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Digitalising agriculture for a sustainable and just future

Adventures of a digital man in America is a column where Peeter Vihma, an Estonian sociologist, filmmaker and author, currently a Fulbright Fellow at Cornell University, NY, is bringing you his personal monthly reports into the American digital economy, government and society.

Agriculture is one of the least digitalised areas in the modern world. As start-ups and tech companies are starting to fill this void surely Estonia’s innovation is right there among the most prominent as VitalFields, a farmers’ digital “field book” with prediction capabilities was just bought by Monsanto, and eAgronom, a tool that simplifies daily and seasonal farm management, is used to manage over 700 000 hectares of land in nine countries.

The competition is of course, ramping up. Being the top university for agriculture, Cornell University has just started an Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA). It is a platform for interdisciplinary collaboration between academia, technology companies, farmers and public sector to foster a pipeline of practical innovations. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Cargill and Trimble are among the collaborators. In other words, it is a big deal.

Prospects of digitalising agriculture

I talked to professor Steven Wolf, one of the leaders of this initiative, who happens to be my supervisor here at Cornell. “We are facing a challenge – how to feed 10 billion people by 2050. This is huge. Considering the pressure on ecosystems already we need a unprecedented shift in how we grow food,” professor Wolf.

“But this is not just about food. We are not applying mental capacity and resources into thinking how the 1% of producers could get more wealthy or 1% of consumers could get fresher apples. It is not the elite that we are worried about. Our contribution should address bigger issues such as sustainability, rural poverty, public health – both in terms of malnutrition and obesity – depending on which part of the world you are looking at. These are the goals worth fighting for,” professor Wolf sets the agenda.

As an example of technology that could be used for these aims, professor Wolf points to nanoparticles developed at Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell University, that are transported into plants with nutrients, which then turn plants themselves into sensors.

“We will be able to monitor with drones or satellites the actual water or nutrient stress levels in plants. No more predicting and calculating using weather forecasts or separate sensors,” says professor Wolf. “This leads to major water saving and reduced pollution.”

In addition to cutting-edge technological innovation, collaboration between actors is a crucial area. “We need to understand that innovation is what happens WITH the producers, not FOR the producers,” professor Wolfe states. “And there are several other actors involved. Farmers are in close dialogue and learn from agrichemical producers, from veterinarians, from tractors manufacturers. The key is to get them into the conversation.”

Easier said than done

Just last week I was at a seminar held by CIDA where professor Katharine Legun from University of Otago, New Zealand, gave a talk (not over Estonian-invented Skype, for some reason, but over Zoom) about how apple farmers are seeing the upcoming innovation through digitalising agriculture. “Farmers generally feel that the change towards more technology-based agriculture is inevitable,” professor Legun explains. “But the question is, who does this benefit and to what result.”

Presenting her research project she elaborated how, for example, apple-picking robots being developed today, apple farmers need to plant and design apple trees in 2D instead of letting them grow more dense. Yet, some farmers are concerned, because they tried this already 20 years ago and this did not result in higher yields. Some farmers with more suitable soils could have an advantage.

“We have also issues with farms on sloping lands or smaller, family-owned farms that cannot make huge investments into technology. So my project is looking into how to co-create future technology with farmers and tech-companies,” professor Legun explains.

The state is an important actor

Although technological innovation mostly happens in cooperation between universities and businesses, the public sector has a huge role. “First, it is the funding they provide,” lists professor Wolf. “With their money towards this kind of research they prove their dedication to solving imminent problems. ” But the public sector has various other ways it can pave the road for achieving a more sustainable and equitable goals through digitalising agriculture.

The public sector can set standards for data management, something where the EU is making good progress. It could play a role in fostering cooperation between smaller farmers and broker negotiations between them and tech companies. Ideally, it could also work towards an all-encompassing digital infrastructure such as in Estonia. “And, of course, our leaders could play a huge role in framing the problem,” professor Wolfe concludes. “Innovation is just a tool. Responsibility towards the future is the real aim.”

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