Big Data in Agriculture – More Innovations or Focus on Implementation. What is More Important Today?
What is in it for me? Do you want me to pay for your “brilliant” innovation and I ask you – why should I if today I can’t use them for my own good? This is a story about Farmers, Innovators and Innovations, Big Data in the first place.
Big Data provides us with much bigger opportunities than we are ready to “absorb and digest” today. Based on Big Data applications innovations in Agriculture try to channel these huge opportunities somehow and make them serving farmers in the “hottest” areas of their work. Thousands of innovations all over the world are designed to increase up to maximum the predictability of the farmers’ work, diminish/eliminate their physical labor, rationalize management of crop growing, and monitor and manage the inputs spending, to name just a few. There are lots of such innovations available but only a minor part of them has been implemented by farmers globally, same picture of course can be found in Europe. Why farmers so far are reluctant to step into the “fairy tale” like life?
As it was shown at Picking Alpha conference Farm Management: Innovations and Financing, in Europe and the rest of the world the implementation of Big Data and AgTech innovations has already made first steps towards their recognition by the end-users. Now with all the wealth of partially -used innovations, which daily are experiencing the moral wear and tear it is time to open another chapter in their development – introduce effective implementation programs aimed at the deployment of their mass application by farmers. And not targeting only big farms as it often happens now but aiming at helping small and medium farms to gain their competitive edge and become up-to-date businesses by using all the digital tools available for them now. Picking Alpha conference had brought together all stakeholders that are actively involved in the digitization of the Agriculture – policy makers, farmers, farmers-inventors, inventors and financiers.
Starting conversation on innovations in Agriculture we need to take as an axiom, that farmers are innovators by their nature, they always look for ways to improve, to change what does not work and “farmer knows best what he needs”, as it was said by Max Schulman, Chairman of the Cereals and Oilseed working group, COPA &COGECA and the farmer himself. Big Data jointly with innovations are very hot topics today. In spite of all appealing benefits of their usage for farmers, there are still some uncertainties, pointed Max Schulman. The major of them is a lack of a clear answer to the question of utmost importance for any farmer – how to make sure that his data won’t be used by somebody else and especially against him? This challenge can be addressed mainly by the relevant policies that will assist farmers in their work and innovations implementation.
European Policy makers, with some MEPs being farmers themselves, work really hard to assist farmers in their acceptance of the innovations. They perfectly understand that digitalization of the agriculture in Europe is the only way to feed the growing population, as well as for the farmers it is a powerful tool to maintain highly competitive positions in the world. Of course a lot has been done not only on the whole EU level, but also on the countries’ and even regions levels to build a solid framework for farmers’ better understanding, their education, cooperation and through this high acceptance of the innovations in question.
As it was stressed on the conference by MEP and a farmer Jan Huitema, though agriculture in the world faces some challenges starting from Climate Change, loss of biodiversity, population growth we have to consider agriculture itself as a “Solution for these problems to deal with” rather than a problem. He stated that today politicians should concentrate their work on three points: 1. Policy 2. Creating the legal environment where farmer should have an ability to be competitive and to have a capital to use new technologies 3. Focus on creating a social acceptance of the new technologies, as consumers still do not trust, for example, quality of milk from the farm that uses robots to milking cows.
Louis Mahy, DG Agriculture (EC), mentioned that EC organized a special European Innovation Partnership, part of which works for Agriculture along with Horizon 2020, which a highly interactive project is working with farmers, scientists, policy makers all together. It targets only innovations which “have clearly practical goals and results”. His observation s of the project development brought to the conclusion that today “Agriculture needs more innovations friendly regulations” to address the challenges it faces.
In 2012 by the initiative of Toscana Regional Government the ERIAFF platform was created for farmers of the regions – members of ERIAFF. It is designed to explore the immediate opportunities provided by already existing EU policies and different EC projects for assisting farmers in implementation of the AgTech innovations. This platform operates on the interregional level by using all the tools provided by the EC it tries “ to change mind sets of the administrations, farmers”, as it was said by Fabio Boscarelly, Policy Officer, Toscana Region Representative office in EU and coordinator of the ERIAFF network. It is making an important job of synergizing efforts of all stakeholders in the participating regions with the goal to provide effective implementation of innovations in farmers’ routine.
