The Internet of Tractors? How digital technologies are impacting the way we grow and distribute food
By Gwendolen Deboe and Marie-Agnes Jouanjean, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate
In September 2017, the world’s first entirely machine-operated crop was harvested, having been sown and tended without a human ever entering the field. This milestone illustrates the cutting edge of digital agriculture – sometimes known as “smart farming”, or “e-agriculture”.
In fact, there is a wide range of innovations promising to substantially change the way we grow and distribute food, fibre and fuel: using satellite data to monitor crop growth, land quality, water resources, or other environmental outcomes; combining sensors, automated farm machinery and advanced analytics software to fine-tune and automate agricultural production; machine learning to automate agronomic advisory services and using digital technology to connect farmers in new ways; and experimenting with blockchain technology and other innovative data management systems to improve efficiency and transparency of agri-food value chains. Together, all of these developments hold the promise of achieving more resilient, productive and sustainable agriculture and food systems and enabling comprehensive farm-to-fork traceability.
At the core of this innovation lies the increasing capacity to capture, analyse and exchange agricultural data. However, the spectrum of digital applications in agriculture and food sectors is broad – from low-tech solutions that use mobile devices and platforms, to high-tech “digital farms” that make use of integrated systems involving satellites, drones, robotics, sensors and big data analytics.
Whether low- or high-tech, being able to make effective use of digital applications requires a great many things. For example, data collection technologies need to be adopted and deployed, in particular in remote rural areas where connectivity issues persist. Data also needs to be shared with people and machines capable of analysing it, meaning that systems and protocols are needed to exchange data while maintaining their integrity and safeguarding individuals’ privacy or commercially sensitive information. Finally, services using this data for the production of information need to be available to farmers and other stakeholders along agri-food supply chains.
Reaping the benefits of digital technologies in agriculture requires the participation and co-operation of farmers, researchers, private sector, non-profits and government. But these actors often have different interests and face different incentives. Moreover, digitalisation might change the industrial organisation within the agriculture supply chain, including to create space for new actors.
Governments now have the opportunity to shape public policy and regulatory settings in ways that can facilitate the opportunities offered by digital technologies. However, in evaluating whether existing policy and regulatory settings are “fit-for-purpose”, many policy questions still need answers.
For example, do existing legal frameworks provide adequate clarity about who owns, or who can access, agricultural data? What role is there for governments to set standards ensuring interoperability between devices and systems in the sector? Should policy makers opt for sector-specific approaches for agriculture, or is a braoder digitalisation strategy able to meet the sector's needs? Is there a need for governments to invest in digital technologies for sector-specific infrastructure, such as sensor networks, beyond supporting rural telecommunications and broadband? How can private sector innovation and engagement in agriculture best be encouraged and the benefits of innovation shared?
Digital technologies can also be an opportunity for governments to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing policies and programmes, and to design better ones. For instance, freely available and high-quality satellite imagery dramatically reduces the cost of monitoring many agricultural activities. This could allow governments to redesign agricultural policies by moving toward more targeted policies or designing policies which pay (or penalise) farmers based on observed outcomes, in particular to address agri-environmental issues. Governments could also use digital traceability systems to streamline customs processes, food safety and animal welfare assessments, or to design new types of consumer-based policies aimed at improving the sustainability of agri-food systems.
There are many issues to be explored and debated and ways forward identified to ensure a policy environment that maximises digital opportunities along the agri-food value chain. To this end, the OECD is working to provide practical advice to governments that supports discussions on sound policy and regulatory settings to address the challenges of digitalisation in agriculture and food, and that helps them to embrace digital technologies as a way toward better policy making.
This month, the Organisation will host a Global Forum in Paris on “Digital Technologies in Food and Agriculture: Reaping the benefits”, where participants will discuss recent developments in the sector, and explore the role of governments in enabling beneficial changes. This event is expected to help the OECD define a strategic plan in this area going forward.