Feed the world - why agriculture needs digital transformation

The digital transformation of agriculture will impact billions of people, impacting every part of the production and distribution of food supply. With roughly 33% of global food production for human consumption lost or wasted every year, and global food demand set to increase by 35 percent by 2030, how will the digital transformation of agriculture transform life on the farm? What impact will this have on a world on which around 40 percent of the population work in agriculture.

The food you eat

Digital transformation is freeing farmers from their fields, disrupting local economies and long-established working methods. Using smartphones, tablets or conventional computers, connected M2M agricultural solutions provide farmers with real efficiencies, such as remote measurement of soil condition, equipment, livestock and crop monitoring.

Fisheries are also changing. The UN has developed solar powered technological platforms to support fish preservation facilities and modern fish processing technologies, while smart solutions for animal husbandry are also making a difference, such as General Alert’s livestock monitoring systems.

Orange Business and Dutch firm Dacom are working to offer smart farming technology to farmers. Sensors situated quite literally “in the field” connect to smartphone apps that lets agriculturalists access all kinds of essential information about their crops from wherever they happen to be.

Small-scale farmers also benefit from new efficiencies - over 9 out of 10 farms are family farms and such farms between them provide over 80 percent of global food supply – and digital transformation is helping them enable efficient crop production at scale while also helping smallholders feed themselves more efficiently.

The harvest revolution

In Japan, a strawberry-picking robot is replacing agricultural jobs while indoor farm operator, Spread, plans to open a fully automated lettuce farm near Kyoto in 2017. “Environmental benefits from robots will be indirect for the most part,” said Sara Olson, Lux Research analyst. “Steering and spraying automation systems mean fewer oversprays and less waste, for a lower total chemical load on a field. Most automation systems provide some degree of increased efficiency, meaning reduced waste, which in some cases will be an environmental benefit.”

Scientists at the The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and the John Innes Centre (JIC) are developing a Raspberry Pi-based crop monitoring solution for precision agriculture that enables them to automate the capturing of crop growth and quantification of drought adaptation and color changes during the growing season. This affordable solution should prevent future crop losses due to drought, pestilence, or disease. This matters – right now up to 16 percent of global crop production is lost to pests.

Digging deep for data

Data management is critical and digital transformation means all new detectors, such as in-field sensors, drones and connected machinery, making data analysis part of the agri-business tool kit. This is nurturing a bumper harvest for farm management software, predicting this will become a $4 billion market by 2022, according to Research & Markets.

Analytics may yield good insight into likely future crop patterns, enabling farmers to more effectively plan their crops and make farming a more precision exercise. As stakeholders in national government, NGOs, distribution and retail link into this information, there is potential improvement in management and supply.

Smart distribution

“Demand is increasing for technologies that can track product and production information and share it across regions and throughout the value chain,” states a recent Research and Markets report.

This matters. “If just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world,” notes the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Consumers in developed countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes), claims the UN.

Smart distribution and retail management can help here. From highly automated shipping and distribution systems such as London Gateway, to the automated remotely controlled agricultural systems used worldwide today. Connected packaging should help track product more effectively across the supply chain, enabling better stock management and delivering efficiencies across the distribution chain.

Technological transformation

“In order to feed over 2.5 billion more people and prevent widespread famine in the next few decades, it is estimated that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050,” says GSMA. Technology innovation increases crop yield: improvements in fertilizer, machinery, crop protection and farming methods have all significantly increased production capabilities across the last 100 years, explained BASF Crop Protection’s Elmar Groiss.

While existing fixed broadband infrastructure is lacking in many rural communities, it seems likely mobile broadband will be part of the future of farming. Digital technologies may enable food industry tries to address the challenges of globalization and meet growing consumer demand for new, exotic and out-of-season food.

Now take a look at eight other ways technology is changing agriculture on today’s smart farms and explore our Connecting Technology blogs to understand Orange Business Service’s vision of how digital transformation is changing every part of life.


Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.