AGROTECH MANAGEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ERA AND ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE SUSTAINABILITY GOALS
Have you ever thought about the real importance of agriculture? We did recently, and found something really interesting: It is one of the MOST IMPORTANT SECTORS IN THE WORLD. You may be thinking whether it is a joke, but it is totally true. Since the industrial revolutions, fewer people have been working there, but this is not because it is declining, just the opposite, it is because they are not needed, as productivity has been increasing since then. Agriculture has evolved and has become one of the most innovative and technologically advanced sectors in the world. So, if you want to learn more about it, continue reading below.
I am sure that if I say to you Agrotech, you do not know if I am talking about a new netflix series or about a new cryptocurrency. By no means, it stands for Agricultural Technology, which consists merely of the application of the different technologies (mainly of the 4th Industrial Revolution) in agriculture with the purpose of improving it, and making it more efficient regarding both profitability and sustainability. Although it could include intelligent livestock, only agriculture will be explained in this post.
It is interesting to link this agrotech with precision agriculture or smart farming, which could be the perfect application in the reality of agrotech as a whole. It is the strategy to manage all these technologies that are around agrotech, and is based on processing and analyzing data gathered by the technologies to support management decisions pursuing the objectives of increasing production, quality, and efficiency while diminishing its impact on the environment and maximizing the resources used.
Figure 1 (CANVA)
Agrotech, which has become the present and will be the future of the agricultural industry, is not really known and most people still believe that agriculture is carried with obsolete machines or even on hand. Nevertheless, this idea is far from reality, as it can be considered one of the most innovative industries in the world, and also one of the most relevant and important ones.
The primary sector has always been relevant, not only in terms of profitability nor employment, but in terms of human life and development. It is the one in charge of feeding the world, a world whose population has been growing to levels that are starting to be unsustainable. The UN states that in 2050, the world’s population will have grown by 2.000 million people since today. Moreover, problems derived from climate change and pollution, where the agriculture industry’s consumption is the 30% of the world’s energy, 70% of world’s water consumption, and produces more than 20% of the greenhouse effect gasses, the reduction of arable land, and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides that make the decreasing amount of land less productive year by year, should be considered, and technological agriculture’s role has become more than important when facing them.
“The unknown “Agrotech” could be one of pillars to make the world sustainable and much more productive.”
In order to be capable of reaching agricultural demand and sustainable goals, the whole industry has evolved and has improved thanks to technology, and will be doing so.
Figure 2 (Shahbandeh, 2018)
All the cutting edge technologies, the most innovative ones, the most efficient ones, end up in this sector due to its strategic importance, a sector that as a consequence gets benefited from it.
Whatever technology you could think about, it has a role within this industry. Thus, now the most relevant ones, the ones that play a really decisive role when feeding the world and how they interact with each other to get the most out of their functionalities, are going to be explained.
MAIN TECHNOLOGIES APPLIED IN AGRICULTURE:
Technological innovation in the agricultural sector combines many of the most advanced technologies available. That is why this process is so curious to study. To explain these technologies and the way they interact with each other, we have separated them into six blocks according to their functionalities
Big Data and Hardware
Agricultural production is very complex. With the GPS technology and other devices such as sensores, producers can monitor field conditions. They can also track fields and even guide and control different machines. These technological advances allow farmers to know anywhere and at any time the states of their crops, also the irrigation of the different plants.
Moreover Big data is a key factor in Agrotech. The internet is very big and there is information all over the world about when, how and where is the efficient way to plant the different crops. It is very important and it can have different impacts. In this essay we will talk about the different applications that Big data can have in the agriculture sector. If one thing is clear is that the more data we have, the more accurate our predictions will be . Another factor when analysing data is the variable that we take into account and if they are efficient or not. Big data information is very actionable.
One application is weather forecasting, to be able to know where and which crops we should plant.
With Big data we can find a large amount of new capabilities, finding correlations between farm fields and weather commodities. Optimal irrigation, fertilization,harvesting of crops, optimal feeding and shipping of livestock to market.
Also to minimize energy consumption and be able to operate in an efficient way.
Predictive analysis is used to forecast demand for fertilizers, animal feed or seeds in order to match supply with demand and not have excesses. It will also help to have a proactive allocation of supplies and determination of the effect on storage distribution across regions. Understanding the different correlations and effects of even minor weather patents can help to make better business decisions.
Also big data can help enterprises to have an improved analysis of the quality data of the different suppliers and manage in a better way customer experience and satisfaction. With it the enterprise will be able to provide a better customer experience and minimize cost.
Data related to throughput, capacity utilization, and overall equipment effectiveness, can be combined for further analysis for improved quality.
