From Data to Harvests - How Digitization is Improving Agriculture
Digitalization is making its way into agriculture. At the Swiss-Food Talk on April 25, 2023, three experts from the agricultural machinery industry, vegetable production, and agricultural media discussed how digitization is changing food production. The consensus is that we are in the transition from industrial to smart agriculture, where data and algorithms as support allow precise interventions and serve sustainability.
Wednesday, May 3, 2023
Bernhard Läubli, head of the Precision Center at Bucher Landtechnik AG and his team are focusing on digitalization in agriculture. Bucher aims to help farmers worldwide with new, digital products. According to Läubli, Swiss farmers face similar challenges as their colleagues abroad, such as climate change, environmental protection, and structural change. Where it is reasonable and possible, the traditionally small family farms are gradually merging into larger farms.
"Farmers need to become more productive. More productive means more powerful and efficient," says Läubli. Against this backdrop, digitization is gaining additional importance. It helps farmers make their production more resource-efficient. One example is Bucher's collaboration with the Swiss start-up "ecorobotix." The system, originally developed by tinkerers, enables the highly precise application of crop protection products to individual plants. Instead of the watering-can principle, artificial intelligence is used to treat only those plants that actually need treatment. "In this way, we can save up to 95 percent herbicides on one hectare," says Läubli. However, it was only through the cooperation with Bucher that ecorobotix was able to make its technology marketable at all, treat large fields efficiently, and apply fungicides in addition to herbicides.
"There is no way around digitization."
Digitization can also save a lot of time in administrative work. "Data exchange in the agricultural and food sector still works manually for the most part," says Läubli. This also applies to the cooperation between the administration and the farms. However, the federal government will remedy the situation with the digiFLUX platform. "In order to reduce the administrative burden and drive digitization forward, the federal government has adopted the foundations for the establishment of a competence center for digital transformation in the agricultural and food sector."
The aim of digiFLUX is to record the use and trade of crop protection products and nutrients. However, in order to collect data over a larger area in the future, their exchange needs to be simplified by ensuring interoperability. In other words, the data collected by different devices and stored in individual clouds must be exchangeable across system boundaries. This is crucial for generating new knowledge about the optimal production of food. For Läubli, it is clear that "there is no way around digitalization."
"Monitoring the stress level of plants"
Vegetable grower Julien Stoll already makes intensive use of digital technologies in his greenhouses in Yverdon. "Plant cultivation is extremely time consuming. In addition, there is a shortage of skilled workers. Digitalization helps me reconcile everything, including my private life with my family and dog," Stoll begins his presentation. After all, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers also need constant attention. "I sometimes feel like a coach of elite athletes," Stoll says.
To get the most out of his plants, the vegetable grower relies on the Vivent system. In the video footage, he shows his tomato plants connected to a measuring device. "With this, we measure the electrical signals of the plants. This allows us to constantly monitor stress levels and know if the plants lack anything," Stoll explains.
"Today, a single employee can take care of 20 hectares."
The vegetable grower can detect diseases and pest infestations and monitor water and nutrient levels using this method. Real-time monitoring enables Stoll to respond early when problems arise. "Thanks to this technology, a single employee can now take care of the climate management of around 20 hectares of cultivated land. Thirty years ago, it might have been 0.5 hectares," he says. Still, in Stoll's greenhouses today, about ten people take care of one hectare. The new technology records and analyzes vast amounts of data, making it possible to make better predictions about crop yields and potential future problems, the culture may has. Besides plant sensors, Stoll also uses robots in his production facility, for example to plant lettuces. For him, digitalization is also a way to alleviate the chronic shortage of skilled workers in his industry. At the same time, digitalization is making the job of a vegetable farmer more attractive to young people again. Working and production conditions are improving.
"Digitization is not science fiction"
Digitization will undoubtedly revolutionize agriculture. Agricultural journalist Olaf Deininger has been following this development for quite some time. "The future of agriculture has little to do with science fiction. The technologies that will become widespread are basically already available," he says. One example is autonomously operating agricultural robots that can recognize and combat snails or weeds using AI. The "MSR-bot," for instance, autonomously hunts for snails at night and has a "memory" to return to the spots where it expects to find snails the next day.
Such work was previously done manually. "Robots suddenly make the mechanical removal of pests attractive again," Deininger says. Farming is also becoming more "individualized." Instead of treating entire fields or herds of animals uniformly, the focus is increasingly on the individual plant or animal. One example is the "Dropnostix," a small device that stays in the cows' forestomachs and provides real-time data on the health of the individual animal.
"We are transitioning from industrial to smart agriculture."
Deininger points out another development in the creation of new knowledge and predictive systems. OneSoil, for example, offers farmers the monitoring of each individual field using satellites, enabling data comparison over several years and drawing new conclusions for crop growth. "Six percent of the world's fertile farmland is monitored by OneSoil. This enables a completely new kind of knowledge generation," Deininger says.
Innovation can also be expected in supply chains and retail. German retailer Kaufland uses Blue Yonder's forecasting model for the quantities of its products. Kaufland knows for example with 74 percent accuracy how much milk will be sold in a week. In the long term, this knowledge will also influence the production on farms. "We are definitely transitioning from industrial to smart farming," Deininger concludes. "It is nowadays part of the farmers' job to evaluate software."
But the discussion also shows the need to clarify data sovereignty. Crop data generated in the field belongs to the farmer, and they must be able to decide which data to share, with whom, and in what form. They will have an incentive to do so if aggregated data flows back to them, supporting them in their work.
The reduced use of plant protection products is causing much smaller wheat and rapeseed harvests. A study carried out by Swiss Agricultural Research reveals that such crop failures can only be offset by state subsidies. This is neither sustainable nor resource-efficient.
The economic interdependence of the world has increased greatly over the past years and decades. Due to the brisk trade activity between the continents, invasive plant and animal species are also spreading faster and faster. This can lead to serious problems for native vegetation and agriculture. According to the FOEN, the canton of Ticino is particularly affected.
Invasive pests and plant diseases are among the greatest challenges for biodiversity and agriculture. They often enter Switzerland via travel and imported goods and cause great damage to cultivated and wild plants. Since 2020, the import of plants from non-EU countries is prohibited. However, introduced pests are a worldwide problem.
The Japanese beetle was first discovered in Switzerland in 2017 in Ticino. Now it has made it to the northern side of the Alps. After being found in Basel-Stadt and Solothurn, a larger population of the beetles has been found in Kloten for the first time. They are controlled with traps, but also pesticides.