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The direction of Agritech Part 2 – The Fourth Agricultural Revolution

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  • Post published:February 16, 2022
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The Direction of Agritech Part 2 – The 4th Agricultural Revolution

This Article is part of a 3 part series looking at the trends in global agriculture. Click here to read Part 1

As the demand on food production increases and resource availability declines, the global farming community is under pressure to do more with less. A fourth agricultural revolution is needed to ensure food security within the limits of our planet’s resources. However, there will not be a single point in time when this revolution occurs, but an evolution of technologies and techniques over many years. This is already underway on farms around the world. 

In part 1, we identified the trends of previous agricultural revolutions:

  1. Increase in total global food output to ensure food security;
  2. Increase in efficiency of food production to reduce labour and land requirements;
  3. An evolution in logistics and markets to manage the increase in production; and
  4. Impact through adoption, as new techniques and technological advances are adopted by the industry, and then become accessible and scalable resulting in wide reaching uptake. 

Whilst this is quite a simplification, we can follow these same macro trends up to the present day and see how they are continuing into the fourth agricultural revolution. 

Food security 

As with previous agricultural revolutions, the need to provide more food for a growing population is the driver for change in the agricultural ecosystem. Consensus is forming around a global population peak of approximately 10 billion people by 2050, and following current trends we can also expect an increasing calorie intake per capita. Whilst some estimates suggest that there is currently sufficient food available to sustain this population, it is unlikely that distribution channels will enable an even spread of production to the populations that require it. 

On top of this, demands for food quality are increasing, and wealth disparity is resulting in significant food waste in every part of the supply chain. As evidence of this, in the current population of around 8 billion people, it is estimated that one in 9 are hungry or undernourished, and the pressures on food production are only increasing. One core focus of the fourth agricultural revolution is to be more efficient and less wasteful through our use of data in production, ensure more food of high quality is produced through the use of big data, business mindsets and emerging technologies.

Efficiency 

Whilst all agricultural revolutions have resulted in increased production efficiency, there are new and challenging drivers for efficiency this time. For the first time in human history, we are reaching the limits of various resources and environmental tolerances, for instance: 

  • Croppable land available worldwide;
  • Fresh water pressure;
  • Fertiliser pressure;
  • Pest and disease pressure;
  • Impacts of pesticides and herbicides; 
  • Labour shortages in primary production; and
  • An ever-changing and unpredictable climate.

All of these pressures require an increase in production efficiency to reduce the resource demands and environmental impact of food production. 

In many cases, our current techniques are using non-replenishing resources to sustain the current level of production, and a revolution is needed to ensure that sufficient resources remain for future generations. The 4th agricultural revolution is not just about efficiency of yields, but also efficiency of resources, with regenerative and sustainable agriculture now an absolute necessity.

Logistics and Markets

Whilst this is a huge topic which cannot be fully covered here, the global supply chains that have become ubiquitous in the modern world are a key part to the 4th agricultural revolution. The effect of this can already be seen, with cargo ships responding to daily market data by adjusting the temperature of refrigeration during fruit transport, thereby ensuring fruit of the correct ripeness arrives at port to serve the market’s needs. 

Moreover, technology is now available to track produce from farm to fork, creating greater transparency and incredibly rich data that can prime the entire supply chain. There are now billions of data points readily available from sensors on satellites, drones, robots and in the field. With near instantaneous communication of data, it will soon be possible to manage markets, optimise logistics, lock in prices and ensure supply long before the harvest begins. 

Technological Advances

In the 3rd (Green) agricultural revolution, human muscle was replaced by mechanisms, and human decision making was supported by scientific techniques and business strategy. This combination allowed the rapid changes needed to address the needs of the population and increase the efficiency of production. 

In the 4th agricultural revolution, human observations are being replaced by automated data gathering, and human decision making is being supported by big data techniques and artificial intelligence insights. With these advances in technology, we believe it really is possible to deliver the rapid changes needed to balance the new pressures on food production in the 21st century. 

Anyone familiar with the Outfield platform will recognise the trends identified above in our approach. Our ambition is to help bring about the 4th agricultural revolution by:

  1. Helping growers better understand their orchards and production, increasing output to ensure food security;
  2. Informing precision interventions to increase efficiency of resource use, and maximise viable fruit production to reduce waste and increase yields per ha, and per tonne of CO2;
  3. Increasing the accuracy of forecasting to inform the supply chain, improving logistics and planning to ensure fruit arrives where it’s needed; and
  4. Adopting and modifying cutting edge imaging and machine learning technologies from other sectors, then using low cost, universally available drone systems and cloud computing to ensure scalability, accessibility, and wide reaching uptake.

In part 3 of this series we will look more closely at technologies that are being deployed as part of the 4th agricultural revolution, from robotic sprayers to parametric data in insurance. 

References: https://online.ucpress.edu/elementa/article/doi/10.1525/elementa.310/112838/Current-global-food-production-is-sufficient-to#T1