In its latest launch of new tractor models New Holland firmly committed itself to Agriculture 4.0, a term that has started creeping into the public consciousness without real discussion as to what it actually entails.
There is no precise definition of its meaning and it will no doubt come to be used as a general umbrella for all sorts of technologically-driven developments in agriculture that depart from present day practices.
Its origins lie in a report from the World Government Summit, a global think tank based in Dubai, which in its own words “is a global, neutral, non-profit organisation dedicated to shaping the future of governments”.
The report, entitled Agricultural 4.0 and published in 2018, was written and prepared by Oliver Wyman, a global consultancy group that “promises to deliver breakthrough impact through collaboration”.
It goes on to claim that “very little innovation has taken place in the (agricultural) industry of late” and that to have any chance of feeding future generations “we need to disrupt the system”.
Within the document it outlines what it believes are the major issues that afflict the world’s food supply.
Briefly, they are an increasing population, scarce natural resources, climate change and food waste.
These are bold statements, and although there can be little argument about the possibility of food shortages, its call for a fourth industrial revolution, powered by an almost total reliance upon digital technology, has raised some important questions in academia.
Agriculture 4.0 is already underway
It is also argued that such a revolution is already taking place and has been for some time.
Robotic milking of cows, for instance, has been around for 25 years now and automated milk recording for even longer.
Yet, despite all the talk of the wonders that robots will bring to agriculture during that time, they are still scarce on farms.
This, however, may be besides the point, for the report goes on to list options that don’t appear on many contemporary farmers’ horizon.
Ideas such as artificial meat, vertical farming, hydroponics, seawater farming and algae feedstock are all included as methods by which food production may be expanded.
Most of these would take the base of the food supply chain out of the hands of farmers and place it in the hands of large food companies with the money to finance their implementation.
Our food supply may be further concentrated into a smaller pool of corporations which many would question the wisdom of allowing.
Grand schemes face reality
Where the report skirts upon matters rather more relevant to the farmer of today, it does little more than recite many of the terms we have already come to associate with digitisation.
They are usually referred to under the title ‘connectivity’ and include all the old favourites such as the ‘internet of things’ and ‘automation’.
This latter item is where the the expansive ideas of a New York-based management consultancy company have raised the eyebrows of a research group at the University of East Anglia.
The academics coolly note:
“While smart technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and the ‘internet of things’, could play an important role in achieving enhanced productivity and greater eco-efficiency, critics have suggested that the consideration of social implications is being side-lined.”
This group, led by David Christian Rose and Jason Chilvers, calls for a far more systematic and considered approach to the implementation of digital technology.
The idea of disruption, as seemingly championed in the report, finds little favour as they call for the concept of inclusion “to account better for diverse and already existing spaces of participation in agri-tech”.
This most probably refers to avoiding sudden or unwarranted displacement of farm staff for the sake of the immediate installation of hi-tech systems. An unlikely scenario considering the conservative nature of most farmers.
A cautious approach
Given that the drive for Agriculture 4.0 is centred mainly around completely new food growing practices, with little more than lip service being given to present field operations, it is not immediately clear what benefit tractor makers may hope to derive from associating itself with it.
Certainly, the idea of enhanced farm management through yield mapping and variable inputs is firmly within the competency of the present tractor and implement orientated companies, but little else from the report appears to be.
Indeed, the word tractor doesn’t even appear in the text of the document, suggesting that it was either deliberately excluded to prove the radical credentials of the authors, or they were simply unaware of the significance of machinery in day-to-day farming operations.
Friend or foe for agriculture?
Other manufacturers would seem a little more circumspect than New Holland.
John Deere appears to not directly involve itself with the concept, neither does Fendt. Both of these companies are otherwise firmly committed to connectivity and greater automation.
One reason why manufacturers might not be quite so keen on the idea of Agriculture 4.0, is that it may end up being seen as a competitor to current farming as we know it.
The aim of increasing food production while using less resources in doing so is laudable, but there are many ways to achieve this without the large-scale disturbance called for by the alliance of the World Government Summit and Oliver Wyman.