Digital agriculture: enough to feed a rapidly growing world?

By

Rob Dongoski

EY Agribusiness Leader

Focused on strategy, digital transformation and M&A for EY clients in the agribusiness and food sectors.

10 minute read 26 Apr 2018

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New technology gives the agricultural industry an opportunity to improve productivity. But only if it can share and use the data.

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by almost 40% to 9.6 billion people. In order to feed this drastically increasing population, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that the agriculture industry will need to produce 70% more food while only being able to use 5% more land. This means approximately 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals, and 200 million more tons of livestock per year, on almost the same agricultural surface area.

This, coupled with growing environmental and regulatory pressures, presents a daunting challenge for the global farming industry. Since most land suitable for agriculture is already farmed, this growth must come from higher yields.

The digital agriculture revolution can provide the solutions to the problem of feeding the world sustainably.

Farmer using touchscreen in tractor
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Chapter 1

The next agricultural revolution

The digital revolution is set to be the most disruptive agricultural revolution yet.

Agriculture has undergone a series of revolutions that have driven efficiency, yield and profitability to levels previously unattainable. This has included the introduction and implementation of mechanization between 1900 and 1930; the green revolution of the 1960s that saw the development of new, more resistant crop varieties and the use of agro-chemicals; and the rise in genetic modification from 1990 to 2005.

However, the rise of digital agriculture could be the most transformative and disruptive of all of these. Digital agriculture will not only change how farmers farm but will fundamentally transform every part of the agri-business value chain.

Old tractor harvesting field

With internal combustion came the first modern tractors in the early 1900s, shortly followed by the development of motorized reapers and combine harvesters.

Facts, figures and fields

One of the key elements of digital agriculture is precision farming.

For much of history people have cultivated crops through trial and error, received wisdom and a gained a basic knowledge of soil and weather conditions.

The introduction of precision farming has enabled farmers to accurately measure, map and manage any variations in a field to significantly increase yields while lowering production costs.

A raft of new technologies have been introduced to better analyze the soil acidity, nutrient level, historical yield and climate variations of a field. From GPS-enabled tractors and aerial drones carrying multispectral sensors to connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices that monitor individual crops, farmers now have access to a vast array of information to help them make better informed decisions.

The agriculture industry has also begun to harness the power big data can bring to operations. Software and algorithms are being created to leverage data to increase yields, improve farm profitability and increase farm sustainability.

And investors are taking note. According to AgFunder, over US$4.6 billion was invested in agriculture technology during 2015. Much of this investment was in software and technology to enable digital agriculture — a combination of data and algorithms that provides specific recommendations for every square meter of a field.

Woman harvesting coffee beans
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Chapter 2

Transforming the agribusiness value chain

Digital agriculture will transform the entire agribusiness value chain. Organizations will need to prepare for disruption from organizational structure through to end customer experience.

However, digital agriculture is not just about precision farming — the digital revolution is changing how the entire agribusiness value chain works, from the source in the field through measuring demand and distribution to end customer experience.

“There is a huge opportunity to digitize lots of other processes in agriculture,” says Rob Dongoski, EY Global Agribusiness Leader. “The new era’s farmer is much better versed in technology, and some are even digital natives. So when they call up their seed supplier to find out where their order is, they have a context of e-commerce and an expectation that they will be able to track their shipments online.”

A lot of expectation from the next wave of farmer is actually being set by their experiences outside of agriculture.

Rob Dongoski

EY Global Agribusiness Leader

 

As the industry becomes increasingly digital, disruption will inevitably follow — as it does in almost every industry where new technologies enable new ways of thinking and working.

Digital agriculture and big data will not only affect producer buying behavior, but also change the way seed and agrichemical companies market, price and sell products — more granular data enabling much more precise planning, shipping and understanding of key customer needs.

The more detailed insight into the full range of their operations will also revolutionize how organizations involved in agriculture and food production select and invest in their R&D pipeline, manufacture and distribute products, and manage credit and financial risk.

And the data revolution can also help reduce food waste. According to the FAO, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted. The rise in digital shelves and smart warehouses means distributors can better react to changes in demand. While new intelligent transport systems, such as driverless vehicles and drones, offer the prospect of distributing food from farm to fork in far more flexible, reactive way.

In short, the more data is available from digital agriculture, the more business strategies, product designs, customer preferences and even organizational structures will change.

Farmer next to field looks into camera
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Chapter 3

Problems with progress

Data collection and analysis on the required scale is not without challenges. Collaboration could be the key to building trust and generating insight.

While the benefits of digital agriculture are compelling, it has met with significant challenges. For example, difficulty using software, data usage concerns, disparate and propriety data formats, and an unclear return on investment. There is also uncertainty about who will have access to the farmer’s data and what they will do with it. More progressive farmers are aware that their proprietary data could potentially fall into the wrong hands and be used against them.

As a result, agribusiness has often struggled to generate immediate, tangible results from its digital agriculture equipment and software — which has in turn slowed adoption of some of these promising new technologies and techniques.

One of the biggest issues has been around gathering and standardizing data, which has made adoption difficult across all stakeholder groups.