Speaking of Agricultural Policies it is important to mention that in French Agency MOMAGRI, which is the only agency in the world dealing with the ratings of agricultural policies and markets they pay a big attention to the Big Data and innovations in agriculture. Agency Director Xavier Regnaut, observing the opportunities emerging with Big Data stated that probably their availability will change the methodology of ratings itself. It can help to include the nutritional values which he called “strategically important indicators for every country” what can significantly change the whole rating system.
But in spite of any efforts on the macro level there are lots of things that happen on the micro level independently which can significantly reduce the positive influence of the former process. Moreover they can just restrain the Agriculture’ modernization and prolong it indefinitely. What is this?
Lack of proper communication between Hi-tech innovators and farmers. The former often are not aware in details of farmers’ needs and therefore, by official statistical data, lion share of them fail within 1-20 months since their first day on the market.
From the other side – farmers are reluctant to change their technologies and it is fair – they feed the people. They have no right to fail. So it takes lots of hands – on education, explanations, cooperation and even joint work of innovators with farmers at the adaptation and checkout of the innovations. The task of innovators and their allies is to do anything they can to improve and gain farmers’ trust.
Meaning that in order to boost the process of innovations implementation it is necessary to organize a constant communication between farmers and inventors, pessimistically minded farmers and their colleagues who has already benefited from innovations. It will also help to reduce the failure of inventions on the markets.
Just let us look back at the history of tractors, today no farmer can imagine his/her farm without it. Amazingly – it took almost 30 years since the first tractor’s invention and production back in 1892 and their becoming of more or less accepted tool by the many farmers… only in 1920.
Do we have any opportunity to wait for “these” 30 years while Big Data and AgTech technologies probably will be implemented on a mass level? Of course not and for a solid reason. As Suzanne Van Tilburg Global Head Corporate Relations, Rabobank had stressed in her presentation that with the world population rapid growth up to 10 billion in 30 years the demand for food is expected to jump up by 60%, while available arable lands staying the same in the best case scenario or even declining . We can’t help but accept that our goal is to …. “produce more with less”, as she said. But nevertheless after presenting the world wide picture of Big Data and other innovations development Suzanne Van Tilburg directly addressed to the innovators, farmers and other stakeholders with a very important literally guiding message – “Please, use what is available but do not re-invent the wheel”.
Presentation of Christophe Yvetot, UNIDO Representative to EU, contained many eye opening moments. UNIDO operates in 170 countries in the world with the lion share of their projects working in developing countries, Africa in the first place. Christophe informed the audience that we all need to change our outdated perception of African countries as passive receiver’s ad users of the foreign technologies. On a contrary working closely with African countries where UNIDO sets up technological parks for small businesses and tech hub for AgTech he observed entirely different picture. By his opinion some African countries have used their own inventions which “Europe would dream of”. Nevertheless the common problem for many countries –how to use Big Data, how to make innovations for agriculture working on a large scale is valid for Africa too, and Christophe Yvetot expressed his opinion backed by the experience that it can be solved anywhere only by means “of all stakeholders close cooperation”.
It is possible to solve this problem if farmers will take a lead in making decision on what they need to reduce their losses, to increase productivity and how to deal with Big Data. This bold important statement – echoing the words of another farmer, Max Schulman at the launch- was made by the expert in the field – the farmer Bonny Van Ranst. He successfully applies Big Data in his own platform servicing his 4 farms operating in different countries. But wishing to spread the benefits of Big Data to his colleagues he is assisting other farmers to follow his example.
Literally with every new speaker at the conference it became more and more clear that European agriculture has at its disposal a wide variety of new technologies which for many reasons have not been unveiled yet.
One of the best though not yet explored in full strength options is associated with the space technologies. Toby Clark, General Secretary of EURISY in his presentation pointed out that all the wealth of possibilities which space applications can present to the farmers, like Precision Agriculture technologies for ex., are still hardly known to farmers and of course their wide implementation still waits for its’ time. There is a whole chain of obstacles preventing it from happening such as lack of proper communication, non-availability of information on what kind of technologies are ready today for Agriculture and of course, high costs of the space technologies. Toby Clark resumed that the only way to remove those obstacles are joint actions of all players of the Agricultural market aimed at finding the relevant solutions for effective usage of space technologies.
