The 4th technological revolution applied to agriculture

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We are currently going through the fourth technological revolution or the fourth industrial revolution, the famous Industry 4.0. Like its predecessors, the fourth technological revolution constitutes a paradigm change on processes in different sectors — such as manufacturing, utilities, health, and, our focus in this article, agribusiness — through the introduction of new technologies.  

The first technological revolution was marked by the arrival of steam-powered machinery used in textile industries in eighteenth-century England. The second technological revolution came in the following century, represented by the exchange of steam machinery for electrical equipment. This change began in the United States and was soon used in Europe. It started in the metallurgical industry and was subsequently adopted by other product industries. 

The third technological revolution began in the 1970s in Japan and solidified automation of production processes through the adoption of autonomous systems — robots began to be used to complete repetitive tasks on car assembly lines, for example.  

Through these great revolutions, we also observe how the relationship of the worker with the industrial system changes. He goes from manual operator, who must complete the entire production process, to machinery operator, becoming a specialist in specific tasks and leaves the third technological revolution as an expert who monitors an automated system. 

The fourth technological revolution, currently underway, represents the implementation of new technologies, especially intelligent and autonomous technologies, in processes in all areas. This means the adoption of technologies that gather information, process them and produce diagnostics regarding the production chain itself. That is, the fourth revolution comprises the automation of the analysis of the production process. (To learn more about Industry 4.0, see our article Demystifying the Industry 4.0) 

Due to its wide range of processes, the fourth technological revolution can be applied to any sector. In the agribusiness area, especially, the news are interesting, as there is much to be done. Much of the agricultural sector continues to employ not only with old technologies, but also with processes that can be improved. Agriculture 4.0, that is, the reflection of the fourth technological revolution in agriculture, arrived as an answer these possibilities. 

 

The Brazilian scenario 

Population growth is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, which results in challenges involving food and maintenance of the population’s quality of life, and all this involves the agricultural sector. From food waste that is already occurring in the countryside to climate changes yet to come, these factors will directly impact food production and consumption around the world. 

In Brazil, agribusiness has enormous strength in the economy according to an IEL (Euvaldo Lodi Institute) Study of the Agribusiness Productive System, it represents more than 20% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and about 50% of the country’s exports. In the export market, Brazil is leader in several products, such as sugar, coffee, soy, red meat and poultry.  

However, even with the enormous weight of the agricultural sector, there is little attention being paid to the opportunities and needs for innovation in agribusiness. For example, according to Embrapa, although the number of mobile internet users in rural areas increased from 4% to 24% between 2008 and 2014, only 5% of agricultural producers use the internet professionally.  

This scenario may not seem promising, but it presents, in fact, big opportunities for innovation and growth in the agricultural sector. The bet is that they will be achieved through the application of technologies and their processes related to agribusiness. For instance, according to Embrapa, out of the 180 registered startups in Brazil in 2016, only 23 had agribusiness connections, while in 2019, 1,125 startups operating in the agriculture-food segment were mapped (according to Agtech Radar of 2019). 

Versatility has arrived on the agribusiness field and there is no escape. Anyone who expects life in the countryside to remain as it was in the twentieth century has not understood that changes have begun and will not stop anytime soon. Among the many activities that are branches of agribusiness are: crop control; the saving and conscious use of water; and the use of clean energy, which, like water, has become a recurring concern. 

 

Revolution in Agriculture 

Agriculture 4.0 is the term used to refer to the application of concepts and technologies of the fourth technological revolution in the agricultural sector. For agribusiness especially, it is essential to consider how new technological advances can be truly productively incorporated, not just a transplant of technologies that make no sense in the context in which they are being applied. 

Thus, agriculture 4.0 is better understood through the problems and opportunities found throughout the production chain and through how new technologies and processes can contribute to better, more assertive processes and information:  

Loss of harvest in transport 

Brazil is an extensive country, with areas (which unfold into several states) specializing in different products. However, these products are consumed throughout Brazil, with large quantities being needed to supply large urban centers and exportation ports — which, in turn, are generally farther from where these foods are produced. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that the transport of production ensures its quality for consumption even in more distant locations. Several technologies can be adopted and even used together to solve such a problem, including: 

IoT 

One of the first technologies to be applied to many problems is IoT (Internet of Things). It works by implementing sensors on as many parts as possible of a system or production chain. These sensors collect data about the chain and enabling the distinction of operating patterns, productivity bottlenecks and precision failures in the system being monitored. 

