A sector caught between innovation and tradition
The agricultural sector has always operated in a challenging environment. Since the early days, people have had to hone their innovative minds to find ways of herding animals, sowing improved crops each year and battling the elements to produce the food needed for survival.
Nowadays, agriculture is much more than just food production. More crops have an additional value beyond purely nutrition. Think about eco-fuel crops, crops for paper, clothing industry and ornamentals. The production of these crops have to be viewed in a wider societal context, with a vast number of ethical questions regarding land-use, food security and pollution.
The questions associated with these non-food crops have also got to be answered for food-crops. Food-farmers no longer have the luxury to just focus on food production. The socio-ecological environment and economic market in which modern farmers operate is more challenging now than it has ever been before. Profit margins are small, investments are high, creating incredibly high risks on investment for new, starting farmers.
One of the things that has helped farmers move forward is innovation. Currently the agricultural sector is one of the most innovative sectors in the world. Because the right funding has been made available from governments, NGOs, and industry, it has been possible to pave the way for agriculture 4.0. This new wave of agriculture was set to bring the world towards sustainable, ecological and profitable farming.
Given the fact that we don’t see drones flying over every farm, something is standing in the way of innovation. Three main issues arise to get agriculture 4.0 into practice:
- Farmers are traditionalist, especially the older generation
- The challenging market environment makes it hard for farmers to invest in new, “unproven” solutions
- The commercialisation of cutting edge technology from research to practice is slow, due to a persistent knowledge gap
The issue of farmers adhering to traditional practises passed down over generations is slowly solving itself due to the harsh socio-ecological and economic restraints of the agrisector. Farmers that are reluctant to follow the basis of innovation are no longer competitive and get bought up by bigger, more profitable and efficient players in the market.
The fact that even these big players operate on relatively sharp profit margins however make it hard for true innovation to take place. Investment in drone technology is slow, because the price of this technology is high and relatively few real-life studies have been done in commercial fields for a broad number of cultivations.
An additional hurdle is the knowledge gap between research and practice. Farmers tend to have a better education regarding business management, local and international regulation and environmental issues, but are often not equipped to deal with cutting edge technology such as drones or robots. Sadly, the academic world as such is in no position to capitalize on this market gap and have failed to provide adequate extension or commercial services.
Building the bridge for innovation
It is precisely in this market gap that Planticus positions itself. We are a technology-driven company that combines academic knowledge with practical, business-minded commercialisation strategies and soft/hardware enablers that are tailored to farmers needs.
The technology we use is not new. Integrated Pest Management, remote sensing technology, machine learning and decision support systems have been studied in academia for over a decade, with tremendous results that promise a bright future for the farmer. The main challenge remains in putting these things into practice in a way that is agreeable with common farming practices. We call this concept ‘soft technology landing’.
To create a soft landing for disease detection based on artificial intelligence in tomatoes, several steps are needed that have up to now been left unaddressed by academic endeavors. A good example is that new technology has to work with minimal disruption of farmer practices. This sounds logical, but it is very hard in practice to get images from a greenhouse without imposing extra labor, time or material investments on an agricultural production system. A good example is the attempt to use robots in greenhouses, which enjoyed limited success due to the fact that the working tracks of these machines interfered with those of the automatic harvesting carts employed in modern, high-tech greenhouses.
Another challenge is to make the technology cheap and scalable enough that farmers can use them throughout their crop, while being profitable within the sharp profit margins. This, combined with the fact that the disease detection application has to be at the same time highly reliable, extremely user friendly and durable in harsh working conditions creates a multi-disciplinary problem.
To really face these challenges, we have to create initiatives between large corporations and traditional research institutions. Innovative startups with a small but highly specialized and complimentary team are looking to be of much value in the future of agriculture. They are needed to translate highly advanced innovation from an academic perspective with the business and marketing mindset of industry to build the bridge between research and practice.