Technology is ‘disrupting’ agriculture and will bring benefits to 21st century farmers

Technology is changing the face of agriculture by enabling farmers to increase production, reduce costs and streamline activity across the entire agricultural value chain to help ensure that long-term food security is maintained, says Standard Bank.

Termed “disruptive technologies” because they are changing the way that food has been produced for generations, Nico Groenewald, Head of Agribusiness at Standard Bank, says that technology is also transforming the farmer. A successful farmer today, he says must be technically savvy and ready to adopt the constant stream of agricultural innovations that are being introduced to the market.

“Given that business, in general, is changing rapidly it is natural that technology introduced for other purposes is now being adapted to meet the needs of farmers. The prime example- and possibly the most significant disruptor to enter the agricultural sector is “blockchain”. Introduced originally to facilitate global trade in cryptocurrencies, the record-keeping system can now be used by farmers and even traders conducting global trading in agricultural products.

“The world’s first agriculturally-based blockchain transaction took place in December 2016 with the sale of about 23 tons of wheat. Since then, more than 1.6 million tons of crops worth US $ 360 million have been moved over the cloud using blockchain.

Other technologies that have already begun changing the face of agriculture are:

• Three-dimensional printing (3D). This can now being used to manufacture replacement parts for farm implements and vehicles. This not only enables farmers to keep vehicles operational for longer, reducing fleet costs but also reduces downtime and loss of productivity. The past when farmers relied on machinery distributors located in distant towns to order and deliver parts could become something of the past.

• Veterinary applications enable lightweight casts to be made ‘on-site’ to support the limbs of injured cattle. To veterinary surgeons, this means reduced cost and less need to keep stocks of rarely used appliances in stock on a “just in case” basis.

• Robots are already transforming operations on some farms. With their ability to operate consistently and perform repetitive tasks to a high degree of accuracy, robots are freeing up farm labourers who can now take on more productive jobs that offer a higher return for the farmer. Robots are also reducing labour costs and vastly extending operational times on farms.

• Of special interest to South Africa’s wine farmers are the ‘wine bots’ that are in being used internationally to prune vines. Other specifically developed bots could in the foreseeable future be a common sight in fields and performing tasks like herding cattle, mixing animal feeds to set requirements and even changing up milking machines.

• In fields, spraying and weeding robots could contribute to save costs and preserving the environment by reducing agrichemical use by up to 90%.

• Drones with their ability to fly in confined spaces and fly set patterns are already being accepted for their ability to fly over and observe fields during growing seasons. This functionality has been extended to collecting information on soil and analysis, planting, crop spraying and monitoring, irrigation and assessing the health of plants and fertiliser applications.

• Sensors are capable of dozens of functions across farms and can be used to undertake specialised work with livestock, or crops. Their advantage is that they are relatively cheap and can do air, water and oil analysis, with information automatically being downloaded on laptops.

Wearable sensors have been developed for cattle. As they move around the fields, the sensors monitor and deliver information ranging from the location of a particular animal through to animal health and increasing calving rates.

One range of sensors, which come into play after harvesting, can track food from the field to shop. The buyer is then able to follow the ‘history’ of the product he is purchasing. For farmers, this reflects the faith they have in their products and increases levels of consumer trust in the purchase.

• Artificial Intelligence, which is often portrayed as ‘thinking computers’ are already hard at work in agriculture where they absorb data from sensors and convert the information for farmers.

Being intelligent, these computers could eventually take over functions that include problem-solving. Data from these machines can be used in applications ranging from monitoring and tracking animals, to identifying potential issues that could arise in crop production.

“Recently, the World Bank identified several trends are helping transform agriculture in Africa. Based on cell phones, applications in Nigeria and Kenya allow farmers to hire affordable tractors to work their land, increasing their yields by up to 200%.  Solar refrigerators are also becoming more popular in Kenya and are helping dairy farmers reduce milk spoilage.

“There is no doubt that farmers in South Africa who do not evaluate trends could find themselves being left behind in the future production race. Investment in technology can be undertaken on an as-needed basis with farmers introducing agritech as it becomes necessary. There is no doubt, however, that adopting appropriate systems will become essential tools in farmers’ battles to contain costs and boost yields,” says Groenewald.

The South African Pork Producers’ Organisation (SAPPO) coordinates industry interventions and collaboratively manages risks in the value chain to enable the sustainability and profitability of pork producers in South Africa.