Roya Nayazi, Secretary General, NEREUS focused her attention on the thesis of necessity “to produce more with less” and put forward the idea on how particularly works a package of technologies known as Precision Agriculture. Though she also acknowledged that still multiple parties’ cooperation in their implementation is the only way to implement what is available today from the space industry to the Agriculture.
As it appeared from a conversation with a founder of Australian company AgThentic, Sarah Nolet, Australian farmers “who are very keen to implement AgTech in their work” also are not rushing to use space technologies and they are mainly watching the outside markets: to learn from them how these innovations can work for Australian agriculture. At the same time in the late 2015 Australian farmers received a serious encouragement and support for AgTech development when the Government and some big companies pledged to co-fund some projects on innovations’ development and implementation. (Today the process is unfolding and Australia by many forecasts is expected to become the world leader in AgTech innovations implementations – MK). Innovations are gradually replacing the old times’ technologies in the country making their agriculture even more productive.
But as in Europe and USA this process still is quite “ young” and as such requires more work on communication and information delivery, as well as extensive though not traditional and “boring” farmers’ education.
To make these things working one needs to elaborate and implement a comprehensive package of
Programs and coordinated actions based on the careful scientific research of the existing experience and challenges that agriculture faces now and will be in the future. This very topic was a center of the informative presentation made by Dr. Sjaak Wolfert, Scientific Project IofT 2020 Coordinator, and (Wageningen University & Research). This 4-year innovative and unique, probably even in the world project funded by EC is supposed to “pave the road to the Data-driven Farming, autonomous farm operations, virtual Food Chains and personalized nutrition for European citizens”, as he indicated at the conference. IoF2020 project has just started and according to Dr. Wolfert, it involves all the major stakeholders engaging in the Agriculture. The project will test multiple business models for the further recommendations and availability for farmers. Rooted from the tested example of the IOFT2020 ecosystem European Agriculture in a wide sense can benefit from building the similar systems both on the macro and micro (regional and even community levels).
As we mentioned earlier on a supply side there are a lot of very interesting new technologies available for agriculture, but not all of them have been implemented due to the old, well known reason – lack of sufficient funding. Though from the investors’ point of view it is not easy to find innovative companies where they would invest their funds in because they are not sure that these innovations will create a growing demand. Luigi Amati, Angel Investor, President, CEO & Co-Founder of META Group presented at the conference few start ups which were funded by his group. All of them operate in food processing industry and their products are well tested by the current demand. These products offer solutions for the market with the growing demand and their insufficient yet supply.
While with AgTech innovations we find the opposite situation so far – here we see the growing supply of technologies and still very low demand from the farmers’ side. Speaking professional marketing language we need to place a new product on the old market and compete with tested old technologies. It means the only one thing – supplier has to elaborate on the sophisticated and long term program of new demand development. Currently a lot of various innovative technologies for Agri-Food industries are available for farmers. At the conference few of them were presented and accepted with a great interest of an audience. Like the device presented by Edvard Krogius, CEO/Founder , Start Up GRAINSENSE , Finland , which is a really one of a kind product, because it measures the quality of the growing crops helping this way to the farmers to gain their competitive advantage along with the Big Data information. It is exactly addressing the farmers’ challenges of today – because this is the quality of the products which can kill even more than two birds with one shot. Taking into account the challenge to produce “more with less” for the next decades the winner on the market will be the producer producing a highly nutritional crop.
Farmers are adapters by the nature of their work – they have every day to adapt to the weather conditions, market requirements and they would gladly embrace anything that will make their work more predictable and manageable, will eliminate at least part of uncertainties they face daily. But we all need to understand that those cardinal changes that our technologies can offer them today cannot be accepted by farmers immediately due to their high responsibility to feed the people. Consumers are not always ready to accept the process of digitalization and robotization when it comes to their food. All stakeholders involved in the process should work together to pave the road to the versatile modernization of agriculture which is destined to solve the problems of humanity survival.