Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the Director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. The digital revolution is touching every part of our lives. But today, we want to talk about its impact on the world of farming. Information and communication technologies are increasingly being used on farms across North America and the world. This is making the process of food production more technological, automated, and precise. Technologies are changing the way farmers interact with their operations. Just think about a farm with GPS guided tractors, wirelessly connected sensors from satellites in space to sensors beneath the soil measuring electrical conductivity, variable rate pesticide applicators, and smartphone apps that use data analytics designed to help farmers make decisions on the farm. I'm here with my colleague, Sarah Marquis, and in this episode, we will talk about both the advantages and disadvantages that come with a more digital farming system.
Hi, Evan, I'm really excited to be here today. So I guess I'll just introduce myself really quickly before we get into it. So I'm a master's student here in the Geography, Environment, and Geomatics department here at the University of Guelph, and my research focuses on technology in agriculture. I really think it's fascinating to think about the ways these new digital tools are changing how we produce food here in North America. And I keep imagining a robotic farm where all of the work is done autonomously. And I can't help but think that even though that might be really, really cool to see, there might be some consequences to these changes that we're not even thinking about. Even though we're very far from a world in which all of our food is produced by robots. And farmers are rendered obsolete. I still know that technological changes are happening. And so I wanted to talk to some experts.
Sarah, that, that really does sound like a great idea. What have you learned?
So the first expert I found is Tyler Whale. He's the president of an organisation called Ontario Agri-Food Technologies and helps ag- tech entrepreneurs in Ontario. He's kind of a great person to provide insight on this digital agricultural revolution because he grew up on a seventh generation dairy farm. But also through his work, he's really tapped into the new technological innovations that are happening throughout the ag sector today.
Sounds like he's the right person to be talking to. Let's hear your conversation with him.
My name is Tyler whale. Currently, I'm the president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, which is an organisation that helps ag-tech entrepreneurs in Ontario.
Great, thank you so much. So you seem like you have a pretty well-rounded background and a good understanding of what this new digital revolution in agriculture is. What would you say are some of the new digital agricultural technologies that are revolutionising agriculture right now?
So I think I think the first thing I'll start with is we have to be careful with the word revolutionise versus evolutionize. I think agriculture is always getting better, it's always getting more precise. And so precision becomes an imprecise term in a sense. However, in, in digital, I think it is important to understand that precision, or digital, agriculture becomes the new swimming lane and a new opportunity for agriculture. So things like yield monitors on, on machines have been around for some time, we're going to see more automation or semi-automation, at least in again, robotics and whatnot. I see a lot of really interesting potential in cameras, then you can see with different wavelengths, but you could also see from outer space, for example. And you could see better by interacting, having interoperable digital technologies. So satellite, with drone, with on the ground machines, for example, that are testing deep soil. And I say deep soil because it's easy to read the surface, but it's not so easy to read a metre down and really understand what's happening in soil. I think another one that's going to be very interesting is smelling rather than seeing, so VOC - volatile organic compounds - for example. When a plant or an animal is stressed they emit a different fingerprint, if you will, or a different smell than if they're, if they're healthy. And so you can start to predict very, very much in advance of seeing things. You can start to smell things. Honestly, you could predict the day where you rain sensors from an airplane in the sky or you, you have them shooting out of a sprayer or a seeder, so that there's a sensor on every plant or in every stomach of a cow or in every part of the land that we're monitoring, really. And then of course we love to throw out terms like AI, so artificial intelligence or machine learning (ML) or blockchain, and we talk about these kinds of technologies as the ability to revolutionise, but they can't if they don't have data. So at the end of the day a digital revolution starts and ends with the the ability to acquire good data.
And how do you think these, these new technologies can make farming more sustainable or environmentally friendly?
Yeah, and again, that's the whole point, I guess, of precision or digital ag is, is how can you do a better job? So certainly, they're, they're going to be making the whole process more efficacious or efficient, and we're gonna yield more, where certainly it'll be able to improve quality. So when you're, when you're looking, for example, if a field is partially ready to harvest in one corner, but not in the other corner, so you could, you could spot harvest the high quality or the ready product. Accuracy, we talk about the ability maybe to reduce our inputs, fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides, those kinds of things by, by upwards of 90%, I mean, just, just applying it at the right time on the right plant only when needed. Reduction of waste a huge, hugely important thing in in agriculture right now, where any part of the developed or developing world are wasting between 30 and 50% on, on different ends of the spectrum of Ag.
