A model for digital agriculture

digital agriculture
(Bild: ETH Zürich / Colourbox)

The industrialisation of agriculture began some 100 years ago; today we are witnessing its digitalisation. But the wave of Big Data may sweep farmers off their land unless they prepare their fields and mark out a course in good time. Only then digital agriculture can address the right questions.

Digitalisation is fascinating: just as we’ve been spellbound by our smartphones in recent years, watching funny videos and sharing pictures of adorable cats, in the future young farmers are likely to don their digital glasses or consult other devices that will help them analyse their work and make decisions. This data might be collected by self-piloted multicopters, which analyse the state of the field according to empirical formulas and effectively provide specific cultivation tips for individual plants – for organic or conventional farming. A bit more manure here, some of the latest insecticide there? Should the tomato be deprived of water a tiny bit longer so that it develops the perfect flavour? Does Daisy the Cow’s temperature indicate that insemination should wait until the afternoon? And can the next purchase of feed pellets be put off until next week after the markets have calmed down?

The wave of automation is spilling into the fields

These are the questions that agricultural “Siris” are already beginning to answer – even if they are still in the pilot phases. For example, there is a six-legged robot named Prospero [1] roaming test fields in the United States and planting individual kernels of corn in exactly the right spot for the plant to take root. And for several years now, Bonirob [2] has been wandering the fields of Germany unassisted, testing the ground and picking weeds that threaten the main crop.

You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to recognise that agriculture is also undergoing rampant digitalisation. The automation movement is as inevitable as the tasting of the forbidden fruit, or Snow White biting into the apple. The promises of technology are all too seductive, and the promises of greater efficiency all too tempting.

Do we need to take a stand here?

Shouldn’t we proceed with caution after our age-old experience with apples? Just because we want something, doesn’t mean that it’s good for us. Diversification and variety trump everything, especially when it comes to agriculture and food. Simplistic, cookie-cutter approaches to solving problems usually reveal considerable weaknesses early on. Food production is a highly complex endeavour: millions of organisms in a single litre of soil affect the development of the crops that grow in it. Likewise, thousands of compounds in the plant affect the cow that eats it. We cannot package everything into a single correct formula. But is that a reason not to devise any formulas at all?

I don’t think so. Rather, it’s more important to ask: what new formulae should we establish next? Should digitalisation aim to reduce costs in the short term, or preserve environmental resources in the long term? Which “apples” should it make tastiest for us? Compared to the rest of the world, our agricultural practices are very sustainable – whether they carry the organic label or not. And our farmers are highly knowledgeable and competent. This is why I think we should get involved now and decide which problems should be tackled by future technologies.

Forging a role for the farmer

But what will be left for farmers to do when agriculture is digitalised and automated? Will they simply be reduced to servants of algorithms and machines that require just a few remaining manual manoeuvres – or will they take on a new role? I think farmers will primarily assume the role of technically skilled researchers: new diseases will emerge, organisms will migrate, and unusual cases and technical problems will arise. Yes, farmers may no longer have to steer the tractors themselves, but in the future they will still have to go out in the fields and into the stable to check the system recommendations, take care of specific tasks and improve systems interactively on an ongoing basis.

A growing trend towards complexity

In the field of medicine, technical advances have still not supplanted doctors or nurses. Instead, they have made it possible for doctors to deal with more complex diseases, as we begin to live longer and often require long-term care. In agriculture, digitalisation may in fact make it possible to focus more on the true heroes of the story: the plants and animals. Or we will see a growing trend towards complexity and diversity. And there will be more time to tackle new challenges. Or more time to advise other farmers in remote places who do not have the same access to education and technology as we do.

Granted, the world doesn’t actually work this way. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if it did? We now have the opportunity to set the course and develop a model for what digitalisation should bring to agriculture – instead of waiting to see the toll it will take on agriculture and on us.

A slightly shortend version of this text was published also in the Tagesanzeiger (print, 09.04.2016).