Farming goes digital: the 3rd Green Revolution

The growing capacity of smart machines to turn data into useful, timely knowledge is becoming a key driver of sustainable productivity growth in agriculture

Farming is often seen as very traditional, particularly in today’s highly urbanised societies. In fact, farmers have always embraced change and today are using increasingly advanced technologies. A greater understanding of genetics has improved the seed breeding process and precision farming – using satellite sensors to tailor treatments for small areas of fields – has improved productivity while reducing the use of fertilizer and pesticides. Now comes the next stage. It may surprise some people, but farming is entering the digital age.

The constant quest for farmers is for larger and more predictable harvests from the same fields, while minimising the use of expensive fertilizers and chemicals and spending as little time as possible in the field. This means an increasing reliance on sophisticated farm machinery which allows farmland to be ploughed, seeded, weeded, tended and harvested very efficiently.

The advent of GPS satellites allowed tractors and harvesters to be guided accurately, and other satellite-based sensors let farmers map soil moisture content or their crop’s development in detail. Farmers have always understood their land and how to manage it, but systems like this have helped them get the best from each field down to the individual square metre.

But that’s not the end of the story. As computing power has blossomed – we now all have smart phones with the power of a supercomputer of a few decades ago – so has the capacity to gather and analyse data. This has ushered in the era of Big Data, where novel ways have been found to make use of the vast amount of information available.

Smart machines – turning data into knowledge
Data has little value until it can be turned into knowledge, but the more data you have, the more knowledge you can create and apply. Just as Google cracked the problem of trawling through billions of Internet pages to find the ones we want to read, so agricultural suppliers and machinery manufacturers can do the same with data on weather and soil conditions.

Machinery suppliers now have their own IT whizz kids who have developed ways for data on weather, soil, seed and fertilizer to be used to manage farms much more efficiently at the touch of a screen.

At one time, a farmer had no choice but to walk his fields and hope to pick up pest or disease problems in time to limit the damage done. Entire fields were sprayed, sometimes just as a precaution, which was wasteful and costly. Today, a farmer can send up a drone to survey his crops and pick up problems in small areas, which can be nipped in the bud before they spread.

Sensors can also be mounted on tractors or other farm machinery and, combined with a database of weather patterns, can be used to help farmers plant the right seed at the right time to ensure a high yield. Other sensors can manage the machinery itself to make sure it operates efficiently, to communicate with other pieces of kit or even to order spare parts. Livestock farmers can benefit from the Big Data revolution as well. Already, automatic milking is becoming normal. Now, farmers can use sensors which tell them directly when their cows are ready for artificial insemination and when they are about to give birth.

The ability not just to collect vast amounts of data but now to analyse it to provide useful, timely knowledge provides another key tool for today’s farmer. If agriculture cannot feed the growing population – especially a more prosperous one which consumes more meat – then there is no sustainable future for society. Farmers need all the help they can get to get the best from their land, season after season. 

A digital revolution in the making
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the first green revolution used clever plant breeding to vastly increase the yield of rice and wheat at a time when the world struggled to feed a population half the size of today’s. The second revolution is still in progress. This is the application of our rapidly-expanding knowledge of plant and animal genetics and ability to tweak genes to improve important traits.

And now, with hardly any public recognition as yet, comes the third of these green revolutions, the digital one, which allows farmers to make the most of the potential offered by plant and animal breeders. The key is the ability to get the best out of each square metre of soil, even each individual plant, rather than simply get a reasonable average across a whole field.

This digital revolution may just have started in Europe and the USA but, as costs continue to fall, we can foresee developing countries embracing the same changes before too long. With such a large yield gap to bridge, the third green revolution may be just what the third world needs to guarantee food security.