Precision agriculture is developing at an accelerating pace. Research companies expect a compact annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 20% from 2018 until 2025. This estimate is based on known megatrends: population growth, tightening of agricultural regulation, deeper agronomical understanding, the expansion of agricultural knowledge and technological advancement. Improved artificial intelligence and new deep learning algorithms open the door to 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.
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 part 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 the input companies are not expected to cover the difference.
Farmers , on the other hand, are expected to benefit in two ways through the reduction in agricultural inputs and 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 for these new technologies, often stalls, taking a conservative, cautious approach to adopting these new services.
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 take impact on their livelihood and mistakes carry a high cost for the grower and their family.
Growers will not put pivotal decisions at 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 along the years. In comparison, technology companies stand to lose very little. In the worst case technology companies will abandon the technology and move on to the next one. For food companies, the risk lies in not adopting new technologies in 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 which more quickly adopt the new tools.
Getting experts and stakeholders from disparate fields to talk to one another, and find solutions to challenges faced by 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 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 start-ups which may not exist in a year’s time.
Regulators face other challenges: stricter regulation calling for less inputs is 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. In 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 the risk. Stricter regulation in agriculture is the right move today, but time will tell whether it is sustainable.
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 a novel technology. The same holds for agriculture: colorful satellite maps may not change all that much in agricultural practices. Auto-steering, deep learning algorithms and artificial intelligence, may, however, herald a new era in agriculture.
ICL has played a major role in providing precision agriculture solutions for the industry over the years. As a leader in specialty fertilizers, with well-known brands, such as the osmocote, ICL is committed to providing growers 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.
Photos: CFPN experiments , Gilat Center, ARO - By Nataly Cohen Kadosh .