With the rise of LegalTech, FinTech, and EdTech, it seems there is a name for the digital transformation of every industry at the moment. Predictably, even the world of agriculture has adopted the phrase AgTech to reference how technology is revolutionizing this traditional industry.
Drones are already being used to photograph and analyze agricultural land to increase efficiency, decrease costs, and increase yields. The real-time aerial footage provides farmers with an immediate in-field crop analysis that enables them to make crop-management decisions much more efficiently.
However, agricultural automation and the use of AI could quickly become critical in sustaining food production. There are already too many examples of starvation in Africa because of a labor crisis in farming due to an aging population.
It’s also crucial to remember that agriculture is a $5 trillion industry and represents 10% of global consumer spending. These are a just a handful of reasons why we shouldn’t be too surprised how there is substantial investment in agricultural technology startups that are leveraging technology-enabled sensors and the IoT to create farm-management software.
However, it is artificial intelligence (AI) that is transforming the industry and helping farmers manage the unpredictable. Traditionally, farmers have collected information and used data analytics to provide retrospective insights. This reactive approach is slowly being replaced with proactive real-time data and intelligent services.
Although AI functionality is somewhat limited its utility at the moment, applications in our immediate future have the potential to be revolutionary. In the last week alone, we have read reports of how AI has been developed to help piglets survive their first months in China. But this story is only scratching the surface of how farmers can better leverage AI.
Try to imagine how a combination of AI and machine learning can determine what seeds are best suited to the local soil type and weather conditions. Farmers could also continuously add data about infestations, diseases, and marketplace trends before rushing into any critical decisions and use tech as an enabler to maximize return on their crops.
The digital transformation of agriculture is well underway, and although farming relies heavily on labor, many of these tasks fail to add any real value. A new digital ecosystem that contains robotics, drones, autonomous and artificial intelligence actually provides farmers with an opportunity to focus on growing their business.
Technology is already revolutionizing the industry, and “ultra-precision” agriculture is the next step. But it’s not a case of introducing technology for technology’s sake. There is an argument that it is critical to our survival on this tiny planet called earth with its shrinking resources and increasing population.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicts that the global population is set to reach 9.2 billion by the year 2050. To put this figure into perspective, the global agriculture sector will be faced with two billion mouths to feed within the next 33 years.
Unfortunately, dwindling resources mean that it is no longer as simple as planting more crop fields or breeding more livestock. Efficiency will be the new currency in farming, and the big winners will be those who can do more with less. The concept of a so-called digital farm will arrive much sooner than most people realize and to put it bluntly, it has to.
Agritech is much more than another industry buzzword. There is a new generation of companies solving real problems and creating greater efficiency through technology. AI will be at the heart of this widespread technological change, and some would argue that it already is.
For example, a company called Blue River Technology has developed a tractor with machine-learning capabilities. The machine can photograph 5,000 plants a minute while driving on farm fields and can even identify each sprout as lettuce or a weed, allowing farmers to make real-time agriculture decisions based on facts rather than guesswork.
Considering that one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. annually, most farmers would agree there should be a better way forward. Once again, Blue River Technology claims that its precision technology eliminates 80 percent of the volume of chemicals sprayed on crops and can even reduce herbicide expenditures by 90 percent.
However, technology should not be seen as a threat that will replace agriculture professionals. AI will quickly become an essential tool that will enable crop advisors and farmers to be more proactive than reactive to situations through unprecedented amounts of real-time data.