How will digitalization change agriculture? (en)

7 juillet 2016
ITC Nouvelles
In the future, farmers are likely to consult other devices than their mobile phones when deciding on which seeds to sow and when

Digitalization is fascinating. Just as we’ve been spellbound by our smartphones in recent years, watching funny videos and sharing pictures of adorable cats, in the future young farmers are likely to don digital glasses or consult devices that will help them analyse their work and make decisions.

This data might be collected by selfpiloted multicopters, or other drones, which examine the state of the field according to empirical formulas and effectively provide specific cultivation tips for individual plants to answer the important questions of the day. A bit more fertilizer here, some of the latest insecticide there? Should the tomato be deprived of water a tiny bit longer so that it develops the perfect flavour? Does Daisy the cow’s temperature indicate that insemination should wait until the afternoon? Can the next purchase of feed pellets be put off until next week after the markets have calmed down?


Agricultural ‘Siris’ are already beginning to answer such queries – even if they are still in the pilot phases. For example, there is a six-legged robot named Prospero [1] roaming test fields in the United States of America and planting individual kernels of corn in exactly the right spot for the plant to take root. And for several years now, Bonirob [2] has been wandering the fields of Germany unassisted, testing the ground and picking weeds that threaten the main crop.

You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to recognize that agriculture is also undergoing rampant digitalization. The automation movement is as inevitable as the tasting of the forbidden fruit. The promises of technology are all too seductive and the promises of greater efficiency entirely too tempting.

Still, just because we want something doesn’t mean that it’s good for us. Diversification and variety trump everything, especially when it comes to agriculture and food. Simplistic, cookie-cutter approaches to solving problems usually reveal considerable weaknesses early on. Food production is a highly complex endeavour: millions of organisms in a single litre of soil affect the development of the crops that grow in it. Likewise, thousands of compounds in the plant affect the cow that eats it. We cannot package everything into a single correct formulas. But is that a reason not to devise any formulas at all?

It may be more important to ask what new formulae should be established next or whether digitalization should aim to reduce costs in the short term or preserve environmental resources in the long term. Compared to the rest of the world, our agricultural practices are very sustainable – whether they carry the organic label or not. Our farmers are highly knowledgeable and competent. This is why we should get involved now and decide which problems should be tackled by future technologies.


What will be left for farmers to do when agriculture is digitalized and automated? Will they simply be reduced to servants of algorithms and machines that require just a few remaining manual manoeuvres or will they take on a new role? I think farmers will primarily assume the role of technically skilled researchers: new diseases will emerge, organisms will migrate and unusual cases and technical problems will arise. They may no longer have to steer the tractors themselves, but in the future they will still have to go out in the fields and into the stable to check the system recommendations, take care of specific tasks and improve systems interactively on an ongoing basis.


In the field of medicine, technical advances have still not supplanted doctors or nurses. Instead, they have made it possible for doctors to deal with more complex diseases as we begin to live longer and often require long-term care. In agriculture, digitalization may in fact make it possible to focus more on the true heroes of the story: the plants and animals. There will be more time to tackle new challenges and more time to advise other farmers in remote places who do not have easy access to education and technology.

Granted, the world doesn’t actually work this way. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if it did? We now have the opportunity to set the course and develop a model for what digitalization should bring to agriculture – instead of waiting to see the toll it will take on agriculture and on us.