The Digital Evolution of Agriculture

As the global population continues to rise, there is an increasing need to improve the productivity and sustainability of food production to ensure future food security. The use of digital agriculture could help to achieve these objectives, but the widespread implementation of new and advanced agricultural technology is not without challenges.

The Future of Farming

What is digital agriculture?

The agricultural industry has undergone three major revolutions throughout history, all representing a dramatic evolution in the techniques or technology used in food production.

The first saw hunter-gatherers transition to settled agriculture, the second introduced the use of mechanization, such as tractors and combines, and in the third, the use of agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, began, alongside the genetic engineering of crops.

The agricultural industry is now said to be on the brink of a fourth revolution, the rise of digital agriculture. Digital agriculture is defined as using an integrated network of advanced technology across the entire agricultural value chain to improve the efficiency, productivity, and sustainability of food production.

These technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, and drones, which allow for enhanced data collection, storage, and analysis, aid in decision-making, and can carry out automated tasks.

Specific applications of this technology include collecting data on animal and crop health and using this data to make predictions regarding animal behavior or the precise amounts of chemicals that should be applied to crops.

Furthermore, automated robotics can carry out manual tasks such as milking livestock, weeding, and applying fertilizer to crops. Devices will be connected with others on the farm and along the entire supply chain, enabling more sophisticated data sharing between farmers, distributors, and consumers that will streamline the production and distribution processes.

What are the benefits of this technology?

The use of advanced technology in agriculture has many benefits, including increasing yields while reducing inputs. Not only does this increase farmers' profits, but it also improves the food security prospects of a growing global population without the need for a large increase in agricultural land use.

This technology could further benefit farmers by reducing the need for manual labor on farms, giving them more free time, and providing them with a comprehensive data set that can be used to make more informed decisions regarding the management of crops and livestock.

Digital agriculture also comes with environmental benefits, particularly as it allows for accurate calculations of the amounts of water, pesticide, and fertilizer required by crops and enables their application to be more precise. This reduces the likelihood of excess chemical run-off polluting water supplies and decreases water usage.

Additionally, the technology can enhance communication between stakeholders in the agricultural supply chain, which could help reduce food waste, as it will allow for better planning and faster reactions to changes in consumer demand or potential incidences of food contamination.

As around a third of the food produced for human consumption each year is wasted, reducing this number by only a small fraction would have substantial environmental, social, and monetary impacts. 

However, despite the clear benefits of digital agriculture, the digital evolution of the agricultural industry is still only in the early stages. As a result, although some pieces of new technology have been adopted on a large scale, many are yet to be fully developed, and others have only been utilized on a small fraction of farms.

Digital Agriculture Concept

Image Credit: Jackie Niam/Shutterstock.com

The issues preventing widespread uptake

The low uptake of this new technology is largely due to the various barriers that currently prevent its use in many areas, as well as the stakeholders' concerns regarding its usage.

One major barrier is the fact that a stable internet connection is required for much of the technology to function, which currently restricts the ability of those without internet access to get involved in the digital evolution of agriculture. As half of the world's population does not currently have internet access, the potential for new technology to infiltrate the agricultural industry on a global scale is limited.

Further restricting usage is the need for a certain level of tech literacy to operate these systems, as well as the high cost of the technology, which means many farmers cannot afford it.

These barriers are particularly problematic in developing countries, where people are less likely to have internet access, may not be as familiar with technology, and are often poorer. Small farms are also less likely than large farms to have the funds necessary to adopt expensive pieces of technology, thereby restricting their opportunity when it comes to digital agriculture.

As such, there is a concern that the digital evolution of agriculture will only worsen the inequalities already present between developing and developed countries and between small and large farms.

Farmers are also worried about how secure their data will be with this new technology. If these systems were to be hacked, it could have catastrophic impacts on production and, therefore, farmers' livelihoods, so it is particularly important that measures are in place to protect the data security of users.

As the digital evolution of agriculture is currently in its infancy, and the uptake of new technology is still low, there is a lack of information demonstrating many consistent long-term benefits of digital agriculture. This provides little incentive for farmers to transition to more high-tech working methods and makes it more difficult to gain the investment needed to further develop the technology.

However, despite the significant challenges that must be overcome, if this technology is indeed developed further and strategies are devised to ensure its implementation can benefit all farms, digital agriculture could offer significant global benefits in the future.

Sources:

  • Soma, T. and Nuckchady, B. (2021). Communicating the Benefits and Risks of Digital Agriculture Technologies: Perspectives on the Future of Digital Agricultural Education and Training. Frontiers in Communication. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2021.762201
  • Lowenberg‐DeBoer, J. and Erickson, B. (2019). Setting the record straight on precision agriculture adoption. Agronomy Journal, 111(4), pp.1552-1569. https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2018.12.0779
  • Birner, R., Daum, T. and Pray, C. (2021). Who drives the digital revolution in agriculture? A review of supply‐side trends, players and challenges. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 43(4), pp.1260-1285. https://doi.org/10.1002/aepp.13145
  • Barrett, H. and Rose, D.C. (2022). Perceptions of the fourth agricultural revolution: What's in, what's out, and what consequences are anticipated?. Sociologia Ruralis, 62(2), pp.162-189. https://doi.org/10.1111/soru.12324
  • Green, A.G., Abdulai, A.R., Duncan, E., Glaros, A., Campbell, M., Newell, R., Quarshie, P., Kc, K.B., Newman, L., Nost, E. and Fraser, E.D. (2021). A scoping review of the digital agricultural revolution and ecosystem services: implications for Canadian policy and research agendas. FACETS, 6(1), pp.1955-1985. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0017

Last Updated: Nov 21, 2022

Ellie Lebeau

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Ellie Lebeau

Ellie is currently in her final year of an integrated Master’s degree in Zoology at the University of Lincoln, as part of which she has studied topics such as cell biology, integrative biochemistry, veterinary parasitology, and conservation biology. Throughout her time on the course, she has been particularly intrigued by subjects relating to health and disease, and therefore, her third-year independent research project investigated the immune response to avian malaria parasites in wild birds.

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