Digital transformation and sustainability in agribusiness

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The United Nations (UN) estimates that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Thus, agriculture has the challenge of feeding this growing number of inhabitants without further harming the environment. Brazilian agribusiness has helped a lot in this arduous task, but, on the other hand, it has also doubled the emission of greenhouse gases in the last 50 years. That said, it is undeniable that we need to find more sustainable forms of agricultural production.

For some time now, Brazilian agribusiness has been leveraging the national economy, with its significant numbers, both in quantity and quality, and export of agricultural products, whether animal or vegetable products. However, a subject that has attracted the attention of the national and international public are the negative impacts on the environment generated by the activities of National Agriculture, which give the false impression that the entire chain of Brazilian agricultural production is indifferent to its impacts on the environment.

At a time when much of the internationally highlighted issues are related to climate change, excessive slash-and-burn practices, water pollution, among several other topics that affect our environment, it is important to note that national agriculture is not indifferent to these important topics. In addition, the reputation that the country is indifferent to environmental issues has the may create barriers for domestic agricultural products to enter into international markets — which, in turn, is of great importance to domestic producers.

That is, the theme of sustainability in agribusiness is of great importance, both economically and environmentally, to all society. Nevertheless, what is sustainability in agriculture? Sustainability in agriculture is increasing food production and improving food security by adopting responsible and environmentally friendly practices.

One of the factors that can help improve Brazilian agribusiness sustainability is the use of digital transformation technologies in the farms. There are several technologies being implemented in Brazilian agribusinesses that allow them to improve, analyze and act on the many environmental aspects of agricultural production, effecting both the environment and quality and productivity of agribusiness as a whole.

More rational use of natural resources, reduction and more effect chemical use (avoiding unnecessary operations), streamlining field operations, monitoring the conditions of crops and herds are some of the practices that can be brought to the field for better sustainability.

 

Technologies for crop sustainability

With the digital transformation of agribusiness, we can notice that several digital technologies are being used in farms. The first purpose of this adoptions is to use resources more efficiently, looking to improve the quality of agricultural production.

Below is a list of some of the technologies in use that, in some way, seek better use of resources and that are part of the digital transformation of agribusiness.

 

IoT and sensors

The Internet of Things (IoT) — one of the technologies that connects many items to the internet to establish communication not only between them, but with users —, along with its sensors, is one of the main focuses of digital transformation in agriculture. However, more than simply connecting farms, this technology demonstrates great potential to improve the sustainability of agricultural crops.

With IoT, it is possible, for example, to monitor soil moisture levels and trigger irrigation automatically when the crop needs it. At the same time, when irrigation starts, it provides only the necessary amount of water for the development of the plants.

From a sustainability perspective, this type of IoT use allows farmers to use the amount of water necessary for the proper development of crops. Thus, such a solution allows the supply of necessary water to plants and prevents water waste.

IoT can be used in several other scenarios in order to improve production sustainability. IoT in a chicken coop, for example, could detect a lack of water or food and, thus, trigger systems that release more feed and/or water. Additionally, a solution like this can support control the chicken coop’s air quality, analyzing it and detecting problems in different variables (e.g. excess of CO2, humidity among others). Sensors that monitor the condition of animals on a field, in turn, can warn farmers about animal health or nutrition problems.

IoT can also be applied to the detection of adverse conditions in the field, such as issuing alerts when there is fire detection or excessively low air humidity level (which allows for higher fire conditions). Other types of solutions use IoT for the detection of pests online in the crop, in which with the programming so that the spraying of defensive products are only carried out are launched after a certain level of infestation to the crop are detected,. In this type of use, unnecessary spraying is avoided and, accordingly, helping to decrease the amount of thrown products. Decreasing the amount of chemicals to be used.

 

Precision agriculture

The concept of precision agriculture is the use of technology that takes in the environment and provides optimization of feedstock and materials (fertilizers, agrochemicals, water, energy and seeds), generating gains in productivity and quality of production, and seeking environmental balance.

Among examples of precision agriculture, we have machines that can perform the correct application of fertilizers or pesticides and that are able to adapt to the different conditions of the environment. For example, an equipment that can apply the correct dose of fertilizer in any field condition, whether in more sandy or more condensed soil, usually using sensors to gather information about the state of the soil.

Another example of precision farming are machines capable of detecting the presence of weeds during application and only spray the chemical when some sensor attached to the machine detects the presence of the weeds. With this type of equipment, it is possible to prevent the product from being applied to places in the field where there are no invasive plants and to maintain the health of the crop.