In agribusiness, IoT can be applied to farm or plant machinery, collecting data from planting, extraction, harvesting and preparation processes to the different stages of transport from production to its final destination. Thus, it is possible to check the state of products when they leave for transport, at different points of the route and in their delivery. (Learn about it in Connectivity in the field, challenges and alternatives) 

Blockchain 

Product tracking gains even more when technologies like Blockchain are applied. This technology was initially designed as a system for the use of digital currencies (Bitcoin, for example), and acts as a ledger in which transactions are recorded. In Blockchains, transactions are stored in links that make up a chain. Each link contains the information from all previous links. In this way, Blockchains increase the security of the registration of transactions performed, because to change one of them, it would be necessary to do the same in all links of the chain. 

Through Blockchain technology, coupled with IoT sensors, it is possible to create a product and transportation monitoring network. The information on this network is almost impossible to be hacked, so producers and their customers can access and depend on the data obtained. This not only helps producers know the state of their production, but also adds value to products, which arrive in the conditions agreed with customers. (To learn more, see our article on How Blockchain can Impact Agribusiness) 

In addition to technologies that can assist in processes that ensure the quality of products being transported, there are alternatives being explored to circumvent transportation difficulties as a whole. An example is vertical farms, a new method for growing produce  in smaller spaces, usually close to urban centers and in stacks — hence, vertical 

Vertical Farms 

Vertical farms are controlled environments that use technologies to define luminosity (intensity and range of light used), humidity, temperature and other aspects necessary for growing vegetables. In addition to technologies to control the farming environment, automation and sensor technologies (such as IoT) are also used to analyze the data collected and adjust the variables involved.  

By employing these various technologies, the planting method used on vertical farms provides conditions for greater use of the space, increasing its productivity — up to 90% on vertical farms, compared to 50% in traditional agriculture. Thus, vertical farms are another answer to optimize distribution of agricultural products, bypassing the issue of transportation, as they are usually closer to major consumption centers. (We have an article about Vertical Farms) 

These are different perspectives on the issue of product transportation. One of them seeks to employ new technologies and processes to solve the issue, applying transportation data collection to improve its effectiveness and to add value to transported products. The other one seeks to escape the problem by seeing it as an opportunity to innovate the way we grow vegetables. These are answers that engage different groups and points of view, but that still lie within the changes brought about by the fourth technological revolution. 

 

Productivity 

As in many other industries, productivity is central to any agribusiness. The issue is not a simple increase in productivity, but its optimization. This can be achieved in many ways (or with any combinations of approaches). Thus, it is possible to: increase the quantity produced, reduce expenses or product losses, adjust production to demand and understand the difficulties in this optimization process. Some of the possible optimizations include: 

Robots 

Robots allow the automation of processes (or part of them) in the production chain. They can perform different tasks: collection of vegetables and fruits, irrigation, analysis and adjustment of temperature and humidity etc. (We talk about it in Precision and robotic agriculture) 

IoT, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning 

Another technology that has been applied to many problems is IoT. Sensors implemented with IoT capture data at different points in the production chain and, most often, store it in the cloud so that it can be accessed anywhere with internet access. 

By analyzing the collected data, it is possible to form more realistic estimates and make decisions based on the reality of a business. To perform this analysis, many technologies can be used, such as Machine Learning, which applies Artificial Intelligence to systems so they can become able to analyze data and learn from it— allowing them to make decisions based on the information provided. 

Machine Learning technology can be used to analyze and cross-check data collected by IoT sensors. As Machine Learning learns from data, the system may be able to find unexpected connections between data that previously did not seem related; or identify the importance of data variations seemingly unimportant to human analysis. (See our article on Machine Learning in Agriculture) 

Drones 

In pastures or large cultivated areas, on the other hand, drones have become a very interesting option for collecting data that can be added to the information gathered by sensors, because they are more accurate and capture more information than the devices currently being used. Drones are capable of producing accurate (even 3D) maps that can be used for soil analysis before or between crops; irrigation check (which parts need more water or improvements); and crop monitoring, collecting data on the health of the crop or how close it is to being ready for harvesting. 

Drones can, in addition to collecting data and images, perform tasks that directly assist in production chain processes. They are already used to spray fertilizers or pesticides evenly and quickly — in some cases, drone aerial spraying is up to five times faster than traditional forms. 

