Nothing Virtual About It: How Digital Tools Are Improving Farmers' Lives
From small farms to large-scale operations, digital tools are transforming agriculture and improving the way millions of farmers around the world protect their crops and their livelihoods.
I’m always interested in people’s perceptions of agriculture. For some, it’s an image straight out of American Gothic, the 1930 painting depicting a pitchfork-wielding farmer and wife, standing stoically in front of their home. For others, it’s a highly mechanized operation full of tractors and large equipment. Such polarized visions suggest that farms must be either large and high-tech, or small and low-tech. But such images are misleading. Just as people from all walks of life are using smartphones, farms of all sizes are adopting digital technologies to protect their crops and livelihoods.
In 2018, I participated in the Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum, an annual event that brings industry leaders together to discuss the issues and opportunities facing agriculture. I was asked to give my views on data-driven farming and address whether digitalization is a genuine breakthrough, or just a lot of hype. As the head of one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, I can say with certainty that digital tools will transform agriculture and improve the way small and large farms do business, both economically and environmentally. In fact, it’s already happening.
"Most people think of farming in its simplest form – planting, growing and harvesting – without realizing that delivering food from the field to the table is extraordinarily complex."
Liam Condon Board of Management of Bayer AG and President Crop Science
Differences in climate, soils, water, nutrients and pests occur not only between fields, but also within them. Before a crop is even harvested, farmers must consider its storage and distribution, while dealing with volatile markets and prices. Since these challenges can vary greatly from place to place, a “one size fits all” management approach won’t work for every farmer. And that’s where digitalization can make a real difference.
New digital technologies are helping to improve on-farm decision-making. For example, just as Facebook can quickly identify photos of friends or family, growers are using a similar facial recognition technology on their phones to identify plant diseases. When combined with predictive models that consider other variables, such as plant susceptibility and weather conditions, farmers can turn real-time data into real-life decisions that can mean the difference between a bountiful harvest or a failed one.
If you’ve ever asked the smart device Alexa about dining options, you know that she gathers and processes information, including restaurant ratings and proximity. Our plant breeders have their own version of Alexa that can process 1.7 trillion permutations per second, which they use to supplement their years of experience. By combining breeder knowledge with our cloud-based algorithms, we can ensure only the highest quality plants are used in first-year field trials, enabling us to more quickly provide new varieties to farmers.
Digital tools are not just for large farms. More than half of the calories consumed in low- and middle-income countries are produced on farms of less than 10 hectares. These smallholder farms not only provide a primary source of food and income for their families and communities, but they also serve as important drivers of economic growth. In Africa and Asia, smallholder farmers are using smartphones and apps to obtain real-time commodity prices, so that they can get a reasonable price for their goods when sold in local markets. We’re also seeing an increasing use of “big data” by smaller farms as they gain access to weather monitoring, data analytics, and interactive SMS tools to make knowledge-based decisions. While there is still a long way to go, these tools will help turn the “digital divide” into a “digital dividend” for smallholder farmers.
To feed a growing world in the face of a changing climate and increasing urbanization, we must grow more food using less land and fewer resources. Our researchers are working with climatologists to model the impacts an evolving climate will have on farming – including changing disease and pest pressures, and to see what crops will thrive in what regions. When these models are integrated with other technologies, such as satellite imagery, mobile applications, and improved plant genetics, farmers will be able to efficiently and sustainably increase production, while preserving our vital natural resources.
If I had to use one word to describe the significance of digitalization, it would be connectivity. From the earth’s deepest roots to its highest satellites, we are more connected than ever to our planet and the food it produces. Digital tools strengthen those connections between growers, the land and the people they help feed. It’s not just about data. It’s about using innovation and collaboration to connect and nourish us all.