The challenges of digital agriculture

Annie Royer, Associate Professor of Agroeconomics in the Department of Agrifood and Consumer Sciences at Université Laval (Photo: courtesy)

AGRICULTURE AND AGRI-FOOD. The digital revolution seems well under way in agriculture, but major challenges remain to be met, believes Annie Royer, associate professor of agroeconomics in the Department of Agrifood and Consumer Sciences at Université Laval, who has studied the sectors of milk, grain and greenhouse production, in a study published in 2020. “The challenges of digital technology in agriculture are technical, human, economic and ethical”, summarizes the one who is also a researcher at the Interuniversity Center in analysis of organizations (CIRANO).

First technical, in particular because access to a reliable high-speed Internet network remains problematic in certain areas of Quebec. “Forty kilometers from Montreal, there are deserts of access to this service,” points out Annie Royer. To the point where some producers have to set up their own system. “The problem with these is that when they break, producers don’t have access to the resources of a large, fast network to fix it,” she points out.

The second challenge relates to the human factor. The development of digital requires a level of skill that remains to be developed, both among producers and among trainers. “Digital is another industrial revolution that requires different learning and knowledge, observes the professor. Not all growers have the knowledge base in geomatics, computer science or statistics to fully utilize the technology. The learning curve is quite steep.”

She has also noticed that the composition of the teaching staff to which she belongs is changing in order to respond to this new reality. “At the Department of Agronomy at Laval University, we are starting to hire computer scientists and programmers, new resources to train our students — who will eventually supervise producers — and to give courses to future agronomists.”

Investing blind?

The cost of automating and digitizing agricultural businesses can also become a barrier to its implementation. Not all farms are large enough to support such investments. “There are still dairy farms with 40 cows in Quebec,” recalls Annie Royer, who adds that it is often difficult to establish the profitability of adding these new technologies. “Most of the studies on the profitability of digital tools are done by the manufacturers of these technologies, so farmers are worried about their independence,” she points out.

Data processing and sharing are two other things to consider. For the professor-researcher, the possibility of cross-referencing the various information collected by robots and applications is indeed the main interest of the data collected. The development of artificial intelligence makes it possible to relate a large number of variables that the human brain cannot process due to the complexity of the analysis that this entails. “What makes a cow’s behavior change? asks Annie Royer. Is it the air quality, the characteristics of its diet, its genetics? Algorithms make it possible to understand phenomena that the human brain cannot analyze.”

The necessary state intervention

Of all the challenges facing the digitization of the agricultural and agri-food industry, ethical questions remain the most complex nebula to clarify, in the eyes of the professor from Université Laval. “For a long time, recalls Annie Royer, the main assets on a farm were land, buildings and animals. There, all of a sudden, the data [générées par les robots et les applications qui font fonctionner la ferme] become the asset at the base of digital agriculture.”

However, for the moment, this data is, so to speak, sequestered by the equipment manufacturers. “Today, the profitability of agricultural technology companies is not so much about the tools they sell, but about the services they provide to producers based on the data they generate,” she points out.

If the raw data drawn from agricultural activity should, in theory, belong to the producer, a total vagueness still surrounds the ownership of the transformed data. However, it is the transformed data that is interesting and monetizable, insists the researcher. “It is this data that helps the decision-making at the producer.” Not to mention that technology now makes it possible to collect information that could quickly become very critical in an industry as strategic as agriculture. “Some foresee that large multinational firms could end up with information on what has been sown, what has been harvested, on crop yields, etc.,” points out Annie Royer. At this time, it is still unclear to whom this information belongs.

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The challenges of digital agriculture

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