When COVID-19 was first discovered in December 2019, few could have predicted just how big of an impact on our society it would have. Now, one year later, the coronavirus pandemic still holds the world in an iron grip. Countries around the world seem to be stuck in a perennial loop, forced to choose between implementing lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus and save human lives and loosening restrictions to keep the economy running. Many have described it as a lose-lose scenario. While the closures of non-essential business have been instrumental in reducing the number of infections, they have also had a devastating impact on various sectors, the consequences of which may ultimately turn out to be worse than the virus itself. However, not every sector has been equally affected. Some have even managed to thrive in the new normal, while others are just trying to keep their heads above the water. So, where exactly does agriculture fall in?
The Impact of COVID-19 on agriculture
A recent report published by ResearchAndMarkets.com estimates that the global agriculture market will decline from $9997 billion in 2019 to $9890 billion in 2020, mostly as a result of new safety measures implemented to reduce the spread of the virus. The recovery will begin in 2021 and will proceed at a steady pace, with the market predicted to reach $12168.3 billion by 2023.
Accelerated adoption of digital agriculture
Growing labour shortages, increased demand for food products, severe supply chain disruptions, and major changes in consumer preferences regarding the safety and quality of their food are just some of the main factors driving increased adoption of digital agriculture on farms around the world. As a result, the global digital agriculture market is predicted to grow from $5.6 billion in 2020 to $6.2 billion by 2021, according to a report from MarketsandMarkets. We can expect to see farmers increasingly turning to agriculture robots or agribots to streamline tasks like weeding, pruning, harvesting, and spraying water, nutrients, pesticides, and herbicides, significantly increasing productivity and efficiency. Precision farming technology is expected to experience major growth as well. This technology allows farmers to monitor the condition of their crops remotely, thus keeping human contact to a minimum. Precision farming also provides numerous other benefits. It enables farmers to save both time and money, reduce the use of fertiliser and other chemicals, minimise their environmental impact, and determine optimal conditions that will stimulate plant growth and increase average yields.
Growing use of AI in agriculture
As the global population continues to grow at a rapid pace, it’s only natural that the demand for agricultural products experiences a similar growth, particularly in heavily populated countries like China, India, Brazil, and the US. Unfortunately, traditional agricultural methods are simply not up to the task of producing such vast quantities of food, which is why farmers are increasingly turning to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to increase their productivity and efficiency. According to a recent report published by ResearchAndMarkets.com, the global AI in agriculture market is predicted to grow from $852.2 million to $8.37 billion over the next ten years. AI technology allows farmers to monitor their livestock in real time, including the water and food intake, body temperature, and behaviour of each individual animal. Besides real-time monitoring of livestock, AI could also have other useful applications in agriculture, such as precision farming, greenhouse management, and soil management.
Agricultural drones on the rise
Growing demands to increase the global food production are also expected to drive the growth of the agriculture drones market, which is predicted to reach $5.7 billion by 2025 (up from $1.2 billion in 2020), reveals a recent report published by ASDReports.com. Unmanned aerial vehicles are now utilised in a wide range of farming operations, with field crops accounting for the majority of them. Unlike human workers, drones never get tired and can keep working throughout the day, allowing farmers to significantly accelerate their production and reduce costs. The technology has also attracted the attention of numerous investors and venture capitalists, as evidenced by the growing amount of investment flowing into the field, especially in North America.
NASA’s new online tool offers valuable insights into COVID-19’s impact on agriculture
Considering that our existing food system is highly interconnected, not to mention increasingly globalised, it’s not at all surprising to learn that the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our food production as well, along with many other aspects of our everyday lives. However, food production typically involves so many variables that it’s extremely difficult to conduct a thorough analysis of every factor that could endanger food security, particularly during a pandemic, when researchers no longer have the freedom to travel anywhere they want to gather data. To address this issue, researchers at the NASA Harvest Consortium have developed a NASA Harvest COVID-19 Dashboard, which can help agricultural stakeholders to analyse the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on crop production, food availability, market prices, and policy changes. “Understanding global food systems in terms of production, logistics, economics, and policy is and always has been a challenge – COVID-19 has highlighted how important it is to really understand the relationships between these different facets of the agricultural supply chain and a big part of that is bringing together the data,” explains Mike Humber, principal investigator and NASA Harvest Data Lead.