There are also advances in the development of systems that use drones in seeding processes. The drones launch pods with seeds and nutrients into the soil, so that the seeds are already planted under optimal conditions for their growth. Some of these systems are quite successful, significantly reducing planting costs. 

These are applications of some technologies, seeking to improve efficiency and productivity in agribusiness. They can be applied to solve specific needs or throughout a production chain. The possibilities are numerous, but they need to be tailored to the needs and goals of each business, meeting its specifications. 

 

Mapping Challenges and Opportunities 

Even with many existing solutions, there will always be challenges to be solved in all areas of the field. Initially large and seemingly unsolvable, many challenges that arise in rural areas are still seen as “part of the job” and their losses are considered normal and acceptable, as they have always occurred. In other cases, it is difficult to see which part of the supply chain can be innovated and what the gains would come from this innovation.  

These doubts are common, especially in the agricultural sector, which has several very old processes, in which losses and waste are accounted for since the beginning of operations. A very interesting option to address these issues is the application of disruptive methodologies, which seek to break the mold of how problems have been viewed in different sectors. 

Design Thinking, for example, is an iterative approach — that is, in which cycles of analysis or operations are repeated until an appropriate outcome is achieved — that seeks to understand users, question assumptions, and redefine problems in order to identify alternative suggestions and solutions that were not immediately clear. It can be applied in many ways. One of the most popular, Design Sprint, is a five-day process in which people with different views and hierarchies contribute to finding solutions to a problem or even redefining a business.  

Design Sprint takes place in the following steps: problem mapping, solution design, stakeholder and user interviews, a decision as to the path to be taken, prototyping and testing. The idea of the Sprint, unlike other Design Thinking approaches, is to come up with the problem scenario already mapped in a macro way, often knowing who the user is and what their current behavior is. 

The methodology is much more than brainstorming, as it seeks user understanding beyond assumptions and seeks end-user ideas beyond what is brought only by team members with an internal view of the service or product, thus being a more practical process, closer to reality. Because it is a user-centric methodology, research with end users is essential to Design Sprint. Thus, it is possible to validate and verify that all hypotheses raised are in accordance with reality or even if everything must be rethought for a solution that best suits the real customer. Human-centered design focuses on delivering value before thinking about feasibility. 

In choosing the challenge, one usually looks for a solution to answer critical business questions, that is, they are not usually easy or simple solutions. In the agribusiness sector this can range from a transportation problem to a search for more effective monitoring, always focusing on the end user, who often ends up presenting unforeseen pains during the understanding stage.  

The producer’s knowledge and his collaborators, combined with Design Sprint methodologies and team actions during the process, can lead to solutions taken in faster, more effective and dynamic ways. Often, unraveling a major challenge across multiple segments can lead to a solution to problems that were perceived as intangible or not even seen as problems. 

Innovation does not always have to be in the form of cutting-edge technology or equipment unlike any other. It is often related to methods, processes, visualization, and ways of adapting to the end-user, being able to bring many more benefits than those brought by using complicated machinery that few understand how to handle. Innovation can be simple and can be done by well-meaning teams with clear objectives. 

 

What can we expect for the future of agribusiness? 

The fourth technological revolution has arrived and its effects are beginning to be felt in many different industries, but much still remains to be done. In agribusiness, there are several barriers that need to be overcome for the implementation of new technologies — low use and availability of internet networks in crops and pastures, costs of implementing new types of machinery and changes that must occur throughout the production chain through the adoption of new technologies, for example.  

Precisely for this reason, it is more crucial than ever to think about agribusiness not through which of the new technologies can be implemented, but from what are the challenges and opportunities that new technologies and processes can engage in these businesses. Applying new technologies to old and rigid processes is not enough. The technologies of the fourth technological revolution are disruptive in nature, changing the way processes are viewed — there is automation of various processes, seeking to increase their effectiveness and limit margins of error; and data-driven logic changes that focus on processes in which the new technologies of the fourth revolution allow the collection of useful data that will undoubtedly allow better decision-making by producers. 

Thus, just like the other technological revolutions, Agriculture 4.0 changes the whole way the agricultural sector functions, through new technologies. What matters is how they are adopted so that their costs are justified in efficiency, spending and waste reduction— and how this innovation is done in every business, according to its own characteristics.  

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