Is digital farming the future of agriculture?
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower, September 11, 1956
The digitization of human culture does not come to a hard stop at the edge of rural fields and farms. Digital farming, or digital agriculture (digital ag), uses technology and precision farming equipment to gather and deliver helpful, site-specific data to farmers. Digital farming is used by large corporations, like Monsanto, and the farmers who are their customers. It’s a movement that appears to hold great promise for more efficient food production. Digital farming is also entangled in the corporate farm industry power struggles characteristic of our global food system, in which mega-farming corps dominate and often dis-empower smaller farms and individual consumers.
The Struggle For Farmers
Food producing corporations and individuals are turning to digital farming in an effort to solve the many contemporary challenges farmers face. The United Nations (U.N.) projects that the human population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 — that’s a lot of mouths to feed.
Many areas of the world are already facing intense food insecurity. The United States Department of Agriculture Food defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” For example, the U.N. has declared a famine in South Sudan, where some 100,000 people are confronting complete starvation and a million more could soon join them. In the U.S., 12.7 percent of households (15.8 million) were food insecure in 2015.
Food waste plays a big role in food insecurity and scarcity. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports U.S. food waste is “estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply.” As HoneyColony previously reported, the Food Labeling Act was introduced in 2016 in an effort to partially address this issue by improving food labels and reducing U.S. disposal of still-edible food. Yieldwise is a project that works to help African farmers improve food storage systems and reduce post-harvest food loss. While these initiatives are vital, Yieldwise explains one-third of the world’s food still “either spoils or gets thrown away;” So much work remains to be done in this area.
As more natural ecosystems are converted into fields and pastures, native plants are removed and soil erosion increases. Chemical-laden farming and global warming also degrade the quality of the planet’s soil. The World Wildlife Fund explains that about half of the earth’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years. Scientific American states it can take 1,000 years to generate just a few inches of topsoil, which is essential for farming. So, land development, agricultural chemicals, and global warming are increasing the competition for farmable land.
The National Wildlife Foundation shares that climate change is also leading to weather extremes, including heat waves, droughts, drenching rains, floods, and strong hurricanes. Irregular weather patterns make it more difficult for farmers to care for and grow their crops.
Digital farming consists of systems that link high-tech farming equipment, farm sensors and apps in an effort to address some of these monumental farming challenges. It aims to help beleaguered farmers gain a better understanding of their farms, save time and money, and produce a larger crop yield from their land.
Arama Kukutai is the managing director of Finistere Ventures, a venture capitalist company that specializes in the ag sector and is partnered with Bayer. He told Farm Industry News that he has observed “significant investment in digital agriculture,” referring to, “the application of the cloud, big-data computing integration with farm equipment, farm sensors, satellite imagery, and drone imagery to provide farmers with better tools to manage their crops.”
Finistere Ventures invested in the company CropX, which “offers advanced adaptive irrigation software service that deliver crop yield increase and water and energy cost saving services while conserving the environment.” They use cloud-based software, wireless sensors, and irrigation maps to accurately water distinct areas of the same field. Farmers can check their latest data to see which crops need watering on any web-enabled device. This tech saves farmers time, water, and money by helping them to only irrigate areas of their fields that need water and reducing the likelihood of both field drought and overwatering.
Climate Corporation is another example of a digital farming company. It has been in business for 10 years and was purchased by Monsanto in 2013 (Disclosure: Writer Julia Travers’ husband is an attorney involved in a lawsuit against Monsanto). Climate Corporation offers a proprietary Climate FieldView platform. Much like a social media app, this product sends notifications to farmers about precipitation and nitrogen levels, among other advisories and updates. It also provides maps with green (healthy) and red (warning) areas. This product’s satellite data reports on the health of fields and keeps farmers notified about upcoming precipitation so they can efficiently plan out their days and prepare for impending weather.
By increasing farmers’ knowledge and efficiency, digital farming tools can help them see an increase in their land’s yield. With competition for farmable land on the rise, this is a very powerful and economically beneficial result. Corn and soybean farmer, Keith Gingerich, says his family farm has seen an 11 percent boost in yield since incorporating Climate Corporation’s tech. He told CNN Money the improved visuals and feedback were much needed and led him to change some of the farm’s tillage practices and field operations. Climate Corporation CEO, Mike Stern, said that around the world, “the footprint of agriculture has to change … if we’re going to meet these societal needs in a sustainable way. That’s the promise of digital agriculture.”
