Precision agriculture is more than a buzz phrase. It is a multi-faceted advancement, made by vastly different players, with very different objectives.
Precision agriculture is developing at an accelerated pace. Researchers expect a compact annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 20% between 2018 and 2025. This estimate is based on known megatrends: population growth, tightening of agricultural regulations, deeper agronomical understanding, expansion of agricultural knowledge and technological advancement. Improved artificial intelligence and new deep learning algorithms are ushering in new services. It is easier to think of disruptive innovation-driven change as a coherent process, a coalesced, one-front wave of technological breakthroughs and market responses. However, I would like to offer a different perspective, showing this change process is, in fact, a multi-faceted advancement made by vastly different players with very different objectives.
Various stakeholders different motives
The motives of various stakeholders in digital/precision farming are quite different. Economic considerations, from which most decisions in modern agriculture are derived, demonstrate this: while commercial companies seek to maximize profits, growers also seek to maximize their revenues. Distribution of profits from precision agriculture among stakeholders is not expected to be equal.
Input companies are expected to lose a considerable portion of their profits due to the selective and differential use of chemicals and water where precision agriculture is practiced. The new digital agriculture services offered by input companies are not expected to cover the difference. Farmers, on the other hand, are expected to benefit in two ways from the reduction in agricultural inputs an increase in crop yield and quality, which may support higher prices. Technology companies are expected to benefit from the move to precision agriculture: some will end up being acquired by bigger players and some will exist independently serving a new market. Agriculture regulatory bodies, representing public and ecological interests, are expected to benefit from increased sustainability and this can be presented in economic terms. If there is no increase in revenues for input companies, then logically, they should shy away from entering precision agriculture altogether. But they do the opposite; they charge full speed into this new field, invest in start-ups, purchase technology and offer new digital services. The grower, who stands to gain the most from these new technologies, often stalls, taking a conservative, cautious approach to adopting these new services.
Conservatism on the growers’side
This conservatism on the growers’ side can be explained by the high risks involved. Many precision agriculture tools offer support for agricultural decisions: what to sow, when, how much to fertilize, how much to water, what to spray and when, where to do soil/leaf tissue sampling and how to interpret the data. But the decisions that growers make impact their livelihood and mistakes carry a high cost for growers and their families. Growers will not put pivotal decisions in the hands of technology alone any time soon. Trusting a computer stands in stark contrast with the way they have managed their businesses all their lives and the people they have trusted with the major decisions throughout the years. By comparison, technology companies stand to lose very little. In the worst-case scenario technology companies will abandon this particular technology and move on to the next one. For food companies, the risk lies in not adopting new technologies in sufficient time. Traceability along the food supply chain, to achieve better food quality and better food safety, to meet customer demand, can only be achieved by the use of technological tools. So, food companies risk losing future business to competitors able to more quickly adopt new tools.
Getting experts and stakeholders from disparate fields to talk to one another and find solutions to challenges faced by the industry is, for the most part, conducive to innovation. In this respect, precision agriculture is prime for innovation.
However, this heterogeneity is a challenge when it comes to application. Technocrats view data as valuable on its own. Growers, however, do not necessarily share this view and only see actionable data as valuable if it leads to measurable results. Technology companies believe innovation is a sufficient reason for adoption. However, growers will only adopt new tools if their profits grow and – if this can be achieved without innovation – so be it. Claims of future benefits do not usually convince growers, especially if these claims are made by startups which may not exist in a year’s time.
Regulators face other challenges: stricter regulation calling for fewer inputs are good as long as there is no food shortage. However, food shortages may flip any such decision. Even before that happens, stricter regulation raises costs. With low margin crops, this may lead to unprofitability which could lead, in turn, to less local supply and higher consumer prices. Any country facing food shortages will forego previously imposed regulations to avert risk. Stricter regulation in agriculture is the right move today but time will tell whether it is sustainable.
Change is here
Dissemination of agronomic knowledge has played a major role in raising agricultural productivity worldwide. It stands to reason that the next stage in the evolution of the sector comes from data, as witnessed in other sectors. However, not every new technology necessarily heralds a fundamental change in our lives. The Internet brought about a multi-dimensional change, but arguably not every gadget has brought about change, even if based on novel technology. The same holds true for agriculture: colorful satellite maps may not change much in agricultural practices. Auto-steering, deep learning algorithms and artificial intelligence may, however, herald a new era in agriculture.
ICL (Israel Chemicals Ltd.) has played a major role in providing precision agricultural solutions for the industry over the years. As a leader in specialty fertilizers with well-known brands such as Osmocote, ICL is committed to providing growers with plant nutrition solutions across the board. Adding analytical tools, sensors and data analysis which reveal actionable insights is a natural move for ICL.
Digital agriculture is a revolution which will affect us and our children. From where we stand at the beginning of this change, it is difficult to predict its impact. All we know is that change is here and it will affect us all.
*‘Drivers of a revolution’ by Ziv Kohav was first published in the May 2018 edition of IsraelAgri’s digital magazine entitled Precision Agriculture. FloraCulture International has obtained the publisher’s permission to reproduce the content. To read IsraelAgri’s entire magazine please visit: http://www.studio-appel.com/ebooks/nobel/precision_agri/mobile/index.html?SearchParam=#p=1
(Photo credits CFPN experiments, Gilat Center, ARO)
(Photo credits: Nataly Cohen kadosh)
(Photo credits: Nataly Cohen kadosh)