Japan’s innovation hothouses have a new focus – tractors. The Japanese government will be testing self-driving tractors at 50 model farms this year in a push to develop “smart agriculture” capabilities. Companies such as Yanmar are already forging ahead, building tractors powered by smartphones and satellite navigation. In a country where the average age of the farmer is now 67, the idea of a machine that can plough the fields with no-one in the cab is hailed as a turning point.

This case study is merely part of a much larger trend, one that may have emerged just in the nick of time. The world’s agriculture industry is facing a mounting labor shortage, as more and more people are sucked towards the burgeoning cities. Agricultural technology, or AgTech, offers the chance to fix the problem, helping the world’s dwindling population of farmers do more with less and feed an ever-growing global population.

According to analysts, global food demand is going to increase by up to 98 percent in the next 30 years. AgTech has long been touted as a solution to this problem; its potential to revolutionize agriculture and disrupt production methods unchanged for centuries is well-documented. Yet when describing the specific benefits of AgTech, scientists and journalists have focused more on the environmental aspects than the human ones.

Environmental advantages

This is understandable, of course. Global carbon emissions are reaching all-time highs and the agricultural sector remains one of the biggest sources of pollution. Researchers claim that harnessing technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) could reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint by as much as 50 percent – crucial for Africa and Asia, whose rice paddies generate huge volumes of greenhouse gases because of outdated irrigation techniques. Smart agricultural systems, relying on soil sensors to deliver just-in-time nutrition, will streamline such processes.

Not only that, but the use of drones and smart robots has great potential in reducing the environmental impact of pesticides and herbicides. Robots can patrol the fields without compacting the soil and apply “See & Spray” technology to analyse which parts of the field need herbicide, thereby obviating the need for large-scale, indiscriminate herbicide use. The use of these robots and drones, some of which can precisely target weeds and remove them or simply laser-zap them, can decrease pesticide use by as much as 90 percent. In combination with analytics and sensor systems capable of detecting problems with the crops, this precise application of pesticides and herbicides means that greater crop yields can be achieved with smaller doses of chemicals.

However, recent demographic changes have created a problem every bit as significant as pollution and global warming for the agricultural sector. The number of people aged 60 and above has more than doubled worldwide in the past 30 years. This ageing population, along with rapid urbanization, is placing huge pressure on agricultural labor reserves. The problem is further compounded by negative media coverage of farming, which means young people in agricultural communities prefer to take their chances in the big city than stay in an industry viewed as dull and antiquated.

A smarter alternative

The consequences of this double dilemma are felt around the world, and governments have enacted or are considering visa facilitation policies to attract the globe’s young population to their countries to plug seasonal labor holes in agriculture. But rather than attempt to stem the flow with cheap handouts and regulatory changes alone, the world’s governments would do well to follow Japan’s lead, and start investing in technology to minimize the need for human involvement altogether. Driverless tractors are a particularly significant innovation, but they’re far from the only one.

In the robotics space, a raft of start-ups are building machines which can patrol the fields and allow the farmer to adopt a less strenuous role, coordinating their automated farmhands using IoT and GPS. A particularly interesting example is the UK’s Small Robot Company, which has created a team of machines designed to work together. One of the robots scuttles around the field, capturing data on every single plant, before returning to base and instructing its mechanical colleagues.

For farmers with livestock, artificial intelligence offers even greater promise. Google is currently working with AI to recognize 5,000 different plant and animal species, and several private companies are already blazing a trail, providing technologies which will tend the herd on the farmer’s behalf. Cainthus, one of the most ambitious companies in this space, has received backing from U.S. megacorp Cargill to develop a facial recognition system for cows. The system will identify individual members of a herd and deliver analytics based on their food intake, water consumption and behaviour.

But perhaps most important of all is the explosion of farm data, made possible by the Cloud. This is evident not just in the rise of IoT-enabled weather monitoring systems helping farmers anticipate and adjust to meteorological fluctuations. It also underpins ventures such as the Farmers Business Network, where farmers share analysis with one another about which seeds are best for their field, how much they should be paying for raw materials and what kind of weather is coming from across the country. As farmers strive to deal with an ever-diminishing shortage of human help, this intel will be crucial.

Naturally, smart technology is just part of the solution. Smart management is equally crucial since the flood of new technology will only be effective if harnessed effectively. But in this most traditional of industries, the digital revolution offers a timely ray of hope. To help the world stave off a food crisis, farmers will need all the help they can get.

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