Indoor Vertical Farms, Modern Greenhouses, Automation machines (smart farms)
To meet its demand, farmers and agricultural businesses are turning to the Internet of Things to analyse their business and have more productive and smarter processes.
Farmers are already implementing different techniques to improve efficiency in their day-day work. For example, some of them have different sensors placed in fields that allow farmers to obtain detailed maps of the topography and resources in the area. Also variables like acidity or temperature. They are able to access climate forecasts to predict weather patterns in the future.
Also many farmers have monitorized areas of their farms and are able to control it manually with their smartphones. And can use this data to obtain statistics on their livestock feeding and product which can be used to make predictions for their crops and livestock.
For some farmers, drones are nowadays invaluable, and so they are starting to connect their tractors to the internet in order to create a method to display data about their crop yields.Some companies also have autonomous tractors, this is of course maximizing efficiency.
Figure 4 (Agriculture in Latino America, 2019)
There is new hardware like corn-tending Rowbot that is making strides. It pairs data collection software with robotics to fertilize the corn, after that applies seed cover-crops, finally it collects information in order to maximize yield and minimize waste.
There is a company who is doing RFID tagging for livestock monitoring. With the help of Iot they were able to track and monetise different information.
Milk farm monitoring checks the levels of milk dairy, to see if it is properly maintained or not.
Home gardening, there is one indoor irrigation project that has a list of companies which are doing these products and solutions. They have a remote Control of farm irrigation system
Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence
Remotely controlling motors irrigating fields either with an Android application or DTMF. It is not exactly IOT, however, it is smart agriculture. Automatic tractors and drones are taking care of orchards and fields.
Herbicides have a direct application on human health and also on the environment. Modern Artificial intelligence methods are used to minimize the application of herbicides through proper and precise management of weed.
“Pasqual designed a rule based expert system for identifying and eliminating weed in crops like oats, barley, triticale and wheat. Burks used machine vision with a back propagation trained neural network to identify weeds of five distinct species. Burks compared three different neural network models, mainly back propagation, counter propagation and radial basis function based model with the same set of inputs as the previous paper and found that back propagation network”.
The prediction of the crop yield is very beneficial in marketing strategies and in crop cost estimation. The precision of agricultural factors in order to maximize efficiency can be done with prediction models. We can see the example of a farmer which used an artificial neural network by using a back propagation learning algorithm to predict yield from the soil parameters.
Crop disease is a really important problem for so many farmers. A lot of farmers use their computers in order to detect the different diseases of their plants in order to follow the necessary guidelines to solve it. It serves as a control measure that can end up in reducing a significant cost.
A really good algorithm for it is k-means :
Figure 5 (Kmeans, 2020)
Agricultural Product Monitoring and Storage Control
Apart from pests and diseases monitoring, storage, drying, grading of harvested crops are also very important aspects of agriculture. This section addresses various food monitoring and quality control mechanisms that employ the concept of artificial intelligence. In order to monitor and control storage and be more productive. Organisation is the key of every enterprise and it should be optimized to the maximum.
Figure 6. Agriculture in Latino America. (2019)
Geolocation Services and Drones
The next technology that we will cover is geolocation services and drones. According to Investopedia, ‘Geolocation is the ability to track a device’s whereabouts using GPS, cell phone towers, WiFi access points or a combination of these.’ (Frankenfield, 2021). Geolocation by itself does not have many more applications than tracking your lost phone or sending your Whatsapp location. But, when remote controlling and robots are added to geolocation, then a much wider set of applications becomes available.
This is the case of drones, in case you didn’t know a drone is a type of aircraft that does not have a pilot and is controlled by someone on the ground (Collins Dictionary, 2021). These technologies have important applications in agriculture today. Still, it must be said that they represent an important upgrade in costs and automation but applying the use of flying machines for agricultural purposes is not new. Until the development of these technologies, small planes were used to the tasks that in the very recent past and upcoming future were and will be performed by drones.
Drones have two main applications in the agricultural field:
- Mapping: Mapping is the process of creating and developing precision maps. Precision maps show farmers specific information about the soil or yield regarding a location, for example nutrients levels or maturity of the crop.
Before the arrival of drones, this was done with small planes but it is a really costly process that requires a pilot (highly skilled worker).
Drones have built in GPS and internet connectivity so farmers only need to delimit the area to map and the drone does the job by itself.
Precise mapping and farming is a very relevant tool because when you have information you can take action, watering or fertilizing can be adapted for each part of the land, minimizing inputs while maximizing outputs.
