What’s The Give and Take With Big Tech And Agriculture?
How Advanced Technology Can Help the World’s Growing Food Problem
Big tech companies have immersed themselves in the agricultural industry to leverage their advanced technologies, improving farming practices, increasing productivity, and addressing the growing demand for food worldwide. Agriculture has been a relatively traditional and low-tech industry, but it is now being transformed by integrating advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data analytics.
These new technologies are creating opportunities for companies to develop innovative solutions that can improve agricultural productivity, reduce waste, and increase sustainability. But is there a hidden cost to big tech having too much influence and control over our food supply?
The Need to Increase Food Production
One of the primary reasons big tech companies are getting involved in agriculture is the growing demand for food worldwide. The United Nations projects the global population to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, which will require a 70% increase in food production. In addition, changing dietary patterns, increasing urbanization, and climate change are putting further pressure on food production systems. This demand for food presents a significant opportunity for big tech companies to develop innovative solutions to address these challenges.
Not Just for Big Tech
You can thank iconic farm equipment manufacturer John Deere for paving the way for contemporary autonomous vehicles, and for opening the door for technology solutions on the farm. The 200-year-old U.S. company is fast becoming a world leader in Agri-tech. The company has invested heavily in robotics and autonomous equipment since the 1990s. After acquiring GPS start-up NavCon in order to develop satellite directed farm equipment, John Deere later partnered with NASA on the first highly accurate internet-based GPS tracking system for farming.
Gathering and Applying Data
Big tech companies have the advantage of their experience in handling big data, which is becoming increasingly important in agriculture. Using IoT and sensors on farms generates vast amounts of data, which can optimize farming practices and increase yields. Big tech companies have expertise in data analytics, and they can use this experience to develop advanced algorithms and models that can analyze large volumes of data quickly and accurately.
For example, Microsoft is building up a digital farming platform called Azure FarmBeats that operates through the company’s massive, global cloud technology, Azure. The platform provides farmers with real-time data and analysis on the condition of their soils and water, the growth of their crops, and status with pests and diseases. Software can incorporate weather forecasts and climatic changes farms face over time.
The information and quality of advice provided to farmers depends on how much accurate data Microsoft can harvest and analyze with algorithms. To do this, Microsoft is partnering with leading farm drone and sensory device companies, as well as those with machinery apps that can receive and act upon the information transmitted from FarmBeats. This means equipment like high-tech tractors, fertilizer applicators and pesticide-spraying drones interconnect through the Azure cloud.
Sustainable agriculture has the challenge of feeding a growing world population while reducing negative effects on the environment. Sustainable farming practices are becoming increasingly important as the industry seeks to reduce its environmental impact, and technology plays a key role.
Conventional farming relies on tillage, inefficient application of chemicals, nutrient and sediment runoff and declining soil quality. Digital and artificial intelligence technologies can solve these problems. One example is the use of precision agriculture, which involves the use of sensors and data analytics to optimize resource usage and reduce waste, which can help farmers achieve sustainability goals.
However, agriculture is not just made up of industrial mega-farms. There are many small, independent farms which face barriers to adopting high-tech solutions, which can hamper widespread adoption. Researchers at the University of Illinois studying adoption of new farming technology found farmers are cautious of adopting new technology until the benefits have been demonstrated and uncertainties have been reduced. Cost is a barrier, and there is a lack of programs to cover the cost of converting to sustainable agriculture methods.
If big tech companies wish to have a heavy hand in the future of agriculture, many analysts conclude they must also diligently work with smaller farming operations to develop solutions that are affordable and accessible, as well as easy to use and understand.
Easing Labor Shortages
Agricultural work is often physically demanding and requires long hours, making it difficult to attract and retain workers. Hi-tech resources can help address some of the labor shortages that the industry faces. By automating some of the more repetitive and physically demanding tasks, such as weeding and harvesting, technology can help reduce the labor required and improve working conditions for farmers.
Profit and Control Factors
The use of technology enhances efficiencies, leading to lower costs and higher profits for farmers. The lucrative business of Agri-tech apps has exploded in the past few years, helping agricultural producers decide more accurately what to plant and when, how much to spray, when to harvest and other critical decisions.
There are also mega mergers occurring frequently among agribusinesses. This includes seed and agrichemical companies like Bayer (who purchased Monsanto), animal genetics and farm machinery, and also extends to processing and retail sectors. Some feel massive conglomerates have too much control, spurring policy and legislative proposals to put the brakes on acquisitions and mergers in the food and agriculture sector.
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On the big tech side, corporate actions are not based on altruism. Big tech companies such as Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, and investors, stand to make big profits by expansion of cloud-based platforms that allow farmers to access data, apps and analytics tools. Agribusinesses, such as those providing robotic and AI controlled machinery, will have to lease their digital infrastructure from one of the big tech cloud services to tap into a host of AI, IoT and big data services. Amazon is keen to circumvent middlemen in the food supply chain, as evidenced by its expansion into auto delivery and automated grocery stores, in addition to their cloud services.
Amid growing concerns that big tech has too much influence in agribusiness, they also largely ignore the 500 million or so small farms operating globally. From Grain, a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems:
“Yes, digital technologies can be made to work for farmers, consumers, farm workers and the environment. But technology does not develop in a bubble; it is shaped by money and power– both of which are extremely concentrated in the tech sector. In an era where only a few corporations hold unprecedented control over data, communications and the food system, digital agriculture will evolve in ways that reinforce their power and profits- unless we organize to actively prevent this from happening.”
Grain’s opinion is that high-tech applications, like driverless tractors and pesticide spraying drones, are not being developed for small farms, many of which don’t have the capacity to do extensive field testing. In remote areas, there is minimal or no extension service support or central collection of field data.
A Cautious Summary
Big tech companies are getting involved in agriculture to leverage their advanced technologies to improve farming practices, increase productivity, address the growing demand for food worldwide, and reap financial rewards. Using technologies such as AI, IoT, and big data analytics is transforming the agricultural industry and creating opportunities for companies to develop innovative solutions that can improve sustainability, reduce waste, and increase efficiency. Although Big tech companies are making a significant impact in agriculture, they would be wise to work in supportive collaboration with family and small farms, and not cause the demise of operations that have been the backbone of our rural communities.