AGRICULTURE 4.0, the pending assignment

25 November, 2020

53% of the world’s global population currently has access to the internet, there are more mobile terminals than there are people in the world, 90% of data generated has been generated in just the last two years, and in barely 10 more we will manage to produce 50 billion data (bytes) per second. It is indisputable that we are immersed in the fourth industrial revolution, and that digital transformation is expanding in giant steps propelled by innovations in data transmission, especially thanks to the new 5G network coverage but, have all sectors been reached as efficiently by this 4.0 industry? How has Farming been affected?

The scarcity of a resource as important as water means that localised irrigation is one of the farming activities that has been using data generation and analysis for many years, with sensors in the ground, probes that measure multiple variables, data processing software, and applications that remotely regulate the opening or closing of irrigation sectors, etc. This information helps farmers to make the best choices: such as when to irrigate, how much and how regularly, among others. It is true that the arrival of these new technologies and lower cost of determined solutions have led to an exponential multiplication of the information generated, and that now many more variables and metrics can be studied than just a few years ago.

Farming equipment has also been incorporating useful technological innovations for the sector, one of the most common at present being GPS guidance, which allows for an unprecedented geometrical use of land parcels and enhanced precision of works. While it is true that this technology has been in use since the nineties, it is only in the last five years that it has been possible to exploit its potential much more efficiently, thanks to the advances in wireless connections, refined software languages and their interrelation with all other digital accessories that coexist not just in the equipment but also in its surroundings, deriving in the fact that at present it is a basic element requested in any tractor configuration.

Drones and Big Data, technological solutions that require professionals for data interpretation

One of the other major commercial deployments in recent years is related to the proliferation of drones, devices that by means of different types of cameras make it possible to fly over crops in a relatively short period of time, obtaining huge quantities of data in the course of the journey, which once refined and processed translate into vigour indices, determination of areas with drainage problems, identification of phytosanitary problems, topographical surveys, etc., but to use this technology requires knowledge and skills that cause farmers to have to rely on third parties, and only estates with a large enough acreage to amortise this cost are able to resort to this type of technology. In our country, driven by the product’s added value, it is fundamentally the vineyards that have specialised in implementing this type of tool.

The star of the so-called 4.0 phenomenon is unquestionably the mass data generated and processed for multiple and varied uses, but the use of Big Data, as it is technically known, also presents its drawbacks. Mass data generation creates problems of storage and processing, which require an increasingly potent infrastructure, and in most cases make it necessary to again outsource these analyses to third parties, meaning that farmers do not have full control over the tools in which they have invested, they only have the sensors and measurement devices, but the information is unintelligible without the analysis that comes after.

Moreover, the qualifications and knowledge that need to be acquired in order to master the use of these applications entail a specialisation that is not always accessible to all, to the point that new professions have emerged in this regard, such as the figure of the Data Scientist with specific training plans.

In this context, let’s not forget that farming takes place in the field, in rural zones. In our country, 7% of the population suffers from a deficient connection to the data network; the disconnected Spain is a reality, and we cannot ask for optimised yields, technological innovation, the incorporation of the latest advances and Big Data processing in zones where the minimum conditions to ensure data traffic and an effective communication between devices and a storage cloud cannot be met.

AI, an investment for large exploitations of high value crops

We should not forget either that the technologies described come at a cost, and that the use of Big Data and AI (Artificial Intelligence) among others, are used mostly for precision agriculture of high value crops, and preferably in operations with dimensions that allow the financial impact of the use of these solutions to be minimised but, how may farmers own small and medium plots in our country? The answer is that 67% of Spanish farming operations have surfaces of less than 10 hectares (INE.2019), therefore, we are dealing with a solution that is not affordable for the vast majority in their day to day, as the problems with price at origin, the increasing market pressure on prices, international legislation, etc. derive in such negligible margins that most operations cannot afford these services regularly, preventing all farmers from having free access to the information that would allow them to reduce their production risks, make it more sustainable, foresee meteorological phenomena by means of predictive models, or simply produce more and better.

Most of the arable land is in Africa and LATAM, where agriculture 4.0 is a mirage

We must point out that this problem occurs essentially in the agriculture of industrialised countries, because if we take a look at the rest of the world and focus our attention on countries that rely on subsistence farming, or farming with only basic machinery and technology, the digital gap is such that the distance in relation to us could become insurmountable. What sense does a network of probes connected to an agro-climatic station make for any crop in sub-Saharan Africa? Right where efficiency and early detection of meteorological phenomena would be most important, these zones live in the most absolute digital darkness. Let’s not forget that according to the FAO more than half of the ideal land for crop-growing in the world is concentrated in seven countries distributed throughout Africa and Latin America, where Agriculture 4.0 is far from being a reality.

And what about the novel advances in tractors and machinery, how could they ever afford them? The continuous battle between the sector’s largest manufacturers to adapt to new regulations on the one hand, and countries’ zeal to legislate on the environment by including all manner of new homologations and restrictions, mean that nowadays buying a tractor in any of these countries is an impossible task, given that a machine that requires urea to function cannot be used in a multitude of countries that do not have this product available daily to supply the vehicles, without mentioning the specialised labour required to service or maintain such equipment, or what a breakdown of a simple part can entail in countries without an official repair shop, obliged to import the spare part at a high cost and to have the equipment out of service for more than 20 days.

Democratising agriculture 4.0, the challenge for reaching SDG Zero Hunger

There is a growing belief that agriculture 4.0 will be humanity’s cure-all, the necessary collaborator for feeding the 9.7 billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050, but as of today just a privileged few have real access to these technologies, and within those who do have it within their reach, most underuse it because they cannot afford to pay for the services related to its adequate exploitation and use. Therefore, we must work to ensure it reaches all farmers democratically, instead of embarking on solitary races to see who implements the latest technology or what the latest sector breakthrough that wonders humankind is.

Much more should be invested in training, in technology transfer, in bringing IT tools closer to the rural medium gradually and in steps, ensuring that the structures which data-gathering and its analysis rely on are solid and trustworthy, and in fostering and providing incentives for the use of new technologies by making them useful and accessible, and for certain, by trying to establish grounds that make it possible to grow from there instead of deepening the existing digital rift between those at the front and those at the back of the train.

Sergio de Román Musulén

Director of Farming, Fisheries and Rural Development