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The future is Agri-tech? Overcoming barriers to adopting developing technologies in the agricultural sector

With the world’s population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the UN has forecast that if current patterns of food consumption continue, approximately 60 per cent more food will be required to be produced globally in 2050 (compared with 2005-07) - the pressures on those working in the agricultural sector have never been higher. 

One way for those operating in agriculture to address this growing demand is to utilise recent advances in agri-tech to improve productivity and efficiency in farming practices. The agri-tech sector has expanded rapidly in recent years (Defra estimating a 40 per cent increase in investment from 2017 to 2018 to $17 billion).

 

Such developments include:

  • Precision farming - using sensors, robots and drone technologies to optimise crop efficiency (for example, identifying specific terrain types and areas of planted crops to apply fertiliser/water and identify and deal with the formation and spread of disease and pests).
  • ‘Smart Farming’ – incorporating precision farming, including the development of automated farm machinery.
  • Vertical Farming methods – designed to utilise space by stacking plants vertically.
  • Data sharing – collecting and sharing of data between stakeholders working in the sector (e.g. metrology, soil characteristics, fuel consumption and yield). Such data can be used to inform a model which can provide yield predictions and suggestions to improve the efficiency of the crops from sowing to harvest.

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Cultural change

 

Clearly the adoption of these technologies required to make the agricultural sector more efficient and productive requires cultural change across the sector.

 

Whilst key players across the industry have been traditionally slow and resistant to change, given that developments in technology can require fundamental changes to the production process and business models, we are now seeing an increased willingness to engage with agri-tech.

 

This has seen John Deere spending $305 million in 2017 to acquire Blue River Technology, a start-up that makes robots capable of identifying unwanted plants and spraying them with high-precision herbicide, reducing input costs and increasing efficiency.

 

Legislation

 

Another hurdle is that legislation and regulations have not kept up with developments in technologies, for example regulation involving the commercial use of drones and genetic modification (GM) crops and breeding techniques designed to improve crops nutritional value and resistance against pests and diseases.

 

This coupled with the fact that new technologies are in their infant stages of production and as such tend to be expensive, creates a dual barrier to widespread adoption across the industry.

 

Data

 

Potentially the biggest challenge the industry has seen in the take-up of agri-tech is the collection and use of data. Whilst modern farms create a huge amount of ‘raw’ data, without collecting and inputting this data in an appropriate form and model, it is largely useless.

 

The use of data and machine learning can potentially optimise plants for taste, yield and disease fighting properties without the need to utilise the controversial use of GM.

 

But these will not be realised unless farmers are confident that their data will be used responsibly and its use supports their business.

 

However, organisations are seeking to support the sector to overcome these challenges.

 

There is an increasing availability of grants to unlock the potential agri-tech can provide, for example in July this year Defra selected 31 agri-tech projects to benefit from £22 million of funding.

 

There is also guidance published by the Agriculture and Horticultural Development Board on agri-tech developments and how they can benefit producers, including a code of practice which is hoped will promote safe sharing of data across the industry.

 

Transparency

 

The code aims to promote a framework of trust and transparency, so farmers are confident they know what will happen with their data when sharing with the agri-food sector and to protect farmers’ rights in relation to data that’s come from their farming operations.

 

Building trust in the sharing of data is vital to ensure farmers are both open to inputting into the development of new innovations but also to ensure successful adoption of them, especially as the world of agriculture becomes more connected, and as agribusinesses continue to go through increasing digitalisation.

 

Whilst it is impossible to predict exactly how the future of the agricultural sector will be reshaped by technological advances – what is clear is that utilisation of such technology and significant cultural changes will be required to the industry to address the increased demands a growing global population places on all parties working in modern agriculture.

  • Suzie Miles is a partner at Ashfords Solicitors
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