#716 – The 7 technologies that will make farming smarter–and more productiveDec 11, 2018
We have a very soft spot in our hearts at Agracel for American farmers. In our ever-changing world, we are encouraged to see technology make its way to farmers.
Today’s technology is rushing into one of the last traditional industries: agriculture. A field largely still unaffected by the technological revolution, farming is ripe for change as need couples with opportunity.
Driverless tractors tilling acres of crops, produce growing in massive climate-controlled warehouses, and seeds genetically altered to require less water are among the high-tech innovations changing, or about to change, agriculture. These technologies are making farms smarter, more productive, and increasingly efficient.
And as technology reshapes the field, the benefits will compound. “This is one industry that everybody needs,” Mendelson, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, says. “Everybody eats. So, changes that improve productivity for a relatively small number of farmers will scale to help everyone.”
In a new paper, Mendelson, with coauthors Stanford GSB professor Hau Lee, Value Chain Innovation Initiative Director Sonali Rammohan, and 2017 Sloan Fellow Akhil Srivastava, shows what trends are pushing this food revolution and highlights the areas that are increasingly attracting startups and investors.
The world’s food system is desperate for an overhaul. By 2050, studies show, the world will have 3 billion more mouths to feed than it does today, and demand for food will rise by 50%. More of those people will live in cities, much farther from the traditional source of food–rural farms, says Josef Schmidhuber, the deputy director of trade and markets at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Exacerbating the problem, climate change will put more demands on how food is grown, while fewer people will work in the farming industry.
- Analytics: These include monitoring technologies and data analytics that can make sense of satellite monitoring or weather simulations. A major area is precision agriculture, which involves collecting and analyzing data at the individual plant level.
- Advancements in automation: Just as self-driving cars begin to dot freeways, automated tractors will enable farmers to work several fields simultaneously with the same number of workers–or fewer–and operate equipment day and night. Automated irrigation systems that collect information about soil and water levels will allow farmers to use water more efficiently.
- Product innovations: New technologies such as gene editing or cellular agriculture are designing entirely new kinds of foods.
- Digital marketplaces: Allow farmers to lease equipment, pool together for better insurance, or connect to local customers. Full Harvest, for example, helps farmers sell imperfect but edible produce that wouldn’t find a market at the local supermarket, while Ricult helps rural farmers find loans.
- Operations software: Helps farmers make better operations decisions, track resources or productivity, and save money.
- Skills-building tools: Includes videos, hotline voice services, and mobile apps that help farmers share experiences. AgriFind in France, for example, is a social networking platform for farmers to ask questions and offer advice.
- Resources: New irrigation systems deploy highly targeted water and fertilizer, using less of each, while vertical and urban farms use less land and reduce pesticides.
In the long run, one single technology won’t have the most impact, Mendelson says. “It’s really the combination that will create the real value.”
Still, for an industry that lags behind others in adopting technology, the challenges go beyond investment dollars flowing into ag tech. Smarter farms also require smarter workers who can operate the new technology. And business and government regulations, trade and tax policies, and even basic technology infrastructure must support these innovative farming techniques.
There is also something less tangible that no policy can change, he says.
“Probably the biggest challenge is the fact that people like doing things the way they used to do them in the past,” Mendelson says. “This industry was not a leading user of information technology, and as a result of that, you need to change the mind-set.”