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Accelerating the digitalisation of agriculture - how technology will help 'feed the future'

16 Oct 2019

Robert MacDougall

Head of Enterprise Public Policy, Vodafone Group

Digital technology and the agricultural sector might be seen by some as being incompatible.

Yet in order to tackles one of the biggest challenges of our time, from the policymakers’ perspective this is a divide that must be addressed.  

With the European Commission seeking to speed up the digitalisation of the agricultural sector as part of the proposed Common Agricultural Policy for 2021-27, and policymakers outside of the EU aiming to use digital technology to ‘leapfrog’ and do the same, the need for a joined-up approach is clear.

It was in this context that I participated in a panel debate at this year’s Economist event, Feeding the Future – technology for a hunger-free world.

Alongside me on the panel for the opening discussion, “assessing the challenge,” was Kent J. Bradford, a professor from University of California Davis; Sonia Lo, the CEO of CropOne and Kamel Chida, a deputy director from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

These panel members had a diverse set of equally relevant views on the role that technology has to play in this area.

For example, CropOne builds vertical farms. This is the stacked growth of crops in customised conditions where the climate is carefully controlled.

A single acre of vertical farming can yield the same number of crops as 750-800 acres worth of conventional farming space. It requires significantly less water, doesn’t use insecticides and produces 29-32 harvests per slot, per year, as opposed to the 2-3 of conventional farms.

A large part of what makes these farms possible are sensors used to monitor crops. And as sensors cheapen, more farmers are leveraging them.

As we rocket towards a global population of 9.5 billion by 2050, it was clear to all that technology has a role to play: but how and to what extent?

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The challenges

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, by 2050, we’ll need to produce anywhere between 50% -100% more food than we currently are.

However, our food problems aren’t merely a quantity problem – it’s a quality problem too.

Many of the staple crops grown in Africa, such as maize and rice, simple don’t give enough nutrients. More than two billion people around the world are affected by malnutrition, despite having access to food, affecting growth and cognitive abilities.

And this is before we start considering the environmental impacts of prosperity.

With global red meat consumption projected to increase by 76% over the next 30 years, if met through current methods of farming we can expect this demand to cause significant damage to the environment.

However, it was clear that technology has also come a long way and is now offering real and practical solutions to alleviate some of these issues.

A new era of agriculture

We believe that we are entering into a new era of agriculture, with the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile connectivity having a significant part to play.

For instance, in Ireland we’re supporting companies such as AllTech, helping them to connect farms to improve feed efficiency and ultimately produce more and better quality milk and beef.  And in Germany, our IoT capability is helping to connect dairy farms, reaching 95% of the country.

These developments in technology are also enabling farmers in developing countries to build ‘smart farms’ and digitalise production processes through partnerships and infrastructure.

One example is Sanku, a not-for-profit which has developed a technology central to providing individuals in rural East Africa with fortified flour – flour packed with micro-nutrients added during the milling process.

A key challenge for Sanku’s is how it supplies and services remote mills. A site visit that might take two hours in Europe could take ten hours in rural Tanzania. They need scale and speed.

By connecting these mills, data is transmitted every five minutes; monitoring production aspects such as nutrient ratios, cooling and weight readings.  

The Sanku worker receives alerts remotely and in real-time when the mills run out of fortified flour or when it requires maintenance, making the process significantly more efficient.  These mills already help feed more than a million people.

Digitalisation can also help address other problems that farmers contend with – issues around access to information, markets and financial services.

The Connected Farmer is an integrated, free-to-use mobile platform which connects producers to buyers across the value chain. It also offers access to credit, insurance and other financial services.

In Kenya, the platform (locally branded as DigiFarm) has registered over one million farmers to enable access to quality inputs, with almost 95,000 loans approved so far.

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Setting a joined-up policy approach

The overarching themes of the event were clear – we need more food, we need better food and we need technology to help get us there in a sustainable way.

We firmly believe that technology must be at the centre of policy initiatives to drive growth in the agricultural sector, however this will require a newly ‘joined-up’ approach to policymaking from both parties.

This approach and the benefits it will bring are central to Vodafone’s recent call for a new, cross-cutting IoT regulatory framework in the EU, recently set out in a policy White Paper.

The White Paper followed an in-depth discussion in Brussels where we were delighted to be joined by Copa-Cogeca, the united voice of farmers and their cooperatives in the EU.

We hope that these discussions will create a new wave of technology enabled agriculture, because this is a challenge we all need to meet, together.

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