ENTERING THE AGE OF INFORMATION AGRICULTURE
GENERATING SUPPORT FOR FARM INNOVATION
BY STAN BLADE
Innovation is not a new concept in agriculture. Ten thousand years ago, humans discovered raising crops and livestock in a co-ordinated manner created greater food security. We have since had bursts of new technology that included irrigation, land tillage, selection of species (and land races) along with the development of food preservation that enhanced the amount and quality of available food.
Amazing changes in agricultural technology have occurred in my lifetime. In the period from 1965 to 2007, global cereal production more than doubled, from 874 million tonnes to 2.354 billion tonnes. This happened for reasons we know very well. Utilizing (mostly public) biological research, the disciplines of engineering and marketing created a system of vastly improved technologies, and further advances have been made in crop and animal genetics. Advanced machinery design has benefited all facets of agricultural production, while the capacity to take advantage of enhanced fertilizer products (and water, where needed) has increased. As well, the benefits of value chain innovations have justified new capital investment.
It is tempting to think that, given the tremendous progress made in agricultural productivity, we have plateaued. In most systems, after a period of growth, a “levelling off” period follows because such improvement (we think) is not sustainable over a long period of time.
But what if agriculture is just getting started?
I have been reluctant to write this column because everyone is jumping on the “smart agriculture” bandwagon. Every publication is championing “digital agriculture” with other variants that include precision farming, intelligent farming, smart farming and many other permutations. There is a huge new dictionary of jargon that includes IoT (internet of things), artificial intelligence, the cloud and blockchain, and there are players in the agriculture space that we haven’t seen before—Google, Microsoft, IBM and others.
I think about what the outcomes could look like. The future will once again—just as in our lifetime—change in response to new ideas in genetics, equipment, management systems and markets. The new piece of this puzzle is access to data. Soon, we will have the capacity to manage fields and livestock by square metres and animals rather than acres and herds. We will manage a crop by planting multiple genotypes (with unique traits created by gene editing) in the same field with fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other tools deployed over much smaller polygons than the quarter-section.
All this will be tailored to these small units of land by using information provided by yield maps, soil fertility sensors, drone images (using multispectral cameras) and real-time weather information. Crops will be marketed using the “shared and encrypted ledger” blockchain approach currently being tested in Australia (through a project called BeefLedger). This pilot project provides “paddock to the plate” information on all aspects of beef production as well as sales history and disease prevention documentation. Also incorporated are streamlined payments, consumer feedback and greatly enhanced capacity to prevent food fraud—such as a retailer claiming a product is Australian when it’s not.
We already use many information tools on our farms—GPS (autosteer, variable rate application), real-time weather data, global market information and more. My view is that digital agriculture will allow producers and other players in the agri-food value chain to use information that we currently have—and will be able to capture in the future—in new, integrated systems. We will be able to harvest and use information just as we do crops. What if the world-changing gains of the Green Revolution of the last generation were just setting the table for an entire new leap forward in value and productivity in the agri-food sector? Get ready for the exciting new era of “information agriculture.”
Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.