The use of technology to increase productivity and sustainability in the agricultural, horticultural and aquacultural sectors.
- Big data
- Internet of Things
- Remote sensing
- Satellite imagery
- Precision farming
- Vertical farming
A vision of the future?
Imagine a farm where a flock of drones flies overhead, gathering data. This information is processed to direct robots to deploy precision amounts of fertiliser onto only the crops which need it. As the field is monitored, recommendations are sent back on ways to improve the status of the soil, which seeds to stock for next year, along with a warning that a tractor part will need replacing in the next month.
And where is the farmer? He or she is shepherding all this technology. The role of the farmer has expanded beyond planning and carrying out the physical work of growing crops. Now they oversee the technology on the farm, using the data it supplies to make informed decisions. Does this sound like a vision of the future? It’s happening today.
The role of British farmers
As global populations grow, there is an increasing pressure on farming to become clean and efficient. Supermarkets are driving prices down while regulations become stricter. Food safety scandals shake up consumer confidence, and there is a growing anxiety around the use of antibiotics. All the while it becomes easier and cheaper to import food and other goods from faraway countries, which calls into question the role British farmers have to play in this new world. Innovative technology has a vital role to play in addressing all these issues.
Precision farming has the potential to supercharge production. It can minimise waste and maximise the yield of a plot of land of any size. And speaking of antibiotics – if you know which cows are likely to get sick, you will medicate only those who really need it. Similarly, AI can predict which seeds should be planted together to ensure that not only the crops themselves are healthy, but that they become part of a vibrant wider ecosystem. By taking the lead in this global development, British farmers can revolutionise their industry, and protect the environment that is at the heart of their work.
Who owns the data?
Say you are driving your tractor (or indeed your tractor is driving itself) across your field. It registers the growth of your wheat. Do you own that data? What’s more, do you own your tractor? Farmers are justifiably concerned about data ownership. We have seen how useful data gathered from farms can be. What if a company, which you are paying to predict the yield of your farm, shares that information with your competitors? What if traders in financial markets get hold of the data from thousands of farms and use it to manipulate prices?
Legislation has a role to play here. John Deere was involved in a case where farmers wanted to modify the software on their tractors. John Deere argued that, rather than owning the tractor outright: “the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” In a bid to protect their copyright, they seemed on track to eliminate consumer involvement of any kind! The government will have to work together with the agricultural sector and the providers of technology, in order to come up with sensible solutions.
Funding and implementation
This February, in a speech at the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference, the government announced an investment of £90 million in agritech. There are big, exciting opportunities ahead. The changes heralded by Brexit could be a catalyst for technological innovation, as British farmers seek creative solutions to compensate for a likely further decrease in migrant labour.
The future of the sector is in the hands of farmers. It is up to them to embrace the advancements technology offers. They are the ones who will push Britain into the lead as the global agricultural sector faces unprecedented challenges.