But I think two things are probably most critical. One is predictive. So instead of reactive agriculture, where you see a sick animal and you treat it or you see an infestation of insects and you, you address it, we'll be a lot more proactive, or even better predictive. So proactive is you spray in advance of a fungal, fungal infestation, for example, to try to prevent it. Predictive is you understand what's coming and how you can start to battle that, that oncoming thing maybe through genetics, maybe through a lot more environmentally friendly options. And, and just a lot more cost efficiency too.
The last thing, of course, is data and the ability to influence consumer awareness of things. And I think this is ultimately the most important thing that digital ag can do. If you're, most, for the most part, consumers want to make the right decision both for their health, for the environment, for the animals that they eat, for the use of land that they shop from, for example. And if they don't have accurate data about what they're doing, how can you make the right decision? So right now, there's the Wild West of misinformation going on online. But I think, I think ultimately, consumers want to make the right decision. And if they're armed with information that can guide them to the right decision, then they'll, they'll gladly do it. So we'll, you really need data when you're when comparing organic to conventional, or non-GM to GM, or meat to non-meat. I mean, these, these things are very complex systems. It's not a, it's not a simple analysis to understand what you should be eating, it's going to be different in every country in every season. And for every product, quite frankly.
And I think that brings me to my next question, which is about kind of the division between small farms and large farms. So do you think that small farms have the same ability to benefit as large farms from new technologies?
So first world, developed world, sure. You can apply technologies that make sense, and you have the ability to scour the innovation ecosystem for technologies that make sense. However, you know, 50,000 acre farms in the West are certainly going to be the ones that, that yield monitors and planting efficiencies and spray, spray monitors and those kinds of things are going to be applied to first. It all depends on the value that you can generate for a farmer. They're not just going to adopt those things, because you came onto their property one time and said. They're going to want to see if there's a pioneer or somebody that they, that they align with or follow, for example, that's used and applied to technology effectively, they're going to want some kind of assurance that, that if I use this technology and my crop fails, am I going to be compensated for that kind of thing? Are you, can you give that kind of insurance or assurance?
So we're getting to the end of the interview, but I wanted to ask you what you think the future of farming looks like in relation to digital technologies?
I think they're going to be very autonomous, very roboticized, very sensored. Everything will be measured, and again, it should be. I think you'll probably see an urban setting so people can get the benefits of cities, you'll have towers of controllers, people controlling tractors and robots and monitoring livestock from cameras and screens and really sending the farmer to where they need to be. I think when you think about harvesting and the huge machines that pass over the 10s of 1000s of acres, the most efficient way to harvest a field is a swarm of locusts. So if you might imagine swarms of autonomous little locusts and maybe even autonomous pollinators. Precision to the max. And, and I think I think we'll see that data must be a commodity. Carbon capture must be a commodity. Energy Production must be a commodity. And nutrient density must be measured in terms of the value of food. So we'll see different ways of, of valuing farming. Yeah, I'll stop there. That's enough.
Yeah, that's great. That's, that sounds incredible. Do you think that there's anything that you'd like to add that really, that you find really interesting about the different innovations that are happening right now in farming?
From from a digital perspective, I think you have to remember that we're in our infancy. And also remember that food is a system. It's not just about technology. Digital is not going to be a panacea; it's going to be another tool in the toolbox. And overall, there's still things that have to be done in agriculture, like, like baling hay and cutting, cutting grass and making sure that your fields are tiled or drain properly, making sure that you apply the right amount of fertiliser at the right time. And, and there's this Mother Nature thing that makes it entirely unpredictable and a lot of ways. So you're you're you're managing an incredible amount of diversity and input and unpredictability or inpredictability. But and now you're trying to digitise all that and make it a lot more efficient and predictable and whatever else.
Well, thank you so much for being here. You'll have so many great insights about these new, you didn't say revolution, evolutions on farms. Thank you so much for being here.
No problem, Sarah. Thanks very much.
Sarah, it's really great to hear about all these new technologies that are being used on farms. What did you think?
