In the keynote presentation at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta, in March, Marty Seymour, director of industry relations at Farm Credit Canada, introduced some of the latest technologies in use by other sectors to stretch some minds as to what the future for agriculture might look like.
“If you look at the evolution of the cellphone, it is a great example about the progress of technology and how it’s changing,” Seymour said.
Tradition and doing things the way they’ve always been done can hinder change. “If the future is different than the past, how safe is your business?” he challenged.
Looking forward is a skill set serving the next generation well. They contemplate what the future will look like and what future problems they will have to solve.
Like other industries, agriculture is adopting new technologies every year. Some farms are quick to implement these technologies, while others may not.
“You don’t have to have the latest technology, but you have to compete with those that do,” Seymour said.
Other industries are currently outpacing agriculture. Only 1% of all the connected devices in our lives are linked to farming. More money and time are being spent to find solutions for health care, engineering, real estate, retail, military, education, etc.
For comparison, Google is projected to spend $26 billion in research and development, and Bayer will do $3 billion. “If you look at where the innovations are going to come from, Google is outpacing us,” he said.
However, with that investment, Google is likely to commercialize technologies that agriculture companies can’t afford to fund.
Seymour pointed to drones that appeared on the market eight to 10 years ago at a price of $1,500 to $3,000. Then the toy industry stepped in to commercialize them, which improved the technology and significantly lowered the price. Now the technology is an active part of agriculture.
Here are a few other categories where non-traditional companies will continue to invent and offer technologies that will, in turn, benefit agriculture:
Autonomous machines are already getting involved in agriculture, from automated milking and feeding to driverless seeders, sprayers and tractors.
While some view autonomous as an answer to labor problems, Seymour said he sees the adoption happen faster as a lifestyle play.
“It changes how I manage my farm. I’m not on-call every morning at 5 to go milk cows, or I don’t have to sit [in a tractor] for 16 hours a day; I can do other things,” he said.
“I think it’ll fast track the adoption because it offers a lifestyle to our industry that’s been missing,” Seymour added.
Some of these machines are battery-powered or solar-driven and smaller in size. This could cause a shift in agriculture from a few big machines to many small units.
Artificial intelligence is working its way into the dairy industry with automated milking attachment. It also has the potential to monitor mobility and spot lameness before the human eye.
In the greenhouse industry, it is used to predict the growth of tomatoes. This connects the supply chain to know how many will be ready for grocery store delivery three weeks in advance.
Seymour said there is also a prototype apple picker that can tell which apples are ripe enough to pick. No one has to touch the apples, and there is less damage to the fruit.
“Data has become the new oil,” Seymour said, citing that there are 30 billion devices on the planet collecting volumes of data and a rush to monetize the information.
The dairy industry needs to continue to find ways to integrate data and use it for cow management decisions to make farms more efficient.
Another challenge in this area is rural internet connections. Data generated on farms has to compete with video streaming to find its way to and from the cloud.
“I don’t think you’ll see the government be able to keep up and provide enough broadband space, but I think the private sector is going to step in,” he said. It will likely be an increased expense that will need to be viewed as a cost of business to have first-in-class data and possibly manage the growing population of automated farm machines.
Strange and unusual
Facial recognition used in pet feeders to dispense certain portions to each animal in a household has been adopted by the pork industry to individually match diets in a loose housing system.
“Once again, another sector commercialized something and made it affordable. Now we’re seeing it creep into our industry,” he said.
Augmented reality can transform video game goggles to on-the-job training. This is being used to train people in the oil patch and in engine assembly. Seymour sees opportunities in farm machinery repair, milker training or equipment-operator training.
“I think corn is going to change the game again,” he said, suggesting it could be a base material for a biodegradable option for single-use plastic. If this becomes cost-effective, it could be competition to corn for feed.
A few companies have started to offer food profiles based on an individual’s DNA sample. Whether an individual is predisposed to a cholesterol problem, diabetes or a food allergy, it could put science to food preferences.
Shifting away from technologies, Seymour looked at developing food trends and what it means for agriculture.
“Trends follow people. Where the people go, those are the societies that are going to drive our food trends,” he said.
Displaying a map of where all the airplanes fly on a daily basis around the world, it showed people are going to the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia.
He also pointed out that 60% of the world population lives in urban areas, which explains the growing disconnect to farms.
The more he thought about trends, Seymour said, “Trends don’t change things; events change things.”
School shootings and 9/11 changed attitudes on gun laws and terrorism, respectively. COVID-19 will have us re-evaluate food distribution, food quality and food safety.
Another “event” impacting agriculture is the regular updates to national dietary guidelines, designed to promote healthy eating and overall nutrition.
Health Canada’s national food guide was updated in the past year, and the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are working to revise the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), scheduled for release at the end of this year.
Given the diversified food plates sought by consumers, agricultural industries should be more collaborative when it comes to the development of dietary advise, Seymour said. He suggested “whole-plate thinking,” instead of focusing on individual parts of the plate.
He also recommended more collaboration with food retailers. They are making statements as answers to what their customers care about, which at the moment focuses on the environment, buying local and animal welfare.
“For the most part, they’re just good-natured people doing what they think is right without having the whole picture,” he said.
Commercialized lab versions and vegetarian options of ice cream and meat are on the rise.
“You’re not going to see this diminish. There is a whole bunch of people out there that believe this is a better way,” Seymour said.
However, it is a very small number that is getting bigger while large volumes of animal proteins continue to be sold each day.
In the U.S., 50% of meals are consumed outside the home. In Canada, it’s around 40%. Seymour sees opportunity in increasing the nutritional value of snack foods.
While online grocery means people don’t have to leave their houses to get food, people still want to socialize, and that will impact food trends.
At the end of the day, Seymour said, “100 percent of decisions are made emotionally first and rationalized second.”
Building the food story around pride breaks down all of the complexities of the food trends and brings in an emotion people can get behind.
To face the future beyond 2020, it is time to think differently. Seymour claimed he didn’t know which technology or food trend will win out, but, by stretching minds and not letting tradition hold agriculture back, the industry will be more prepared for what’s to come.
PHOTO: Getty images.
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