Resilience, efficiency and sustainability: three axes of digital transformation for the agricultural sector

The agricultural sector has an opportunity to move towards efficiency and sustainability by leveraging digital technologies. The use of Big Data, cloud data processing, satellite imagery, and IoT technologies such as sensors, autonomous vehicles, and drones can improve decision-making, increase efficiency in irrigation and livestock management, reduce waste, and contribute to sustainability. Digital technologies also make it possible to monitor gas emissions and provide transparency in the supply chain through Blockchain. The adoption of these technologies provides competitive advantages in the agricultural market.

The agricultural industry faces multiple challenges at the same time. Digital technologies are helping to face the situation and add value to the business.

In a scenario that changes the rhythm of business without pause, agriculture is facing a historic opportunity: through research, development and innovation, the sector can move towards an increasingly efficient and sustainable future, taking advantage of the new possibilities offered by the digital ecosystem to an ancestral activity of humanity.

There are multiple challenges facing the sector: on the one hand, it is expected that in the future the increase in the population -estimated at 9.700 million by 2050- will increase the demand for food; on the other, the industry is facing the consequences of climate change, rising costs of labor and raw materials, and water scarcity. 

In this context, Spain approved at the beginning of this year the fourth PERTE (Strategic Project for the Economic Recovery and Transformation of the Spanish economy) with a focus on the agroindustry. The second of the 3 lines of action of PERTE will allocate 454.35 million euros for the digital adaptation of the agents of the value chain and will have 10 lines of action. To promote R&D in this industry, 148.56 million euros and five lines of action are foreseen.

The truth is that digital technologies are contributing to the agricultural sector successfully facing the great situations of today.

On the one hand, if what is sought is to increase the resilience of the sector, Big Data can be used to extract data on changes in the climate, consumer demand, inventory levels to balance supply and demand in the chain. agricultural supply. The processing and subsequent visualization of this data represents a valuable aid, allowing crops to be managed more efficiently and reducing the application of agricultural products. 

On the other hand, the processing of historical harvest data stored in the cloud can be analyzed to allow optimal decision making in the future. In addition, cloud solutions can provide companies with great processing power to use farm management systems and share data throughout the value chain.

The use of satellite images (#computervision) is also very useful, since it allows obtaining information on the physical phenomena that occur on the earth's surface and that directly affect production. The transformation of satellite images to certain indices and data facilitates -again- the work of specialists for decision making.

Secondly, increasing agricultural efficiency is also an urgent need for the industry considering that the Covid-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the sector such as shortages, mainly due to the lack of resilience of the supply chain. .

In this sense, IoT technologies are very useful, for example, in the case of irrigation: irrigation systems such as SDI (subsurface drip irrigation) can detect humidity and supply the required water directly to the roots of the crop. These systems significantly increase process efficiency and reduce water consumption.

IoT is also useful for livestock management: sensors can also be used to monitor temperature and humidity levels on the farm to provide information to maintain the health of these animals. In addition, there are devices that can scan the food and send nutritional reports directly to the farmers' mobile phones. 

As for autonomous vehicles and smart farm robots, they are used for efficient harvesting. Automation in agriculture can lead to a significant reduction in waste, labor costs and can increase operational speed. 

Drones are another technology of great advantage for field monitoring: drones are a cheaper alternative to aerial surveys of farms with helicopters. They provide efficient analyzes to farmers regarding damage to fields and soil conditions leading to optimal decision making at reduced cost.

It is worth noting the contribution of digital technologies in terms of agricultural sustainability, given that the sector continues to be one of the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Again, IoT-enabled sensors can accurately monitor harmful gases produced on the farm and provide advanced analytics for carbon emissions reporting and insights.

In addition, telemetry uses GPS to provide accurate asset management and usage information, including fuel usage, upcoming maintenance, and downtime.

Blockchain also offers alternatives: unaltered information on ethical practices and carbon emissions can be accessed throughout the supply chain, enabling transparency and trust. 

Agribusiness is undergoing a transformation process and producers who adopt technologies will have advantages in the market. In this sense, technology has proven to be a great ally for the sector, although from now on, transforming such an ancestral and artisanal industry entails a profound change in the culture of this sector: from the owners of agricultural companies to owners of fields and workers and producers.

Julio Cesar Blanco – March 9, 2023

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