Agriculture is an industry that has been at the mercy of the elements since time immemorial. Before the Industrial Revolution, agrarian societies could be wiped out by bad harvests and livestock disease. Advances in science and technology since have given farmers more control over their crops and herds.
Farmers can now harness new technologies to monitor what is happening on their farms in real time, optimise production through remote sensing and automate operations with precision farming practices and even robots.
Moreover, this greater visibility of production, together with online marketplaces, can reduce waste and make pricing more aligned with supply and demand dynamics. At the seed level, agricultural biotechnology gives scientists the tools to alter food at the DNA level to become resistant to pests and environmental factors.
COVID-19 has stressed global food systems and poses a threat, particularly to vulnerable populations. Technology will be the key enabler to help us meet this common challenge. By embracing innovative technologies to meet the growing global demand for food, we can and will make a difference.
Let’s take a look at some of the up-and-coming technologies:
Drone technology and precision farming
Aerial imagery can help farmers manage their farms more efficiently based on weather patterns in their area. Once dependent on satellite imagery, this field has been transformed with the entry of drones, which provide a lower-cost way for farmers to survey their crops remotely and adjust accordingly. With hardware and engineering breakthroughs, drone technology is now something that the average farmer can consider.
Drones can also be used to create high-quality maps of the landscape, which can serve conservation purposes. Farmers can look at aerial imagery over time and better plan crop rotations and determine which parts of a given field should not be tilled for future plantings due to soil nutrient depletion.
Precision farming encompasses drone technology as well as other types of sensing technology to make more tailored decisions about input application, helping to greatly reduce the environmental hazards stemming from fertiliser or pesticide over-use.
“Until recently, growers have had to wait on time-consuming manual scouting to assess threats, formulate an action plan and react,” said Ofir Schlam, president and co-founder of Taranis, an Israeli agritech startup that uses aerial surveillance and machine learning to help prevent crop-yield loss.
Their technology will also leverage a database of more than a million threat species to create accurate prescription plans to customise treatments and application rates, according to the company.
Agricultural biotechnology is the science of improving crops and other living organisms by using a range of technologies including traditional breeding techniques as well as genetic engineering.
In recent years, agricultural biotechnology has completely transformed farming globally and has become a major industry. By applying the same principles of genetics and molecular biology that have been applied in the field of medicine, scientists have sought to increase the quality, quantity, or variety of crops grown.
CRISPR, the gene-editing technology for which Dr Emannuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, is an important technology in this field.
It enables more precise gene editing to be done in a much shorter time, speeding up breeding cycles, improving crop yields and reducing land-use intensity.
Inari’s SEEDesign platform, for instance, claims to increase soybean and corn yield by 20 per cent while lowering water usage by 40 per cent and reducing corn’s nitrogen needs by 40 per cent.
Online agricultural marketplaces
Apart from transforming what to grow and how to grow, we also need online agricultural marketplaces to help sell produce more efficiently. By matching buyers with sellers at scale, these marketplace platforms help to streamline the process of buying and selling agricultural goods.
As China’s largest e-commerce platform, Pinduoduo allows farmers to diversify their income source as they can reach customers outside their usual wholesale channels. Over 16 million farmers are now able to reach Pinduoduo’s userbase of 824 million customers.
By tapping into new markets and interacting more directly with consumers, farmers can now potentially sell more of their crops at higher prices, with the greater income generated facilitating more investment back into their farms.
Through its team purchase model, Pinduoduo aggregates information about pricing and demand, which can then be used by players across the value chain, including growers, retailers, distributors and suppliers.
Such information is powerful and paves the way for other services that can benefit farmers. Other marketplaces in Asia such as DeHaat in India, and TaniHub in Indonesia have expanded their marketplace offerings to include farm advisory as well as fintech services for farmers.
We are now ushering in an era of more diverse tech solutions for farmers. The global agtech sector saw over US$26 billion of investments last year, per Agfunder, an increase of more than 15 per cent year on year. At the same time however, in most parts of the world, the average farmer age is increasing, so awareness or ability to access and understand these innovations may be limited.
What we have seen however in a few of our pilot farms is that this is not an insurmountable problem, and I am optimistic that as long as we can also strengthen farmer outreach and education in tandem with the development of new solutions, we can help drive greater tech adoption and accelerate the digital transformation of the agricultural sector.
Find out more about how farming technologies can transform our food system at Pinduoduo’s Food Systems Forum taking place on July 14-15.
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