Aidan Connolly is the President of AgriTech Capital, a food/farm futurologist, and author of “2-1-4-3, Plan your Explosive Business Growth,”
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.
1. Robotics: 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 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 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 (e.g., Covid-19) or in regions of the world with their own distribution challenges (e.g., Africa). 3-D printing on the farm and in the food supply chain creates real efficiencies and savings.
5. Drones: 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.
6. Extended Reality And The Metaverse: In my last Forbes article, I noted the potential for extended reality (XR), as human vision is limited to visible light, and XR can let us see a broader spectrum. This can be valuable in managing crops, animals and food production and has the potential for improving health and food safety practices.
7. Virtual Reality (VR): The ability of VR to teach students about the inner workings of animals (without vivisection) and how plants grow—or simply to be able to visit farms—is an extraordinary opportunity for students and consumers alike to engage with farming. Successful examples include the use of VR in Glasgow University for cows, the Australian poultry industry, North Carolina swine farmers and even McDonald’s U.K. consumers.
8. Blockchain: Both the most exciting and the most misunderstood technology (using the same technology as Bitcoin), blockchain can create transparency in a sector that’s often failed to capture consumer confidence. Blockchain represents an opportunity for the food industry to regain its high ground. For example, Canadian companies in the beer supply chain, Walmart’s global food chain and the FDA see blockchain as a tool to address consumer concerns about provenance and food safety.
9. Data Analytics: The world will store 175 zettabytes of data by 2025. Data is often described as the “new oil,” which is ironic, as many countries that are rich in oil haven’t necessarily become wealthy as a result. It’s assumed that the future capturing, controlling (or protecting) and processing of data will justify the high valuations of agtech startups. Believing that data will be the savior of farming is a pipedream, but the power of data analytics can unleash meaningful new insights for farmers and food producers.
10. Cloud Connectivity: Cloud-based computing services use real-time connections to the internet to offer more flexible resources and economies of scale than available with conventional server-based or even edge options. The requirement for connectivity—especially 5G—represents a genuine challenge when many farms aren’t connected at all yet. Governments understand that if farming is to be revolutionized, addressing connectivity is essential. Without it, the rural-urban divide will be exacerbated.
The consequences of leaving agriculture undigitized are stark. If the world is to realistically face up to a transformed food chain, delivering what consumers say they want (sustainability and welfare-friendly, abundant, affordable food), it can’t be achieved without digital disruption.
The imaginary farm of our childhood storybooks masked the many problems of farm life, from physically grueling work to limited control and understanding of the natural processes of animal health and weather, as well as isolation. Technological transformation offers the possibility that those in the farming and food sectors can have our cake, bread, meat and milk—and eat it, too!