Liam Condon Thirty years ago, only a few people might have guessed that satellite imaging would enable Florida farmers monitor their citrus crops. This is just one example where digital farming is helping farmers to strike back – against weather volatility, increased resistances, pests or plant diseases and even market changes. I’m glad the two of us can exchange our thoughts today on how agricultural solutions and technological advances can facilitate the lives of farmers around the world.
Josef Schmidhuber Yes, we need to create a variety of ways to support farmers with all the challenges they face. In one of our recent FAO studies, we found out that farmers in 2050 will need to produce almost 50 percent more food, feed and biofuel than they did in 2012, but for the sake of the planet this will need to happen in an environmentally sustainable manner. From my perspective, technological progress is a key contributor to agricultural sustainability.
Liam Condon Great point. At Bayer, we’re committed to innovation and advancing technology. We go beyond developing new seeds and protecting crops. With advances in technology like digital farming, we intend to offer farmers faster, more accurate methods of monitoring plants and help them make better decisions. Solutions like precision applications make it easy for farmers to keep track of relevant information. The target is that each field zone gets the exact amount of crop protection treatment it needs – at the right time, in the right place. Along with healthy plant growth, this technology saves the farmers’ resources, which has both economic and environmental benefits.
We need to look at a farmer’s individual situation and tailor technologies to his or her specific requirements.
Josef Schmidhuber The field of robotics is also demonstrating promise. In the next 10 to 50 years, we could see robotics making major inroads into agriculture. Some of these applications should not be limited to top-notch farming operations with large rectangular plots. Swarms of small robots could do the weeding or harvest fruits and vegetables, hops or wine. But it’s a challenge to ensure that the world in general – and food and agriculture companies in particular – invest enough in research and development in this field.
Liam Condon I completely agree with you. And there’s still a difference between technology’s promise and reality. The technological benefits are key. Farmers have to know how to use these technologies and whether the tools fit their needs. So we need to look at a farmer’s individual situation and tailor technologies to his or her specific requirements in a user-friendly manner.
Josef Schmidhuber Exactly. What means that a successful precision agriculture-based approach for a large-scale US farmer is not necessarily suitable for smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa.
Liam Condon Yes – we need to find less capital-intensive solutions for developing countries, but the digital revolution will also benefit smallholders, even if the approaches used are different than in developed countries.
Josef Schmidhuber In this regard, a key issue is that technology and the benefits from technical progress are not scale-neutral. Larger scale operations are typically more capital-intensive and stand to benefit more from technological progress.
Technological progress is a key contributor to agricultural sustainability.
Liam Condon Which is why we need to be more creative in how we approach technology for all farmers, and ensure that the solutions we offer are both practical and affordable.
Josef Schmidhuber I agree. Making new technologies available requires not only investment, but also creativity. A new opportunity to lower income gaps between rich and poor countries has recently arisen, by using a technology that’s not yet in the agricultural mainstream – blockchain technology. Blockchains are better known for the transformations they brought in the financial sector. The best-known instance of a blockchain technology tool in use is probably Bitcoin, the digital currency. In essence, blockchains are shared digital accounts. In agriculture, blockchains could be used as the underlying technology to facilitate transactions of all sorts, lower costs for sending remittances, trace produce along the value chain or support food safety programs.
Liam Condon I understand that the FAO is currently reviewing the potential of this technology. I would be interested in learning more about the use potential in agriculture.
Josef Schmidhuber There are already successful pilot programs for cadastre systems, which are registers of a country’s real estate; such blockchain based cadastres have been launched in Sweden, Honduras, Georgia and Ghana. Also, commodity contracts are already being facilitated with blockchain technologies, for instance for wheat in Australia. We will publish our findings once we have completed our review.
Liam Condon Another economic and environmental benefit of agri-tech is more progress in breeding. Our scientists use, for example, high-precision monitoring tools to observe which crop efficiency products positively influence test plants. Ultimately, this testing can lead to improved plant varieties and even higher yields. Please let me add another example: We bring about 70 new varieties of vegetable seed to the market each year – each offering farmers at least one new trait that grabs the interest of their customers. Bayer mathematicians have developed a software program that can greatly facilitate this breeding success.
Josef Schmidhuber Breeders in developed countries have long adopted digital technologies, helping them to shorten breeding cycles or to localize varieties down to the district level. This has greatly reduced the costs of testing and tracking results of breeding cycles – their breeding cycles are typically up to five times shorter than for the same crops in Africa.
Liam Condon These are very promising developments for farmers everywhere. Modern technologies and improved market access help them to thrive. They can increase yields and enhance quality in a sustainable way. And this also means we can help shrink the gap between agricultural productivity and income inequality in developed and developing worlds.
Josef Schmidhuber Yes – as incomes are projected to grow also in the future, average consumption levels in developing countries will rise at a faster pace than in developed economies. From my perspective, the gap between developed and developing countries is likely to shrink in the future, at least for basic needs including food and nutrition.
Liam Condon That’s a projection we all want to hear and must be working toward.