The World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit 2021 has come to a close and we have had the pleasure of listening to some of the most inspiring and knowledgeable voices in agriculture and agricultural technology. The event went virtual this year, but that didn’t stop people from around the world sharing ideas and discussing the biggest topics in the industry. Below, we will be covering some of the most pertinent talking points from the Summit.
High on the agenda this year was sustainability, an increasingly hot topic and nowhere more than in agriculture. This conversation cannot be avoided, with atmospheric carbon dioxide hitting its highest level in four million years and 2020 bringing Europe its hottest year on record. Reducing emissions in agriculture is a key part of the puzzle. Innovation is the way out of our current climate crisis and there are many routes being taken towards a more sustainable future. Giuseppe Natale from Valagro put it bluntly: “The only solution is that all agriculture becomes sustainable, and the time is now – we don’t have more.”
The way we grow, cultivate and harvest our food has undergone rapid transformation in the last few decades alone, but intensive methods solely focused on productivity at the cost of biodiversity and soil health has proved incredibly damaging. There is a consensus that regenerative agriculture must become a priority. As Ruth Kimmelshue, Chief Sustainability Officer at Cargill, pointed out: “Agriculture is one of the only industries that has the ability to regenerate itself.” If we are to reach net zero targets set by governments, agriculture must put a greater emphasis on conservation and rehabilitation.
Carbon farming was discussed multiple times as it offers agriculture the unique opportunity to become carbon-negative, sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. If we continue to improve soil quality across the board, more carbon will be stored and there will be further benefit to the environment as crops in healthy soil require less fertiliser.
We heard from Sanjeev Krishnan of S2G Ventures that more agricultural companies are publishing sustainability reports than ever before, showing that the industry is heading in the right direction, but he raised an important point. Accurate reporting demands accurate data collection.
In this digital age, data is everywhere, but agriculture is yet to utilise the full spectrum of benefits that data brings. Many speakers expressed their excitement at emergent technologies that can capture data for farm management. Data allows the farm to be viewed and managed on a granular level that was impossible until recent technological developments. The application of data collection will likely skyrocket as innovation continues.
Of course, data collection relies heavily on the technology that captures the data. From wearable technology that tracks cows’ health to sensors that measure soil moisture levels, farmers are already benefiting. Bob Reiter from Bayer Crop Science shared that a current pain point is getting accurate sampling across large areas and hinted that the future of data collection involves imaging. Imaging technology has improved greatly since machine learning has been developed further, utilising computer vision software and machine learning to identify patterns.
Machine learning, by design, is always improving. It can be employed on a large scale, analysing data across a whole farm to spot trends, or on a small scale, giving insights into the welfare of individual plants and animals. Perhaps the most exciting thing about machine learning in agriculture is the ability to provide predictive insights before any major problems occur. With such smart systems in place, energy input can be optimised so that fewer resources are wasted. Those with sustainability in mind will also benefit from machine learning. We heard from Nolan Paul at Yamaha Motor Ventures, who believes that machine learning and robotics can be used to achieve higher productivity on farms while lowering the resource requirement.
Drones and robots are already in use in farms across the world thanks to the rapid advancement in vision and recognition technology. Recently, a drone was developed that identified ripe fruit for picking, while noting any blemishes or diseases that plagued the crops and feeding this information back to the farmer. This greatly increases the effectiveness of farmers’ decisions, and strategies for optimisation can be developed. Growth rates can be accurately measured, diseases and pests can be discovered early on and preventative measures can be taken. The implications are seemingly endless.
Greg Meyers from Syngenta revealed in his talk that he believes the end game for agricultural technology is pointing towards autonomous farming. It is not unfathomable that we could one day see whole fields being tended to solely by autonomous workers. Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics in collaboration is no small feat, but work is well underway. Ben Alfi, CEO of Blue White Robotics discussed how his company works with growers from the inception of a product to truly understand what their needs are. Any agricultural technology must be developed with the farmer in mind and businesses must always be thinking about the value they can bring to people.
What was clear from numerous talks is that although sustainable practices and innovative technology are needed, farmers will be reluctant to adopt them without a financial incentive – it must be profitable for them. Jennifer Morris from The Nature Conservancy was optimistic that sustainable agricultural solutions can be leveraged to benefit the global food supply chain but also the livelihood of farmers. After all, we must look after our planet if we are to remain able to grow anything at all.
While the Innovation Summit may have come to a close, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done over the next few years if we’re to meet those targets to reduce carbon emissions through agriculture. With more innovation on the horizon it’s an incredibly exciting time to be part of the industry and Chaseman Global is excited to watch what innovative solutions are developed next.