Yeah, Tyler was a great person to talk to to help me think through how tech is impacting the farm. I was really interested in how precision ag is being deployed to help farmers save money, but also be more sustainable at the same time. But I still have questions. Just because these technologies can be used to help farmers be more sustainable, does that mean that they're actually being used in this way. In my search for different perspectives on this, I came across a PhD student named Sarah-Louise Ruder. Sarah-Louise just finished her master's degree, during which time she spent a lot of time interviewing farmers and really working to frame the so-called digital farming revolution through a critical lens.
That sounds like a really good idea. I'm thinking that even though these technologies might help farmers a lot, and in many different aspects, there also might be other issues at play that we really need to be thinking about.
Hi, my name is Sarah-Louise Ruder. And I recently completed a study with Ontario grain farmers studying the digital agricultural revolution, and specific technologies as they're adopted. So in the history of agriculture, we've seen technology drive changes in agricultural practices many times. But now we're seeing an overlap with information communication technologies, and farm machinery, they can potentially change the way that we do farming. In addition, this digital agricultural revolution concept is usually pitched as a proposal for changing the food system or solving some of the big problems or challenges in the food system by the people who develop or promote this technology.
Wow, that seems really, really interesting. And so can you tell us a little bit about your specific research process, and how you, you became interested in these technologies and their impacts?
Sure. When I was choosing a topic for my master's research, I was interested in the power of corporations as a way to influence farmers, their autonomy, their economic well-being. And I became aware of this new technology being pitched as a big solution for farmers here in Canada and across the world. But I was feeling a little bit concerned, I thought that there were some things that were not being discussed in the general public policy debate in the space. And so I wanted to talk to farmers to see how they were actually experiencing this technology, whether or not they were adopting it and how they were feeling about it, to see if I could produce any research that would be helpful to farmers, and the broader research and policy conversations on this topic. So all of my respondents, so the people who participated in my research, worked on farms in Ontario that grow grains, specifically corn, soybeans, and wheat. So this particular demographic is more likely to adopt digital farming technologies as they're currently existing, because they have something called an economy of scale. So they usually have the capital the money available to make investments in more expensive technology. And because they have a monocrop model and these big conventional farms, the technology is directed towards them and to really benefit their increasing yield or productivity.
Wow, that's really interesting. So I kind of had this idea in my head that these technologies would help with pesticide applications and with things that conventional farms are doing. And that would enable conventional farms to be in a sense, kind of more conventional.
Yeah, a lot of the research so far, has some concerns that digital farming will reinforce the trends of big, as you said, conventional industrial agricultural production. And it is true that much of the technology that is being invested or development, developed in this space is directed at that population. But the technology is not married to a particular agricultural model of production or even economic point of view. There are instances that we could use the technology in different ways. There are other folks who are studying the applications in agro ecology, with small smartphone applications that could help smallholder farmers in countries in Africa, for instance, or Southeast Asia. And yeah, their possibilities are really quite diverse.
Yeah, interesting. And so I also imagine that there are different adoption rates on small versus large farms. Can you kind of speak to that a little bit?
Yeah, so in green farming, in particular, they're experiencing something that people are calling a cost-price squeeze. So it's really hard for farmers to make ends meet, because the cost of the inputs, so the seeds, the pesticides, etc, continue to rise in this current economic context. But the amount of money that they get for their greens is very volatile, because greens are so integrated into financial markets. So the prices will change depending on global trade and global relations. And there's a general consensus that's going down. So the price that they're getting for their crops is decreasing, and the amount that they need to pay is increasing. And that's a challenge that all grain farmers are feeling. But when you have a larger farm, you're able to, to produce enough to have more yield and more reliable income through something called an economy of scale, which is an economic concept. So because of this, smaller farms are less likely to have the capital on hand to buy some of this big machinery. But there's also a sense that if they don't buy the machinery, they might become obsolete, because of these economic pressures, the cost-price squeeze, and other factors in farming that are making it quite competitive. If they don't adopt and have the benefit for potential increased yields, then they might be at a disadvantage. And they may not be able to compete with the other farms that are going, growing bigger and adopting this technology. So it's harder for small firms to adopt and buy this technology. But some of them are doing it anyways, because they feel like they might not have a choice.