The COVID-19 Dashboard was developed with the help of numerous NASA Harvest partner organisations, including the International Food Policy Institute Food Security Portal, the World Food Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It also incorporates several open source COVID-19 datasets, including Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 data, which are constantly updated to ensure they always contain the most recent and relevant data. The tool is free to use, accessible via just about any web browser, and very easy to navigate. “The current pandemic is the latest episode highlighting the urgent need for a global, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary food supply-chain information system. The NASA Harvest COVID-19 dashboard provides a significant step towards fulfilling this need by bringing together a range of satellite-based crop indicators alongside real-time economic data, trade & price information, food security indicators and policy information. We look forward to feedback from the community and continuing to evolve and advance this tool for supporting assessments of the complex and rapidly evolving global food supply flows,” says Dr. Inbal Becker-Reshef, NASA Harvest Program Director.
Predictions for the future of agriculture
The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the digital evolution of agriculture
In order to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agriculture sector needs to accelerate the adoption of digital technology, according to Alison Sunstrum, the founder and CEO of CNSRV-X. “COVID-19 has put us on a digital fast track, farmers are going online. They are rapidly innovating, creating ways of selling their products to keep themselves afloat. We are seeing the world become far more agile through the use of technology,” says Sunstrum. By combining existing practices like zero-till farming with next-gen technologies like direct methane capture from animals, we will be able to not only ensure the long-term sustainability of agriculture but also mitigate the effects of climate change. While technology will play an important role in this process, it will also have to be accompanied with increased investments and policy change. “Basically we’re going to improve farm profitability, enable greater sustainability, and these are our tools to combat climate change,” adds Sunstrum. “Technology is going to take us there, but basically it’s all up to us.”
However, each region will have its own set of requirements when it comes to digital technology, claims Claudia Roessler, director of agriculture for Microsoft. For instance, while North America will focus on increasing sustainability and productivity through precision agriculture, technologies that provide valuable insights on weather and soil conditions will be in high demand in emerging markets like India. In order to bring connectivity to farms, Microsoft has launched a new initiative that aims to teach digital skills and facilitate innovation around machine learning and AI technology. Still, while consumers are increasingly urging companies to employ technology to fight climate change, the lack of trust surrounding some of these technologies could potentially hinder these efforts. “People are conservative and distrustful for a reason, because a lot of the insight we’re getting from farms – like on emissions and water usage – are coming from calculations or research farms but are not measured in the real world, and I think there is some improvement that needs to be done (there),” says Roessler.
Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt, the founder of The New Fork, an Amsterdam-based tech company that uses blockchain to increase accountability and integrity in the global food supply chains, believes that the pandemic will “accelerate innovation” in the agriculture sector. “Digitalisation and innovation need to hurry up if we want to meet the challenge of feeding everybody and dealing with climate change – that is the elephant in the room,” says de Wildt. And that’s where blockchain technology comes in. “Blockchain is part of the next Industrial Revolution,” adds de Wildt. “We need a more decentralized world to create a more robust world because we will never get ‘post-COVID’. We will have a next COVID, and another, and another.”
Digital technologies will have an important role in alleviating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Jong-Jin Kim, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “Hunger, poverty and inequality are exacerbated by a widening digital divide,” says Kim. “We can offset that by bringing digital innovations to smallholders and small-scale enterprises, those that offer a range of solutions to address agricultural challenges in areas of market access, pest management, agriculture-related disaster alerts, financial inclusion, traceability, food safety, and agricultural trade.”
To address challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the agriculture industry will increasingly turn to automation, predicts Arzum Akkas, a professor of operations and technology management at Boston University and an expert in food supply chain management. “There was already a trend for automation and mechanisation before the pandemic, and the extra labor shortage risks due to COVID-19 will accelerate automation adoption,” says Akkas. “Automation can assist the farming industry in three ways. The first is in reducing labor costs substantially. Second, you are faster and can generate more output for a given period of time, meaning a reduction in cost per unit. And the third component is mitigating risk. COVID-19 has created and will continue to be a risk problem with regards to the availability of labor. By switching to automation, you are controlling that risk.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the agriculture sector, further exacerbating some of the issues that have plagued the industry for years, such as growing labour shortages and increased demand for food products. To address these challenges and find a way to feed the growing global population, farmers are increasingly turning to innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, drones, and blockchain. These technologies are set to play an important role in the future of agriculture, helping farmers increase their crop yields, reduce costs, and minimise their environmental footprint.