People in urban areas may hold misconceptions about agriculture, considering it to be somehow old-fashioned, or affiliated with a quaint lifestyle. In reality, the agricultural sector is evolving in dynamic ways that will have a global impact. It pays to take a look at how.
The agricultural industry is rapidly adopting technology, known as AgriTech, or AgTech, to address its most pressing challenges. AgriTech innovations — which often center around Internet of Things (IoT) applications — are helping farmers work faster, smarter, and less wastefully. Given the challenges facing the industry, these benefits were bound to attract attention.
The Top 4 Agricultural Challenges
The agricultural industry faces a medley of challenges:
Rising Population — Populations have been rising for decades, with the global population expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of extra mouths to feed, and the agricultural industry will need to increase output rapidly to keep up.
Ruined Harvests and Sick Animals — The loss of crops and animals is common, particularly in less developed countries. In many cases, losses are preventable if identified early.
Carbon Footprint — Intensive farming has a huge environmental impact. With the global drive to reduce carbon footprints (including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals), the agricultural industry is under pressure to reduce waste and energy consumption.
AgriTech directly addresses these challenges, and will undoubtedly play a role in agricultural development in the coming years. It promises to help farmers increase crop yields and animal health, reduce waste, lower carbon footprints, and improve scalability by easing the burden of labor-intensive tasks. It’s also creating entirely new business models and enabling innovative new techniques that were previously impractical or even impossible.
And it’s not just for wealthy farmers in Europe and the U.S. Indian AgriTech start-ups received $248 million of funding in the first half of 2019, with investment growing 300% since 2018. The country has more than 450 active startups in the space and is one of the largest hubs for AgriTech globally. Africa also has a huge potential market for AgriTech. According to a report by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, 90% of Africa’s AgriTech market is untapped — currently valued at $143 million, the African AgriTech space represents a $2.2 billion business opportunity.
Africa is where most of the world’s population increase is going to happen, so effective, sustainable agriculture is going to be critical. The UN is working to eradicate hunger worldwide within the next decade, and for that to be possible Africa is going to need a lot more food. Failed harvests and sick livestock are a huge problem in Africa, so expect to see growth in AgriTech solutions focused on solving these problems.
Finally, the opportunity presented by AgriTech hasn’t been overlooked by established players in the industry, with several promising startups being acquired for hefty sums. After Monsanto kicked things off with their nearly $1 billion purchase of digital agriculture specialists Climate Corporation in 2013, both Deere & Co. and DuPont have since followed suit with similar acquisitions in the region of $300 million each.
What’s Happening in AgriTech?
So far we’ve talked a lot about the future. But AgriTech is changing the face of the industry right now.
Early innovations have focused mainly on improving existing systems, either by replacing manual processes, reducing waste, or increasing yield. Diverse solutions range can include drones, sensors, irrigations, intelligent software analysis, and biotech. Let’s look at some examples.
Grazing cow monitors are digital collars that let farmers track their herds in real-time, ensuring they spend enough time grazing in pastures. This helps maximize animal health and ensures beef and dairy products are accurately labeled as pasture-raised. Another innovation for cattle farming is the introduction of robotic milkers, which help dairy farmers increase milk yield by as much as 20% and replace manual daily processes.
Automated Weeding. Historically, crop farmers have spent a huge amount of time, energy, and (often) chemicals to remove weeds. Now, smart farm vehicles can automatically find and remove weeds without damaging crops. The machines use cameras and machine vision technology to distinguish between crops and weeds and use precision tools in place of chemicals. These machines can also track crop health, growth rates, and nutrient shortages in the soil — data which can be used to improve farming practices.
Agricultural Drones have quickly become popular with farmers of all types. Equipped with cameras and sensors, drones are used to monitor crop health, assess soil conditions, track animals, record conditions for insurance purposes, and more. Most importantly, data collected by agricultural drones is analyzed and used to provide farmers with recommendations to maximize the yield and efficiency of operations. But AgriTech isn’t only about improving existing systems. It’s also about enabling completely new business models and doing things that weren’t previously possible.
A great example of this is hydroponic farming. Agricultural companies in several countries are converting shipping containers into mobile or static farms that run exclusively on water, with no soil required. IoT sensors track factors like humidity, CO2 levels, temperature, and water nutrient levels, and automated systems adjust environmental factors as necessary to maximize plant health and yield. These precision farming techniques ensure the wastage of water and electricity is kept to an absolute minimum. Given the increased difficulty of finding arable land for farming — particularly in Africa — expect to see a lot more of this business model in the future.
Finally, AgriTech is being employed to reduce water usage. Farmers can’t risk damage to their crops caused by underwatering, so they use a lot more than is needed each year — wasting both water and energy. Partly for this reason, agriculture accounts for around 70% of water usage worldwide. IoT-enabled “smart water management” systems (also known as precision irrigation) use sensors to monitor soil conditions and automatically irrigate crops with precisely the right amount of water.
It’s All About the Data
Part of the great value AgriTech adds to the agricultural industry lies in data collection. Everything else — from better crop yield to healthier livestock — is made possible by the insights produced by analyzing huge quantities of data.
Automated farming systems are at their best when continually refined with the latest information. And while data collected from a single farm or location is valuable, it’s not enough. For AgriTech to continue progressing, data sharing within the industry is crucial. The more data is analyzed and tracked, the better and more accurate insights farmers will receive. In the future, we expect to see a global network of “smart farms” that anonymously create, share, and benefit from data on a massive scale.
And with a huge business opportunity at hand, it’s the first movers who will take the lion’s share of the spoils.
Next Big Thing AG (NBT) is a Berlin-based IoT company builder that provides a complete framework for founding, incubating, and accelerating IoT ventures. If you think AgriTech could improve your business efficiency — or even open up completely new business models — we can help you make it happen.
On Wednesday, the 25th of September, we’re holding an event called The World in 2030: Future Services in Agriculture. If you’re interested in how technology will influence the future of the industry — and you’re in the Berlin area — come along and take part.
To find out more about innovating with IoT, or if you’re interested in partnering with NBT, get in touch.