Yeah, it's interesting, the ways that farmers are encouraged to make certain decisions about what technologies they should be adopting. They're always looking to the future and trying to predict what, what is going to happen, I guess. So you say in your in your thesis, you write, proponents of digital farming make claims that new technologies and big data in the food system will help farmers and solve food system challenges, including food insecurity. But unfortunately, this problem frame typically minimises or omits social, cultural, political and ecological dimensions in favour of productivity and economic growth. So can you unpack this statement a little, a little bit? There's a lot there.
Yeah, gladly. So those two sentences, try to summarise a lot of what I had studied. Part of my research was to analyse documents from corporations, media sources, governments to see how this technology is being framed, how people are talking about it, what kind of assumptions they might make in the background, when they present this kind of narrative. And most of the publications or sources that I saw from corporations, and even governments, at the Ontario level and at the Canadian level, are quite positive. And there's a sense that these technologies might be necessary in order to ensure that we have enough food for the future. But what that assumes, is that increasing yield, increasing productivity is a way to make sure that everyone has enough food to eat. And that's not what the research shows in terms of how food security works at a system level. And the farmers that I talked to even have a much more nuanced point of view and understanding of how food security works. So they understand that it's not only about how much food there is in the world, lots of people would agree that we already have enough, already have enough to feed the global population. But it's a matter of those social and political and economic dimensions that determine who has enough food to eat, and who does not. If we assume that the technology can solve the food insecurity challenges, both locally and globally, then we're reinforcing this idea that only increasing yield will address food security. And we won't address the other problems that are not technological at all. They're they're issues of governance. And our economic system works to make sure that everyone has the economic stability in order to buy the food and procure the food that they need, in order to eat and to have a healthy life. So not only does that miss that one part of the conversation, so that's a social dimension. But there are other ecological dimensions that are not brought into the conversation, when we have this very narrow view of what the technology can do and how it can solve these challenges. Food insecurity was one of the examples that I use in that untangling or looking behind, beneath the surface of what those actors mean about the technology.
Wow. Yeah, that's there's a lot there. Well, is there anything- is there anything else that you would like to talk about before we end this conversation?
Yeah, there are two other points that I'd like to add. So the first is that I don't want this conversation to come across, as though all farmers are enthusiastically adopting this technology, because that is certainly not the case. So there are certainly folks in this population that are not interested in adopting that are highly critical, and have good reason to be. And so I think it's important that we think about them, and why they're not interested in adopting this technology, because their opinions are very important and totally valid, as well. And even within the folks that are adopting the technology, there are many that are kind of lukewarm about it, or feeling very critical, and just feel like they have no choice but to adopt, which is a language that several of the farmers that I spoke to were using, they feel like they have no choice. It's just what they have to do in order to stay competitive. And so they're adopting, but they're not sure it's completely in their interest. They're feeling kind of in, in a double bind with that, the cost-price squeeze that I've mentioned before. So there are some risks, and uncertainties and the ways in which digital farming will change farming in the future. And I think it's important for farmers to have that conversation, and for policy actors and researchers to provide them with some support to maintain their autonomy in the process.
Definitely, yeah, those, those are really interesting points. And really important to think about, and definitely a good place to end. There's a lot to think about. And I'll just say thank you very much for being with us today. And your work sounds incredibly fascinating. And I'm sure your future work and your future PhD work will take you to really new, new and interesting places. And I'm excited to see what you do. And so good luck. And thank you so much for being here.
Thank you very much, Sarah. And I also want to take the opportunity to thank all the folks that were engaged in this research with me. It would not have been possible without the farmers who participated in the questionnaires and the interviews, but also the folks that helped me along the way, invited me to conferences and helped me establish some of those contacts and communities. I am forever indebted to these very generous folks.
Well, that was, that was a super interview. Sarah, we've we've really covered a lot of ground here today. Can you maybe help us make sense of this?
Yeah, so we did cover a lot of ground. And I think that one of the most important things to come out of these two conversations is that the collection of data is foundational to the usefulness of digital farming technologies.
From what our experts have said agricultural data is truly the thing that makes these technologies worthwhile.
You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security, or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at feeding9billion.com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair program.