Big data coming to agriculture

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The industrialisation of agriculture began some 100 years ago. We are now witnessing its digitalisation. But a wave of big data may sweep farmers off their land, unless they mark out a course in good time and decide which problems digital technologies should address.

In the future, young farmers are likely to don digital glasses or consult other devices that will help them analyse their work and make decisions.

Their data might be collected by self-piloted multicopters, which review the state of the field according to empirical formulas and provide specific, effective cultivation tips for individual plants, for both organic and conventional farming.

A bit more manure 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? And can the purchase of feed pellets be put off until next week, after the markets have calmed down?

Automation hits the field

These are the questions that agricultural “Siris” are already beginning to answer, even if they are still in the pilot phase. For example, a six-legged robot named Prospero is roaming test fields in the US, planting individual kernels of corn in exactly the right spot for the plant to take root.

And for several years now, Bonirob 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 recognise that agriculture is undergoing rampant digitalisation. Automation is as inevitable as the tasting of the forbidden fruit. The promises of technology are too seductive, and the lure of greater efficiency all too tempting.

Do we need to take a stand?

Shouldn’t we proceed with caution? Just because we want something, it 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, fast.

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 formula. But is that a reason not to devise any formulas at all? – World Economic Forum

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