What is the future of agriculture? We asked previous participants of REAP a big question “Assuming connectivity is no longer an issue, which of the following scenarios do you think most reflects the farm of the future and what agri-tech is needed on the roadmap?”
- Frugal: a soil-first approach – using rotations (with livestock), cover crops, AD and biocontrol to build soil health and crop resilience?
- High-tech: remote management of food production – using multiple data sources to automate on-farm operations based on models?
- Diversified: a move ‘off-land’ to increase production of short life cycle foods (salad, vegetables, algae) in vertical farms or algal production facilities, combined with diversified on-farm land use management where the production of staple crops, agroforestry, bioenergy or allocation for leisure or nature is determined according to return on investment and societal demands?
‘Making sense of agriculture’ is the theme of REAP 2022. Ahead of the conference we asked a number of researchers and technologists who have participated in previous conferences and are involved in on-farm collaborations how they see the future of agriculture and the current challenges.
Gap between ‘big data’ and ‘big insights’
Casey Woodward is Founder and Chief Executive of AgriSound, developers of technology that enables farmers and growers to monitor insects across their sites. This can be used to deliver ‘precision pollination’ to increase crop yields and monitor insect biodiversity to comply with retailer and subsidy payment requirements.
Casey sees a gap between ‘big data’ and ‘big insights’: “Interpretation of the data can be delivered through increasingly complex algorithms and models, but creating trust in these models to take financially risky decisions is very difficult. Human intervention will still be required to translate data from sensors and provide recommendations that can be actioned.
“In the future, I think it is possible that full farm ‘digital twins’ can be created to test different scenarios and evaluate impact on profitability, environmental performance and future resilience. This isn’t being delivered yet, due to need for heavy computing power and lack of data, but I think this is the general direction of travel.”
“In my view, there will be a bifurcation where farms opt to become either:
- low-input, lower yielding farms which adopt regenerative practices and produce high quality produce. A core part of the business model will be trading carbon and biodiversity credits on an open market.
- highly controlled production environments that leverage technology to lower labour and OpEx requirements.”
Future of Agriculture – Decision-making from multiple data sources
“In my personal view the future scenario will be high-tech,” says Liangxiu Han, Professor of Computer Science at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is also the project lead of a robot-enabled, data-driven machine vision tool for nitrogen diagnosis of arable soils where the high-tech has been harnessed. “It will be remote management based on decision-making from multiple data sources from ground sensing / remote sensing such as robots, drones and IoT sensors, together with sustainable farm practices, such as rotations, cover crops, soil health management, etc..
“However, despite delivering a number of innovative precision agriculture solutions I see there are significant gaps in the technology for delivering this scenario. Particularly around data collection at scale (completeness of datasets, accurate measurements using accurate equipment), data quality (noisy data, partly caused by inaccurate measurements and poor data-pre-processing techniques) and lack of advanced data modelling and analysis.”
Future of Agriculture – high-tech with higher standards of livestock care
Matthew Dobbs, Practice Leader Digital Technology at Stonehaven Consulting, is a vet and an investor and also acting CEO of AgSenze. He says: “Making ‘sense’ of livestock is the core of the AgSenze mission, with sound and vision technologies becoming the sensors of choice.
“Livestock keepers need low cost, minimal intervention technologies that report outcomes.”
The future will be high-tech, he says, but warns that an “agri-world that ignores the traditions of care for the soil, high husbandry standards and diversified farming will miss the benefits our forefathers enjoyed.”
Future of Agriculture – visualisation to show what is going on
“Our goal is to discover the key patterns and trends that make up the optimal production environment and present this information, so it is easier to see what is going on,” says Rob Sanders, Co-Founder of GlasData. The company’s platform collects data from over 70 different types of sensors and other sources, and analyses it looking for trends.
“Although it looks as though we are heading towards large industrial farming, including lab-grown meat and vertical farming to produce more of the food we consume. I strongly believe there will always be a place for more premium low intensity, high quality produce done ‘traditionally’ and also farms that become majority environmentally focused.
“Sadly, I think we will eventually say goodbye to the smaller family farm.”
… but it much more than data, it’s about understanding the system
“Our technology is all about enabling people to make sense of things, by enabling them to get the accurate relevant predictive information they need to work out the best balance of efforts to meet both short- and long-term objectives,” explains Matthew Smith, Head of Planetary Intelligence at Scientific Technologies.
“The gaps are in enabling proper intelligence about what the system is doing and how it might change. It’s much more than just the data, it’s also about combining our best understanding of how the systems work (e.g. soil biology and physics) and helping the exploration of alternative decisions to identify the best ones to take. To properly account for what we are uncertain about.
“While there’s a lot of promise in regenerative agriculture, we need to optimise our learning rate about what works and what doesn’t to reap the benefits as quickly as possible.
“I personally think agriculture could change beyond recognition before the end of the century, hopefully more for the right than the wrong reasons.
“I’m excited by how we make better use of the sea and degraded lands.
“In the shorter term I think we need to see refinements of all the different characterisations you summarise – we want more agricultural systems that produce while regenerating the landscape (Frugal). There will probably also be more High-Tech agri systems, probably oriented around more rapidly reproducing organisms like algae and insects.
“And yes, definitely more diversified systems too. The diversity of methods will also give us resilience and adaptability. But overall – they all need to be transitioning at pace towards sustainable production.”
From yield mapping and precision livestock through to digital twins and cloud computing, at REAP 2022 we will be exploring the technology and looking at the implications from a field to landscape level. Making technology farm-centric is core to Agri-TechE’s mission so a key feature of the conference will be a panel of farmers and producers discussing the emerging technologies and future scenarios.