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Big Data Will Open Up the Benefits of Sustainability Across the Agriculture Sector

In this special guest feature, Lindsay Suddon, Chief Strategy Officer for Proagrica, believes that now is the time for the agriculture sector to harness the power of data and work together to achieve increases in productivity, profitability, sustainability, food safety and security. As one of the original architects of Proagrica, Lindsay’s focus continues to be on strengthening Proagrica’s ability to provide a wide range of data-centred solutions to a variety of industry segments across the supply chain, unlocking value for all.

Data is gaining momentum in agriculture – as it should. The sector generates more data just at field level than many industries do across their entire supply chains. Per other markets, there’s already a renewed focus on using data to drive efficiencies and support those working from home. However, the greatest long-term challenge lies in ensuring the food system weathers the worst impacts of climate change, while the most pressing is to convince consumers of its green credentials.   

In either case, sustainability considerations are what will ultimately put data innovation at the forefront of our industry.

Numerous players across the sector are putting significant investment to future proof agriculture in light of global warming. One case in point is AIM for Climate, an initiative to push investment in climate-smart food across different markets, so far raising over $4 billion.

The scheme looks promising on the surface, but it’s been called out by environmental organization The ETC Group for sidelining farmer’s best interests in favor of technology. This isn’t a concern on fields (yet), but balancing green targets with the threat of climate change and ensuring every stakeholder, farmer to grocer, benefits in the long-term will mean getting a grip on data.

Collaboration led by data, not money

Although farm data tech is trumping food tech in investment, it’s still far from reaching its full potential. With that in mind, now’s the time to extract greater value from these technologies; that means going further than using them to automate admin processes, like logging ERP systems. 

How far the industry will ultimately be able to take it comes down to one factor though, data exchange. 

All stakeholders need to feel they feel they get an equitable return for sharing their data. For instance, growers sharing field-level data with advisors (typically an agronomist) could gain insights on the inputs they should use on that land – for example, what combinations of seeds, nutrition and chemicals would yield the most profit on specific soil types, with particular crop rotation history, elevations, and if such a prescription would make them the crop production more resilient to an increasingly volatile weather-related reality. 

The agronomist can use the same data to advise on the most relevant products for particular fields. Moreover, as nonprofit organizations like Leading Harvest expand sustainability certifications internationally, farmers will be looking for advisory recommendations that ensure they’re working towards both legislative and consumer-driven green standards.

The ‘trust’ issue

Of course, players across the sector want to future-proof their businesses in the face of climate change and most want to do the right thing by  ‘greening’ their operations, but the fact remains the vast majority still aren’t able to see beyond their anxieties around data sharing. This information is viewed by many as invaluable IP – particularly those on tighter margins – so they’re more likely to shut the gate of their walled garden, keeping this data from prying eyes. That is understandable.

The problem is that they’re concerned about the level of transparency that this could give to competitors and also to their suppliers and customers who might seek to gain a price-related commercial advantage over them.

But keeping cards close to your chest limits progress in agriculture. It may mean that recommendations based on insights that come from other parts of the supply chain, like logistics hold-ups caused by increased shipping costs, may come too late for the grower to plan around them. This risks good food going to waste – the antithesis of sustainable thinking. 

What’s more, as weather patterns become increasingly extreme and unpredictable, the ability and willingness to collect and share data could be the difference between an adequate insurance payout or not. 

Appealing to the new type of consumer

It seems almost every month a new documentary emerges to shine a light on the bad practices by rogue players across the food sector, reflecting badly on the industry as a whole. And as increasing numbers of shoppers question agriculture’s credentials around issues such as sustainability, provenance and animal welfare, the agricultural and animal health sector is under more pressure than ever to prove it is committed to change.

The answer doesn’t just lie in investment. It is collaboration through the smarter use of data that can help businesses assess where they are falling short on the seed-to-fork journey. 

However,industry-wide success would require every pocket of the supply chain, including input manufacturers, advisers, farmers, processors and grocers, to share data. As such, the industry needs a trusted facilitator that can collect, collate, translate and transfer authorized and anonymized data to and from a range of different devices and platforms used by the many and various players to meet current and emerging challenges. 

Now is the time for the sector to harness the power of data and work together to achieve increases in productivity, profitability, sustainability, food safety and security. It won’t just be just the challenges of climate change forcing the issue, it shall be the increasing groundswell of global consumer sentiment and demand for change too.

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