That is, precision agriculture has an important role in improving the sustainability of agribusiness, since it allows farmers to avoid the unregulated application of products on their crops. The uncontrolled use of pesticides causes the excess product to end up going into rivers or the water tables. Therefore, the ecological impacts of this sort of practice are very damaging and can be avoided, or at least mitigated.

Precision farming still has great potential to be explored. Other examples of precision agriculture solutions that help improve sustainability in farms are: sowing machines that are able to guarantee that the correct amount of seeds are planted per square meter; and increasingly accurate and efficient mechanized harvesters, that cause less damage to the crop in the harvesting process.

 

Data Analytics

Data Analytics is the process of analyzing information for a specific purpose — that is, researching and answering questions based on data and with a clear methodology. Thus, Analytics is the use of mathematics and statistical information extracted by data analysis that allows segmenting, grouping of different scenarios and to predict which of them are most likely to occur.

In agribusiness, Data Analytics works with data extracted from the farms, seeking to detect correlations and trends. With crop data analysis, it is possible to predict and try to understand the behavior of farm variables.

As an example, we can have an analysis of the soil data of a crop — of course, before the analysis, it is necessary to carry out a collection of history data. With the data analysis, it is possible to understand the impact of different actions on the soil, such as moisture, nutrient level, and organic material. Based on this information, it is possible to perform tasks that agitate and interfere with the dynamics of the earth minimally.

Thus, Data Analytics is an important tool in maintaining good environmental practices, which become based on information from the fields, and predicting the correct and most appropriate management for each situation.

 

Carbon market

One of the villains that causes climate change is carbon dioxide, which is present in the atmosphere. Emissions of polluting gases cause the greenhouse effect and accelerate the process of global warming. While machines and cars emit carbon dioxide, plants work in the opposite way, capturing carbon during photosynthesis and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

Carbon markets are initiatives to market greenhouse gas emission reduction credits. Each credit corresponds to one ton of equivalent carbon content that has not to be emitted or that has been absorbed by a carbon sink (something that consumes the carbon or keeps it from the atmosphere). Equivalent carbon content is a parameter that expresses the global warming potential of a greenhouse gas, i.e. how much CO2 causes the same heat retention in the atmosphere.

An agribusiness-focused carbon market could reward the actions of farmers who seek sustainable production techniques, with more efficient use of natural resources (water, soil, organic materials), while using more sustainable techniques in their machines, pesticides and fertilizers. Practices such as slash-and-burn, indiscriminate use of chemicals and destruction of native forests would certainly lead to punishments in a carbon market system.

Thus, technology would be one of the parameters both for the creation of this market and for the techniques to verify whether sustainable actions are indeed taking place. One of the current challenges is to effectively account for the amount of carbon that is no longer being emitted. Different technologies, through sensors or field activity mapping, can also help calculate the amount of carbon that is no longer being emitted in each activity.

 

Blockchain

Blockchain technology works as a ledger, in which information and transactions can be recorded securely and whose records cannot be modified. In agribusiness, it can be used to track the origin and all stages of a product, as well as its transport until it reaches its consumer.

Thus, the use of Blockchain, by itself, brings great benefits in terms of traceability and reliable information regarding the entire production process. In sustainability, Blockchain allows end consumers to know the exact origin of the products, the agricultural procedures used in their production, the time elapsed from production to shelves, transportation, etc. — therefore, consumers have access to the entire product history.

Although Blockchain does not affect production directly, in terms of sustainability, the information obtained allows end consumers to make purchasing decisions that weigh the environmental impact of each product. If the consumer chooses products with more sustainable processes, there is an incentive to improve sustainability all agricultural production. The technology itself would be a way to monitor and evaluate products, increasing or decreasing its sale according to how they were produced.

 

Conclusion

 

Agribusiness remains strong in its mission to supply the world with agricultural products in large quantity and quality. However, it is increasingly important that agricultural production be accompanied by environmental sustainability.

Digital technologies are being introduced in the agricultural landscape, given the constant evolution of the processing capacity of machines and the new connectivity alternatives that are gradually coming to farms.

In addition, another factor that has been leveraging the use of technology in the agribusinesses is a change in the generation of managers, including more and more young people who have access to information and more digital education. These people are, now, beginning to implement the concepts they learned on farms. This generation comes with a thirst to adapt new technologies to agribusiness and, at the same time, thinking about the sustainability of their actions.

Venturus continues to monitor and work alongside innovations in the agribusiness landscape and also believes that agricultural development needs to be accompanied by new technologies and that these new technologies should help to leverage production, but also contribute to increasing the sustainability of actions in agribusinesses.

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