Big Players In Agriculture And The Persistent Threat Of Monopolies
Concerns about agricultural mergers and monopolies, which critics say prevent competition, dis-empower individual farms and promote the extensive use of dangerous pesticides, carry over into the digital farming sector. Along with Monsanto and Bayer, Nestlé, Wal-Mart, John Deere, Cargill, and Amazon have also joined in the farming data game, according to Food First (AKA the Institute for Food and Development Policy). These food system analysts warn that the upcoming merge between Bayer and Monsanto will reward the two companies with a full third of the global seed market. “Without a strong base of diverse seeds, food production is threatened by disease and climate change,” explains The University of Chicago’s Program on the Global Environment. Recent Farm Journal Media polls showed that a majority of farmers oppose the Bayer-Monsanto merger. Food First also predicts that Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta, and ChemChina mergers will quickly follow. The merger between Syngenta and ChemChina is now scheduled to complete in the summer of 2017.
In 2012 Monsanto acquired Precision Planting, which accounts for 42 percent of the high-tech farming equipment market. In September 2016, John Deere attempted to buy Precision Planting to integrate it with its own digital ag tech. The Justice Department prevented the deal because John Deer’s ExactEmerge equipment line already controls 44 percent of this market, according to The Motley Fool.
However, in October 2016, it was announced that John Deere would acquire Precision Planting, though independent competitor Ag Leader would also be given rights to make and sell the products. Monsanto’s Climate Corporation 2016 FieldView Drive device is specifically designed to transmit data to John Deere equipment. This is one example of how the farming monopoly concerns tied to these huge agriculture corporations are playing out in the realm of digital ag. Critics of mega-agricultural mergers say this trend leads to a small number of corporations calling the shots for individual farmers. Farmers have fewer choices and, according to Food Tank, “will be further locked into integrated product packages designed by these companies,” such as Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds, which are genetically modified to withstand their herbicide, Roundup. The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides puts consumer health at risk.
In January 2017, the U.N. released a groundbreaking special report on “the right to food,” which states that “reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the right to adequate food and health for present and future generations.” The report calls for a focus on agroecology (using ecological principles to guide agriculture) and the creation of a treaty outlining a global reduction of pesticide use.
What Does The Future Of Agriculture Look Like?
The future of agriculture is a big forecast to tackle, but, undoubtedly, as farmers and ag tech developers strive to meet the global demand for food, the farming landscape will continue to adapt.
Another notable high-tech farming practice that is gaining acknowledgement as a potential solution to the soil and food crisis is hydroponic farming, in which plants are grown without soil through the delivery of a nutrient-rich solution to their roots. This is also a branch of the digital farming sector, as it typically uses highly sensitive moisture sensors and cloud computing to aid in the care of crops.
Less high-tech movements, including agrihood developments (neighborhoods centered around a working farm), urban community farms, and other programs that seek to increase access to nutritious food for vulnerable populations, play a vital role in shaping the future of farming as well. In what is known as the developing world, projects supporting women’s equality, improving farm technology, and providing access to clean water are all essential in supporting farmers, who can make up between 50 to 90 percent of the population, The Borgen Project, a nonprofit campaigning against global hunger, explains. Permaculture is another notable and powerful philosophy and movement, which is similar to the agroecology the U.N. promotes. Permaculture involves using the patterns and habits of the natural world as a guide in agricultural practices and ecological design. Bill Mollison, who wrote, Introduction to Permaculture, said:
Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
Food First reminds us that “our food systems are vessels of unmatched social and economic power.” As in so many areas of human existence, if we use our technology wisely and humanely, it may be able to serve all of us well. If accessible digital farming systems can be applied to sustainable agroecology and permaculture practices around the world, it may indeed be a powerful and promising development.
Julia Travers is a writer and journalist. She has written with Not Impossible, Earth Island Journal, SciArt Magazine, and many other publications. Check out more of her work here.
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