The increasing global population, climate change, dwindling natural resources and unprecedented political events are placing the food supply chain under tremendous and intractable pressure. Digital technology offers one critical solution to the required transformation of global food systems. But along with great potential, the growth of new and effective data-driven advances comes with challenges.
The advent of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) has transformed many industries by connecting information and location and was the basis for the concept of Precision Agriculture. While still prone to errors, it currently provides an accuracy of 4-5 metres, but this can be enhanced using Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) to 1m. The availability of GPS services allowed farmers to apply yield mapping, soil management zoning for site-specific management, using variable rate application of inputs, using auto-steering systems and Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF).
In the past two-decades agriculture, and other industries, have seen an explosion due to the advancement in digitisation tools and easily captured data, with a reduction in data acquisition and storage cost, and improvements in connectivity. Earth Observations technologies improved significantly in term of coverage, availability, and cost. These can now be obtained to cover larger area with better spatial and temporal resolutions.
Data capture by other sensors and farm machinery has opened new opportunities for the concept of big data, which can be collected and stored quickly. Its analysis allows complex questions to be answered and there are extensive opportunities for adding value in agriculture, including benchmarking, predictive modelling, and improvements in system efficiency. The key enabler for big data is connectivity. It is essential that, without human intervention, data can be collected from all connected devices, shared and ana-lysed. This process is known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
Current developments and advancement in the data analytic and digital capabilities such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics and autonomous systems (RAS), and blockchain technology will play a critical role in transforming the food supply chain in the next decade. Specifically, digital technology can increase efficiency (reduce waste), provide a true picture of the value of food, including its economic and natural capital costs, help to redesign a diverse agricultural system, and provide a route to multifunctional landscapes and create space for bio-energy capture and storage.
However, there are many factors which may limit the application of digital technologies for transformative changes in agriculture industry, including:
- Data ownership issues.
- Moving from the traditional supplier-customer transaction to a new business model based on co-creation and partnership.
- The need for technology providers to engage farmers and understand their pain points at an early stage of technology development.
- The need to integrate the various technologies, machinery, and farmer-collected data to create effective digital solutions.
- Connectivity across all the sources and players, at a time when rural connectivity is still poor across much of the UK.