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Opinion: Environment, Market Access

How Digital Farming Will Help Feed the World and Protect the Planet

Mark Young Mark Young

Farmers face a dual challenge. How can they produce the food required to feed the world, while protecting the planet at the same time? The solution will rest on finding effective ways to minimize the losses of energy, water and nutrients associated with farming.

Digital agriculture – the use of data to make more informed decisions about managing agronomic operations – holds the key to increased efficiency on the farm.

It allows farmers to act with precision, known as precision agriculture. Drones, sensors and farm robots can tell us precisely where and how much water should be applied, keeping losses to an absolute minimum. They can spot pests and disease early and generate prescriptions to optimize soil and crop health.

Digital and precision agriculture combined aren’t just about higher yields, but also about being as efficient as possible, producing more with less, in a sustainable and reliable fashion.

Barriers remain to achieving this goal, however. We must accelerate the pace of digital innovations and remove barriers to accessing them. Farmers must be prepared to adapt and embrace additional change in order to take full advantage of these tools in the years ahead.

What are some of the emerging trends in the industry that we must navigate in order to meet this twin challenge of feeding the world while protecting the planet?

A farmer uses a drone to monitor his crops (Liz Sharma / Marchmont Communications)

The Power of a Platform

Too often, we are seeing innovative products from multiple, disparate ventures that have been created in closed environments, requiring farmers to purchase and navigate many different applications to receive a full spectrum of benefits. Platforms that are able to aggregate this data for farmers provide a win-win.

For example, with our own Climate FieldView™ platform farmers have at their fingertips more insights from multiple technology providers, and they are able to access those insights real time, while using a single app and a single login.

FieldView’s offering becomes more valuable to farmers because it’s able to leverage innovation from other companies that focus on a niche aspect of farm management, or are particularly strong in certain areas. These third-party innovators gain new customers and exposure to new markets. This type of open collaboration between companies will be critical for digital agriculture to deliver on its potential.

Ownership of Data

Today we have an abundance of ag data, distributed across a multitude of different members of the ecosystem. Dealers typically have soil test results and prescriptions, farmers have planting and harvest data, and as-applied data is often either non-existent or scattered among the two.

Then there is data from weather stations, soil moisture probes, grain silos, weigh wagons, elevators, satellites, product manufacturers… the list goes on.

Who owns this ag data is a key consideration. This may seem simple on the surface, but the uses of ag data are increasing quickly, and the policies of all the various members of the industry have not kept pace.

The Climate Corporation has proudly set the precedent from very early on that the farmer owns the data generated on their farm by their equipment. Our policy is very clear about how that data will be used.

We have made some good progress around data ownership in agriculture, but this is an area that needs further maturity to clarify some of these details.

A coconut farmer is given up-to-date, accurate agronomic information to help offset livelihood losses (Credit: Grameen Foundation)

A New Level of Transparency

The great thing about data is it allows us to quantify nearly everything, make adjustments, and measure the results. However, if your business is not ready for it, this can be quite disruptive. So what will this new era of transparency bring?

One of the most obvious benefits will be understanding the performance of different products and practices. As our datasets grow, we’ll be able to quantify and understand the performance of each of our decisions in a way we’ve never been able to do before. This will change the way our customers select their products, as well as the practices they employ to use those products.

That means our industry must also change the way it sells those products. This doesn’t mean that the “best product wins” either, because there is no unilateral definition for “best product” in agriculture. A key principle fully understood by ag practitioners around the world is that agronomic approaches must adapt to local conditions.

For some customers, the “best product” may be the highest-yielding for a particular planting zone. For others, it may be the best ROI for a given investment level, or shaped by a particular risk profile. It may be limited by available equipment, number of acres, product availability in a region, weather, disease and pest pressure, the list goes on.

This new transparency and efficiency should ultimately lead to higher-quality services at better prices for farmers. It will also be a new way for service providers to differentiate and compete.

We are only scratching the surface of what’s possible at the intersection of Silicon Valley innovation and a farmer’s ingenuity, historical knowledge and perseverance. As we bring these worlds together, and broaden the reach of digital tools across the globe, we can unlock productivity that will help us to sustainably feed a growing population.

Featured photo credit: Grameen Foundation

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