- Crop-dusting: Crop-dusting is spraying some gas from the air on crops. In this case, as drones are becoming more and more powerful they are starting to be able to carry tanks around. Therefore, they can substitute costly planes and pilots in this task that now can be performed autonomously.
The usage of drones in smart farming is expected to grow exponentially during the next 3 years as it can be observed in Drones and geofencing have arrived to deliver better precision, performance Figure 3.and productivity to agriculture.
Figure 9 (Shahbandeh, 2020)
Industry 4.0 & 5G
Another very important technology that you may have already heard about is the industry 4.0 and 5G, as it involves a wide range of technologies that are gaining relevance in our lives daily. Still, in case you don’t know, we will introduce you to them. The Industry 4.0 as defined by professor Klaus Schwab in his book ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ comprises “new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries. These technologies have great potential to continue to connect billions more people to the web and drastically improve the efficiency of business and organizations.” (Schwab, 2017). More specifically, it involves technologies such as the IoT (Internet of Things), The Cloud, Big Data, Automatization, 5G or AI.
These technologies do not only apply to the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, they have great applications also in the primary sector. In this point, we will focus on how IoT and 5G empowers agriculture.
IoT allows for smart farming which is a new farming technology that goes in line with precision agriculture. Agriculture 4.0 will enable farmers to achieve a wide set of modernizations that will increase productivity. These modernizations bring possibilities such as: connected tractors, auto spreading, crop yield analysis, smart data, field monitoring, watering, rate of fertility and diagnosis of diseases.
Figure 10 (BizIntella, 2020)
Despite all the benefits that 5G and IoT brings to agriculture, its implementation is not easy. Agriculture 4.0 is already a reality in some places, but its adoption faces some challenges that farmers and business managers need to overcome. First of all, it requires a very solid infrastructure of telecommunications that is not available in most rural areas. Also, as it is a very recent technology the standard and the dominant design to arrive.
Biotechnology and Genetic
Finally the last technology that we will be covering is biotechnology and genetic engineering. Genetically modified plants are those that have had changes made to their DNA to modify genetic traits.
In the case of applications to agriculture, genetic engineering increases crop yields while at the same time it reduces costs. It not only can enhance the plant’s DNA structure to be more resistant to plagues and diseases, but also adding and reinforcing nutrients..Modifying the plant’s DNA may seem still like science fiction, but as the following table illustrates, there are already plants commercially approved whose DNA has been altered.
Table 1: Genetic Modified Traits Commercially Approved
|Genetically Conferred Trait||Example Organism||Genetic Change|
|Herbicide tolerance||Soybean||Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) tolerance conferred by expression of a glyphosate-tolerant form of the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS) isolated from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, strain CP4|
|Insect resistance||Corn||Resistance to insect pests, specifically the European corn borer, through expression of the insecticidal protein Cry1Ab from Bacillus thuringiensis|
|Altered fatty acid composition||Canola||High laurate levels achieved by inserting the gene for ACP thioesterase from the California bay tree Umbellularia californica|
|Virus resistance||Plum||Resistance to plum pox virus conferred by insertion of a coat protein (CP) gene from the virus|
Figure 11 (Phillips, 2008)
This revolution does not stay only on the productor’s side, genetically modified plants will also disrupt the consumer industry. As Datta concludes in the Agriculture and Food Security Journal, ‘The sustainable integration of conventional agricultural practices with modern biotechnology can enable the achievement of food security for present and future generations.’ (Datta, 2013).
Once the most important technologies have been explained, what is its real impact in the world? What are their objectives regarding sustainability? To answer this, the following paragraphs will explain the relation between Agrotech with the 2030 Agenda’s sustainable goals.
SUSTAINABILITY GOALS 2030 RELATED TO AGRICULTURE
As we have seen before, by applying agrotechnologies we reduce the gas emissions. Also more of the energy that is used for agrotech practices comes from renewable energy. Even if many experts ensure that agrotechnologies can in some way increase the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the majority of them have proven that this is false.
Technologies in agriculture, first big data in order to know where and what is more efficient and more beneficial for the ecosystem. Also knowing in which time of the year we are, use of artificial intelligence to automatized everything with neural networks in order to reduce the manforce and use renewable machines powered with renewable energy will contribute to achieve somo of the sustainable of objectives as clean water, non-polluting energy, decent occupation and economic growth, sustainable cities, climate action, earth ecosystems. So agrotech contributes in some way to all these objectives.
