to discuss how online marketplaces can help farmers adapt to modern challenges. Pinduoduo itself is an active promoter of technology to modernize agricultural practices. The Chinese company also holds training sessions to help farmers get into e-commerce and enlists the help of agronomists to teach farmers how to grow better. By marrying distribution and training, farmers’ productivity can be more sustainably enhanced.
Drone technology and precision farming
Aerial imagery is a technology that can help farmers prepare for and plan based on weather patterns in their area, giving them a better chance at staying profitable year-round. With drones, they could survey what is happening to their crops from afar and adjust accordingly. These technologies are more affordable than they were a decade ago, making them more accessible for the average farmer.
The benefits of drones go beyond just making farmers more efficient - they can also be used to create high-quality maps of the landscape, which are invaluable for conservation efforts. Through aerial imagery, they can provide information to better plan crop rotations and determine which parts of a given field should not be tilled for future plantings because they have been depleted from overuse.
Drones are the backbone of precision farming, which is about using data collected through drones and other types of technology to make decisions about the timing, location, type and rate of fertilizer application for each crop or field in a way not possible with traditional methods.
"Drones have revolutionized agriculture by offering farmers major cost savings, enhanced efficiency, and more profitability," wrote Andrew Meola, the director of subscription marketing for Business Insider Intelligence, adding that "drones can quickly find problems that would not become apparent in ground-level spot checks. For example, a farmer might find through time-lapse drone photography that a part of his or her crop is not being properly irrigated."
Coupled with IoT devices that help with sensing and execution, farmers can more precisely manage their crops while conserving resources.
Seed technology and agricultural biotechnology
Seed technology is a broad term referring to any of the various techniques in plant breeding, propagation, or production by which the quality and quantity of seeds available for cultivation are improved. There are revolutionary technologies in both the breeding sector (developing new seed varieties) and the commercial sector (producing and marketing crop seeds).
In the breeding sector, biotechnology and other new technologies can revolutionize the seed industry by making it possible to breed seeds for various growing conditions, such as drought tolerance. In the commercial sector, biotechnologies are used to develop better quality varieties of existing crop products and produce agricultural commodities not previously grown commercially on a large scale.
In recent years, agricultural biotechnology has completely transformed farming worldwide, and it is now a major industry in itself. It is about applying the same principles of genetics and molecular biology to increase the quality, quantity, or variety of agricultural and horticultural production.
Crop genomics is a subfield of agricultural biotechnology involving modern genotyping and next-generation sequencing technologies to identify genetic variation within and between crop species. Crop genomics can identify specific genes that confer plant traits, such as disease resistance or better nutrient uptake, which enables targeted breeding programs to produce crops that are more tolerant to environmental stress factors.
Scientists have developed a technology called CRISPR, which is the acronym for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats." Experts say CRISPR can edit genes with much more precision than ever before, allowing scientists to use this tool to improve certain plant traits, such as fruit size or drought tolerance without introducing foreign DNA.
"The most prominent technology driving innovation and discovery in the agbiotech market, which most people are now familiar with, is CRISPR," said Kristi Snell, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer of Yield10 Bioscience, a Massachusetts-based agricultural biotech company, in an interview with GEN Magazine, adding that the new technology will eliminate years needed to achieve the same results through traditional methods.
Crop genomics has helped us understand the DNA of plants to make them more resistant to pests and environmental factors like drought and heat waves. This technology is revolutionizing agriculture as we know it by speeding up breeding cycles, improving crop yields and reducing land use per pound of product produced.
"We are in an exciting time for crop genomics, with increasing diversity and innovation in study design and approach," wrote Nature Genetics, a monthly journal on genetics, in an editorial last year. " Genome-editing tools have been utilized in crop species to target desired genes and improve agricultural traits."
In other words, with companies now able to sequence the DNA of certain crops, farmers will be able to access information about which genes make those plants more resilient and disease resistant.
In conclusion, the global agricultural sector is one of the economic sectors that has a considerable impact on food security, rural development, environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation. It also accounts for nearly 30% of employment globally. The good news is that investors continue to pour money into producing new cutting-edge technologies to improve this sector. In 2020, more than $26 billion was invested in agriculture and food technology startup companies.
Last year, consultants McKinsey & Company published a major report saying that if the agriculture sector were to embrace artificial intelligence and other innovative technologies, "the industry could tack on $500 billion in additional value to the global gross domestic product by 2030."
More needs to be done to highlight and promote these latest technologies to farmers as most seem unaware or unable to take advantage of the scientific advances in their industry.
"Most farmers aren't aware of the benefits of these types of technologies," wrote Dmytro Lennyi, an agritech expert in an article for AFN. "The challenge for agritech companies is not only [the] improvement of existing solutions, but helping farmers learn how to use them," he added.
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