A Green Future? How Ag-Tech can help the agriculture industry embrace sustainability

2019 was, without a doubt, a tumultuous year for international agriculture.

Demand for faster action in tackling the climate crisis has put significant pressure on the industry. Facing criticisms for its emissions, carbon footprint, lack of traceability and low productivity, there is little doubt that leaders in the farming sector have much to address. Yet 2019 has also been a year of great ambitions in tackling such challenges, utilising the latest technology and strategy in aiming to meet the industry’s 2040 net zero goal, 10 years ahead of the UK-wide goal. As leading agricultural firms and smaller providers alike look to the new year, it is key to discuss how Ag-Tech will help to improve sustainability and feed a growing population.  

Greater efficiency leads to greater sustainability

The drive towards greater sustainability in agriculture happens in parallel with a drive towards greater efficiency and productivity. In this sense, precision Ag-Tech will become one of the key drivers of innovation from 2020 onwards, be it in the use of automation, drones or increased understanding through real time sensor data.

Agriculture as an industry is currently facing significant challenges in the form of a growing skills gap, with less than 35% of UK farmers having any formal management training . The use of AI and automation has the potential to close this gap, allowing farmers to focus on higher value tasks and land management. In turn, by utilising AI in its processes, precision Ag-Tech will play a key role in decreasing strain on essential resources, particularly water. By monitoring conditions such as soil moisture, farmers can reduce wasteful water consumption by up to 30%. Lastly, precision farming will be equally important to preventing the overuse of fertiliser. This can be done by pairing new types of fertilisers, particularly those with controlled-release cycles, with data science. By tracking levels of nutrients in the soil, farmers can use fertilisers more precisely, avoiding overuse and preventing issues related to fertiliser run-off in the near vicinity.

Bridging the gap between conglomerates and small businesses

Ag-Tech will be equally vital in bridging the differences between smaller farmers and large agricultural conglomerates. The growing gap between large agricultural holdings and independent farmers is becoming a growing concern as agriculture must meet the latest demands in sustainable practice. However, smaller operations are currently facing a number of barriers to reaching sustainability, be it affordability, ease of use or access to resources. With that in mind, technological companies and providers of agricultural equipment must not only focus on making innovations affordable, but also accessible. An essential factor in this will be the implementation of 5G in agriculture, allowing for the transfer of expertise to local farmers, as well as enabling mutual support. Whilst Ag-Tech has already changed much of agriculture, the implementation of smart data solutions will allow for the near-instant transfer of technological know-how across the industry.

Transparency is essential

Like many other industries, agriculture must also double down on creating more transparent structures within its supply chain. The farm is a complex environment of inputs and outputs and new technologies will be essential in allowing us to clearly track each part of the agricultural process. Technologies like blockchain offer huge opportunities for traceability. A more transparent agricultural supply chain will allow us to pinpoint areas prone to unsustainable practices. Similarly, owing to the entirely transparent nature of blockchain structures, farmers will be able to share all of their own data about the produce they supply to the customer, as well as to other businesses. These technologies have significant implications to the transfer of practical knowledge between farmers, as well as information regarding the produce with their partners and consumers, potentially avoiding food waste and other issues surrounding oversupply.

In this sense, the latest innovations in Ag-Tech and their wider implementation are set to transform the industry as we know it, starting from the way how farmers grow and pick their produce to what information the customer can access. By doing so, the industry is moving towards a smart revolution, which will give way to “farming 4.0”, future proofing the industry in process. The impetus behind tackling sustainability promises to have profound benefits and implications for the whole of the industry, increasing its efficiency and protecting the relevance of smaller independent farmers in the near future.

About the Author

Jonathan Henry joined John Deere Limited as a management trainee in July 1993, following an HND in mechanisation, planning and business management at the Scottish Agricultural College, Auchencruive. Jonathan has held positions of increasing responsibly through his career that have included roles in customer support, sales and product management. From early 2009, Jonathan held various product marketing roles in Germany and the US, for Deere’s global tractor and crop harvesting business. Jonathan returned to John Deere Limited in July 2016 as managing director of the UK arm of Deere & Company.

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