Until recently, concepts such as "Big Data", "Internet of Things" and "Smart Farming" were foreign to most of the agri-food sector. Today these concepts are intrinsically linked to the future of the agri-food chain, from production, to transportation and distribution.
At farm level, the influence of devices for data capture and actuators will be paramount. Data is expected to become an additional "input", at the same level as health products, fertilizers, seeds and feedstuff, for example. From a farmer experience-oriented agriculture, we are moving towards one complemented with a systematic evaluation of massive amounts of data collected on the farm and on the land. Smart Farming is on its way.
In transport, the agro-food industry should be more modular and flexible, capable of satisfying immediate needs of clients through the delivery of limited tailor-made products. The old concept of the production chain is definitely challenged with the increased automation and data exchange in the new industry 4.0. The management of these new agro-industrial ecosystems will only be possible with the help of digitisation, automation and a wise use of massive amounts of data.
The retail sector will also need to adapt their relationship with providers and consumers. The outbreak of new business models supported by technology is challenging the current model, as Amazon exemplifies with its entry into the fresh food market. The consumer will press for supply chain schemes, too. In any case, traceability will evolve to total transparency, in search of consumer confidence and fidelity. Technologies such as augmented reality will facilitate the consumer's understanding of the data.
Will these changes be beneficial to farmers?
How will tens of millions of European farmers benefit from the uptake of novel technology? If the advantages are not clear, to what extent will farmers allow the use of their data?
The farmers are the cornerstone of most business models on which Precision Farming is based. Looking back, innovative and useful technologies had difficulties to be implemented in Europe due to diverse factors e.g. size of the farms, the high investments needed or the lack of proper training of farmers. ’Arable crops’ provides a perfect example portraying issues technologies faced for their integration. Despite constant support from public and private extension services, universities and companies, the uptake of technologies in arable farming remained marginal.
Yet, the current trends (e.g. automation, digitalisation of the economy) and the emergence of the "internet of things" offer new opportunities. The combination of sensors, smartphones, drones, satellite information and data analytics could bring a paradigm shift in agriculture.
According to the report ‘Building a Smarter Food System’ presented by the Rabobank Group, adopting a smart farming practices could increase the value of arable crops worldwide with 10 billion US dollars. Rabobank believes a smarter food system could offer productivity gains of at least 5% per hectare on 80% of the land used for the world’s top 7 crops (maize, soybean, wheat, cotton, rapeseed, barley and sunflower).
In addition to direct economic benefits, other side effects can be equally valuable. Robots can make farmers’ work related-tasks easier, as milking robots demonstrate. Another example are the spraying robots inside greenhouses, reducing health risks for farmers. The transparency reached with broad 4.0 traceability is also expected to forge new city-farm linkages.
Cooperatives pave the way!
Some of the leading companies in agriculture and food like Monsanto, John Deere and Pepsico, consider Precision Farming a priority in their strategic business plans. They are preparing themselves for the linked data market. But how to do so in such a way that farmers share in the revenues from this revolution? Some cooperatives deliver good examples. France’ biggest cooperative, INVIVO, has recently declared that it wants to be the "champion of Big Data in France". They have already invested billions in the acquisition of relevant technological companies. Another French cooperative, Terrena, controls production data from 600,000 Has of its associated partners in a confidential environment through the system Farmstar. Cereal yield increased with approximately 0.44 t / ha together with grain quality (0.5 pt more protein per grain t). Cooperatives also play an important role in the IoF2020 project. Spanish cooperative DCOOP is involved in 2 out of 3 pilots developing Internet of Things in olive and tomato production. The Italian cooperative APOFRUIT joins the table grape pilot.
Cooperatives become key players in this digital revolution. On the one hand, they are the essential agents for the necessary knowledge transfer, reducing barriers such as the lack of specific training for farmers. On the other hand, they are positioned best to handle the data of their partners in a safe way.
To conclude, there is nothing better than to transcribe one of the main conclusions of the Rabobank report mentioned earlier. "Farmer cooperatives have a special responsibility to ensure that farmers will reap the benefits of aggregating their collected farm data.”
Author: Juan Sagarna García, Cooperativas Agro-Alimentarias
Picture: Presence of farmer cooperatives in the world