The challenge is that farmers do not trust anyone with their data right now. This means very little data moves from the sensors and the farm to the people that could really generate a significant impact from that data.
Rob Dongoski,
Global Agribusiness Leader, EY

Dongoski outlines the commercial expectations that may be limiting the data supply: “Farmers have been told that their data is really valuable, so they are looking to get paid for it. However, data is only valuable if it is used in the right way. First, by itself, data is only valuable to an individual farmer. A trusted aggregation of data could create much wider value across the entire value chain. And second, data has no value if it is not translated into business purpose. You need to be able to turn that raw data into actionable information that helps you to meet your business objectives."

The trust deficit

“It is a trust issue, as well as a lack of harmonization and standardization of the data itself,” explains Dongoski. “The challenge is that farmers do not trust anyone with their data right now. They want to know how they will benefit. This means very little data moves from the sensors and the farm to the people that could really generate a significant impact from that data.”

Dongoski believes this will only change when other parts of the agribusiness value chain — such as seed suppliers — put their own “skin in the game” and share in both the risk and profit of introducing new digital agriculture equipment on farms. Otherwise, farmers will continue to focus on the potential risks of sharing data about their farms rather than the potential opportunities. (For example, a farmer may suspect that if a seed supplier claims it could use the farmer’s data to help the farmer increase his/her yield, the seed supplier would use that as a reason to raise the price of the seeds the next year).

To remove the distrust that currently prevents data gathering and harmonization at the required scale, one option that has been discussed within the industry is the creation of a neutral data sharing aggregator: a potential third party that could pool the data from all the individual farms to the benefit of all sides.

Whether or not such as a third-party custodian is formed, Dongoski argues, there is still a need to create some sort of assurance for farmers that their data is being used properly and will not be used to calibrate commercial relationships at an individual level. A data sharing aggregator would also help address the more long-term issues of sustainability and food security.

“If data is harnessed at an individual level, then it is doubtful that enough food will be produced to meet this challenge,” says Dongoski. “If we "pull together" as an industry to resolve data usage concerns, we will not only produce more food to feed more people, we can also create more profitable farmers and use more sustainable farming practices.”

Boy being fed rice
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Chapter 4

Farming for a better working world

Emerging economies have the most to gain from the digital agriculture revolution. Modern farming could help to feed the world sustainably.

These are hurdles that the agricultural industry will need to overcome over the next couple of years, but the benefits of digital agriculture far outweigh the drawbacks. They present huge opportunities to all agribusiness stakeholder groups to create a more productive, cost efficient and flexible agricultural value chain.

And those improvements in business performance also create the best opportunity to feed the world sustainably.

The gap between modern, advanced farming and subsistence farming is growing at an alarming rate. While the cost of implementing precision farming technology in the developed world has fallen substantially, the weak network infrastructure and limited capital of emerging economies means they are still a long way from benefitting from the digital agriculture revolution. But it also means that they have the most to gain.

With demand for food rising, and the challenges affecting the world’s poorest farmers rising with the threat of climate change, spreading the benefits of digital agriculture is not just an urgent need, but good sense.

“There are a tremendous number of farmers in the world who are subsistence farmers. In some countries, nearly 50% of the population is involved in farming. So if you can increase the efficiency of the farm, then you start to create a profit-seeking farmer. That allows them to not just feed their family but make a profit out of it as well. If we can help them get a better yield, make people more efficient at source, we can give them economic liberation,” Dongoski says.

For every subsistence farmer made more productive, not only will more food be available to feed more people, but also more money will enter circulation locally as they sell their extra produce. Greater efficiency could also lead to an increase in leisure time (i.e., time not spent farming), that could be used for education and training — thereby giving the next generation greater access to work.

More efficient farming methods should also push prices down. Dongoski explains: “In the US, less than 10% of household income is spent on food, which leaves 90% for other goods, services, etc. In some developing countries, 90% of household income is spent on food, leaving very little left over for shelter or other goods and services. Creating more abundant food supplies is not just about nutrition, it has the potential to be a tremendous economic liberator in developing markets.”

Ultimately, boosting agricultural productivity in emerging markets will benefit the whole working world. More sustainable, productive farms will lead to more sustainable, more productive and more inclusive economies.

So, is digital agriculture enough to feed a growing world?

It has the potential to do so. The data revolution can change not just the way we farm but the whole agricultural supply chain. But it will not bring about a true revolution in agriculture without harmonization, standardization and — most of all — trust.

This can only happen if we can find a way to build trust within every part of the agri-business value chain and unite the industry behind a purpose that goes beyond profit — to transform so that it is fit to feed the world.

The first agricultural revolution, from c.10,000 BCE, enabled humanity to settle, leading to the formation of the world’s first societies and civilization. This latest digital agricultural revolution could help those societies survive and thrive long into the future.

Summary

Digital innovation could change the entire agricultural supply chain, but only if trust is built through a united sense of purpose.

About this article

By

Rob Dongoski

EY Agribusiness Leader

Focused on strategy, digital transformation and M&A for EY clients in the agribusiness and food sectors.