Figure 12 (Global Health, 2018)
Impact of renewable energy in agriculture mission
Climate Change Synthesis Report (2014) shows that 25 percent of the world GHG is caused by electricity and heat production. These rapid environmental challenges have urged researchers and policy makers to pay special attention toward developing renewable energy, modernizing agricultural practices and increasing forest land. Indeed, the GHG emission can be reduced by shifting electricity generation from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. Similarly, for agriculture, methods of irrigation can be shifted from non-renewable to renewable energy sources for a carbon neutral environment. And forest management helps to maintain and value environmental quality as well as social and economic benefits that we avail through them.
Modern agriculture methods such as tunnel farming, organic farming, solar tube wells for irrigation are adopted mainly in irrigated areas devoted to vegetables and fruits. The large farms are found to adopt these modern agriculture methods to reduce the manpower, increase production and to help to decrease GHG emissions. However traditional farming methods are also responsible for GHG emissions. Many studies have examined the relationship between renewable energy consumption and CO2 emission.
Figure 13 (Relentless of Renewables, 2020)
How could this be addressed and managed to get it done?
So by applying the different technologies in agriculture, first big data in order to know where and what is more efficient and more beneficial for the ecosystem. Also knowing in which time of the year we are, use of artificial intelligence to automate everything with neural networks in order to reduce the manforce and use renewable machines powered. Also by thinking that when we develop new technologies, we should develop them being renewable. And trying that it helps the ecosystem where we live. We have so many techniques as we have seen during the whole paper.
Up to this point we have seen a broad range of technologies and the importance of the agrotech implementation in the development of the agricultural sector and by extension to the whole humanity food production chains. Once all this has been stated as we see it, it is really important to analyse real cases in order to see how agrotech is actually used and the benefits that this brings to the businesses that adopt these techniques. We will take in this case as example one of the leading companies in our country in terms of agricultural technology implementation, bodegas Emilio Moro.
Bodegas Emilio Moro was established as a large-scale wine marketer company in 1988, although it is true that the history of this winery is already contemplated by three generations. Emilio Moro was born in the winemaking environment surrounding the town of Pesquera del Duero. Although this is a house with strong respect for their traditions, this has not stopped the management from improving the techniques inherited by its ancestors and making them to be one of the most cutting edge winemakers not just in our country but worldwide.
In terms of Agrotech implementation this company started their transformation from traditional agricultural practices with an expert partner on the field. They signed an agreement together with Telefónica Territorio Centro iin 2016 . This initiative, as José Moro; the current manager, said,is in line with its “strong commitment” to R+D+I. In this way, both entities were committed to working on the integration of new technologies in the intelligent management of the vineyard, moving towards the digital transformation of the sector but respecting tradition. “We use innovation to reinforce tradition,” he said.
The core of this strategy was VisualNacert, one of the applications in the agrotech sector promoted by Wayra, Telefónica’s technology startup accelerator. This company provides services for farmers with an easy to use application that is integrated as any other ERP tool. Nevertheless the infrastructure behind the simple design of the app includes elements from different high-end elements in the agrotech sector.
The application gives the user the capability to put in correspondence the public climatological information, with the data that is received by different sensors from the crops, in order to maximize the quality of the production and take measures on time when extreme climate changes happen (as the recent freezing this winter). This data is only capable of being obtained thanks to the network of sensors that are distributed through the grape fields, once the data is obtained as a big collection of measurements it is treated thanks to different algorithms in order to predict the final correct crop yield and the monitoring of the plants.
Figure 14. Agrotech 2021. (2021)
The introduction of these technologies proved to be a great success for the company and so they followed their commitment and two years later they signed a contract with Vodafone, introducing a new level of sophistication .
Through Vodafone’s ‘Sensing4Farming’ solution, a network of sensors was installed in the vineyards replacing the old ones. This was combined with high-resolution multispectral satellite images captured during the entire vegetative cycle of the harvest, making it possible to measure key environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, soil conductivity and water absorption, as well as the vigor and health of the vines themselves.
Using artificial intelligence and the application of Big Data-based technologies, this data is mapped and processed using a platform that integrates geospatial data, and then sent to winegrowers via mobile tools in the cloud. The solution allows these growers to establish the ideal amount of irrigation and fertilizer to use on their vines, decide which areas need to be pruned or the optimal harvest time.
The sensors deployed in the field use NB-IoT connectivity that allows the use of long-lasting batteries or small, very low-power solar panels. In this sense, NB-IoT significantly improves energy consumption in the wireless transmission of information compared to the previous Telefonica network.
Nowadays and after all these improvements they are recognized to be one of the most agrotech vineyards in the world and they have even created their own competition “The Emilio Toro innovation prizes” to innovative firms in the agrotech sector. In the words of their director, Jose Moro “As the techniques used by our ancestors were based on intuition and were passed through generations, ours came from investigation and will be the future traditions”.