Agriculture is one of the oldest economic activities. Historians believe that wheat grew as wild grass in the fertile crescent of the Middle East before it was cultivated there in 9500 BC. Similarly other areas started to independently grow rice, banana and maize. Despite centuries of grueling human effort, we haven’t solved the problem of food.
Our burgeoning population will not stop eating anytime soon. So, agriculture boasts of an endless supply of customers that even the likes of Facebook cannot have. Yet agriculture is far from lucrative. In the EU, farm income is less than half the average wage. An average farmer in India earns about US$1,000 annually despite the fact that India ranks #2 in farm produce. Even cash crops fail to help farmers. Despite the rising lifestyle demand for coffee, profitability for coffee plantations has been a challenge. 1 in every 4 employed persons in the world is a farmer, of which 60 per cent are in the low-income bracket. Agriculture holds the key to poverty alleviation, food security and climate protection.
Food self-sufficiency is at the heart of a country’s wellbeing. The UAE aims to rank No. 1 in the Global Food Security Index by 2051. Locally grown tag is a big factor in my food purchasing decision, and I am not the only one with a ‘buy local’ imperative.
With so much riding on agriculture, the sector has still not attained the status of an industry because it is saddled with too many uncertainties. Climate change, soil degradation, floods, drought, diseases and pests make any certainty of farm output illusory. During the recent farmer protest in India about the new farm laws, a farmer explained that large enterprises treat farming like the manufacturing industry. But traditional agriculture is affected by too many variables like the monsoons and pest attacks.
Can technology take the uncertainty out of agriculture? Can we ensure that PepsiCo, through contract farming, gets the precise quantity and quality of potatoes? Regardless of size, sustained profitability of farms has always been a challenge because of the unknowns. City bred newbies take the proverbial plunge in agriculture and learn some hard truths about the seemingly idyllic pastoral life. Earlier, most of the innovation in agriculture was in supply chain and farm machinery but farming itself remained relatively untouched by information technology.
We are seeing a massive interest in AgTech with the emergence of unicorns. Farming is being reinvented, as startups are grafting technologies such as Cloud, AI, Automation, Blockchain, IoT and Analytics into traditional farming. It is branching into new paradigms such as Agfintechs, farm robotics, vertical farming and what have you. Traditional farming is changing with hydroponics, aeroponics and indoor artificial lighting. The UAE aims to grow its production by 30-40 per cent by investing in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). This presents an enormous opportunity for a country with less than one per cent of arable land. Yet, unlike countries like India and Pakistan, the UAE is not burdened by legacy farming problems such as small holdings and soil degradation.
A fundamental missing piece of the great AgTech puzzle is big data. If we can collect data about farm conditions, we have a chance to do precision farming. Remote crop monitoring has recently gained a lot of traction judging by the number of published papers. This needs the right mix of data by deploying drones, field sensors, cameras, satellites and robots. A variety of low-cost sensors combined with single board computers are available, to collect data on soil properties, soil air permeability, humidity, ambient temperature, light and so forth. Acoustic sensors for instance are used for pest monitoring and classifying seed varieties as per their sound absorption spectra.
Many small farm holders in the Indian subcontinent still use a pair of oxen to plough their fields. On the other hand, large farms in the US and Australia are completely mechanised. This diversity in farming means that there is no silver bullet for digitising farming. The future of farming will be a mix of indoor, outdoor and vertical farms, dotted with sensors nodes and drones of all shapes and sizes hovering above.
Outdoor farming needs a bigger digital footprint, with a more prolific use of IoT offered by Deep Tech startups. Current efforts are fragmented and lack standardisation of metadata formats. Data driven farming is bound to take shape even as technology dilletantes make some false starts. Onboarding farmers onto the platform will be a big challenge. However, they will align if they see their yield and profitability grow. Many startups have been started by people with little real world farming experience. But then just as outsiders like Elon Musk disrupted the space industry, or an Airbnb forever changed hospitality, a 10,000-years old profession could be transmuted by hacks like aeroponics.
Data aggregation and data crunching platforms built on the back of sensor-rich farms can provide new insights to farmers. As these shared AgTech platforms scale up, governments will introduce regulations on antitrust and data management in line with national security. Who will eventually own the data? How the data is aggregated, classified, anonymized and protected will be critical to democratizing AgTech. A starting point could be Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Agrovoc, a multilingual thesaurus, the largest ‘Linked Open Dataset’ about food and agriculture available for public use. We also need an open-source approach so that we can collectively solve the problem of food and leverage open data.
The AgTech space is changing because of the urban play. The addition of words like ‘growers’ and ‘AgTech’ in the agriculture lexicon is indicative of the shifts. The Covid19 induced workstyle changes are motivating white collar workers to invest in farming and be more connected with soil, often as a lifestyle change. These are just some of the forces at play.
Can the multitude of farmers take advantage of shared digital platforms? Can emerging business models such as uberization of farm equipment help digitize small holders? The answer is yes, if we execute wisely so that we don’t miss the woods for the trees.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies
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