Technology has allowed us to pursue ever better ways of eking ever greater productivity from the food producer that is Mother Nature. Selective breeding in plants and animals, irrigation systems, tools for tilling the soil, mechanisation, synthetic fertilisers, crop protection chemistry. Each has made its own technological contribution to our modern-day agricultural success, transforming the industry into a system capable of feeding 7.6 billion people.
The secret to feeding the extra 1.4 billion mouths expected to join the world’s population by 2050 also lies in technology, but this time it has specific terminology. ‘Agtech’ has been described as the fourth agricultural revolution – a marriage of data, farming and technological innovation that will further transform the industry and help us to achieve hitherto unrealised levels of productivity – such as the long-sought 20t/ha wheat yield – efficiency and environmental sustainability.
This theme was much in evidence in Abu Dhabi at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture 2018. Here’s a country that lies just beyond the southern tip of the Fertile Crescent. For centuries, the activities of migratory Bedouin were the (limited) extent of the nation’s agricultural industry.
Then came Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his famous quote: “Give me agriculture and I will give you civilization.” Since the mid-20th century, agriculture here has undergone a tremendous transformation, with viable farms being created where before there lay only desert. Agriculture has become a pillar of the national economy, despite the hot climate, desert environment, and scarcity of essential resources such as water. But still the country imports 85 per cent of its food requirements – a proportion that its current government believes agtech can dramatically reduce.
No doubt the government was listening with interest to conference speaker Dr Marc Larousse, VP Business Development at Alltech. “Agtech is a ‘digital comet’,” he says. He compares our current innovation revolution to the comet that struck Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out 70 per cent of life. “Innovation is doing the same thing, only better. Disruption is doing something new that makes the old thing obsolete. In agtech we see that disruptive potential.”
Alongside Larousse was Nick Brozovic, director of policy at the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, University of Nebraska. For the start-ups involved in this scene, he warned that they all face three main challenges: having no viable value proposition, viewing data plans as a revenue source, and confusing private and public value propositions in relation to big data.
“First, agtech needs to address a need. If you don’t clearly address a pain point, you don’t have a proposition,” he states. “Secondly, data is expensive: don’t underestimate the cost of getting data from the field to the farm to the cloud. Too many companies at the moment are trying to recover money spent on hardware and data acquisition. I expect the cost of both sensors and data to fall close to zero in the years ahead. Companies that take advantage of selling their service will do better.
“Then be careful what you do with the data. It can provide opportunities for anonymized benchmarking, peer-to-peer learning and behavioural change, all leading to increased profits as well as better resource stewardship. Some data is collected for the public good, some presents an opportunity for private profit. But beware of how farmers fear private data could be used against them, in enforcing regulations.”
While both Brozovic and Larousse share the belief that the big developments in agtech will not come from inside the industry, but from new players, it’s Brozovic who sounds the note of caution to Silicon Valley investors and developers.
“Agtech is not consumer tech. An idea has to address a pain point if it’s to succeed.”
Click here to read further about the technologies at the heart of agtech