What is Digital Agriculture?

...(or what is it not)

The term digital agriculture is not entirely new and first appeared in the early 1980's, the term is however gaining in popularity among agriculturists worldwide as many see the potential of applying digital technology to farming and the whole food, feed and fiber value chain.

As with any area of technology it contains quite a few misconceptions and misplaced ideals. In this article I would like to provide a bit of context as to what digital agriculture is and what it means for the farmer of the (not too distant) future.

Digital Agriculture

First off, I should say that digital agriculture is not a single technology, but the vast space of what encompasses everything digital, but applied to an agricultural context. This includes, but is not limited to the current highly popular buzzwords such as the Internet of Things, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. In short it can be defined as software that collect, store, manipulate or present (digital) information in some way or the other. The software runs on a wide range of devices (from small scale microcontrollers controlling the temperature in a greenhouse to the large scale datacenters making up the cloud used anything from data storage to deep learning neural networks).

Digital Agriculture is based on software and can be applied to just about any part of the agricultural value chain. It is thus a very broad field and cannot be defined in a single article.

Another, and in my view more important, aspect of digital agriculture that is sometimes forgotten by technology pundits (like myself) is the role of humans and specifically that of the farmer. It is important to realise that any form of technology - from the wheel and lever to artifical intelligence - are only an aide or augmentation to human performance. Put differently, technology is an enabler that increases human performance.

Automation in its various forms and information technology may reduce labour requirements and alter the day to day tasks to be performed by humans involved in agriculture considerably, but have never (and probably won't very soon) replace the farmer in running a farming enterprise.

Instead of trying to predict how digital technologies will transfrom the face of farming in the decades to come - which in itself is a near impossible task. We will look at history to see what will stay the same, particularly in the near future.

A short history of agtech

Throughout history, technology has aided humans in carrying out their daily work. Hand tools mostly replaced using just our hands for doing manual labour, but we still needed to use our hands to handle the tools. Likewise animal power increased our ability beyond a human's physical strength to carry out work quicker and with less effort, but it was (and still is in some parts of the world) very hard and physically straining work to plough with an ox for example.

The next wave of technological change came with the industrial revolution. We replaced animal power with that of machines which improved in complexity and efficiency for the past 200 years. We hwoever still had to operate the machinery and our workload changed from largely physical labour to largely intellectual and also sometimes very mundane operational work.

The chemical industrial revolution (also called the green revolution in agriculture) came when we learned the science of plant and animal nutrition. We started using synthetic chemicals to alter a plant's immediate environment and thereby increased food production dramatically. We however still had to operate the machinery, know more about scientific agriculture than any past generation and a good farmer is/was more irreplaceable than ever before.

The current revolution in technology, dubbed by some as industry 4.0 or the information or digital revolution. Whatever term is used, it conveys the same general meaning that information is the new fuel and computing the new machine. This is the first time that human's cognitive abilities are enhanced by collecting, manipulating and retrieving information. This has long been a mainstay of human-only capability and for some signals a break with the past. They say, this time it will be different. Humans will at last be completely replaced by intelligent thinking machines.

So what's next?

We are still at the very beginning of the digital agriculture revolution and will have to wait to see what exactly this will mean for agriculture in the long run, but I dare to predict that just as every technology before:

  • It will increase human performance.
  • It will widen the productivity gap between those using the technology and those that don't and
  • it will also place even more emphasis and value on an individual farmer's capability to effectively harness the technology and use it to increase production.

It is also important to realise that technology in itself is worthless, it is not the outcome, it is a means to achieve an outcome, a tool in your toolbox to increase productivity, efficiency (or any other value activity) and to open new opportunities that were previously unavailable due to constraints that are now removed.

A single farmer today can produce the same food that 100 farmers produced not so many decades ago. Zero farmers still produce zero food, and it will stay like that for the foreseeable future.

The only constant is change, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As farmers it is important to stay abreast of technological change, to continuously learn, adapt and improve. Just as in any other industry, this is the only sure way to survive and prosper.