Embracing Innovation: The Future of Agriculture in the Digital Age

As we know, technology is already out there, operating within many aspects of farming life. Now though, some farmers are utilising technology moreso to support the planning, management and decison making activities on their farms.  Of course, there are good and bad aspects of this Smart Farming and shifting over to technologically advanced methods . Perhaps, unsurprisingly, one of the  ‘bad’ aspects is the costs involved to install, set up and then maintain the sytems that will be used.

Interestingly, back in 2013, the UK Government launched an Agri-Tech strategy in partnership with some industry players. At this time, the Government invested £160 Million into agri-related scientific projects, which it considered to be beneficial to society and the economy as a whole, both at home and overseas.

Whilst that is all well and good, you may possibly be wondering what Agri-Tech/Smart Farming actually is. Well, below are just some areas to consider.

  • Precission Agri
  • Aerial Imaging
  • Agro Bot
  • GPS
  • Gene Editing
  • Vertical Farming
  • Drones
  • Automonous Tractors
  • Digital sensors
  • Laser Scarecrows

Some examples of Smart Farming

Precission Agri

AI Farming

[Image: Using AI on Farms]

The concept of Precission Agri enables farmers to use Arificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to give them information about crop performance, predicted yields, potential harvesting windows – and even what to expect weather wise!

More generally, Precission Agri can be used for estimating quantities of water needed for crop management, along with the amounts of fertilisers and pesticides to be used. The idea is that this will enhance yields and returns. Naturally, anyone wishing to take advantage of this method of farming will need to invest quite heavily in terms of time and money and should be aware of the ongoing maintenance costs too.

Gene Editing

Gene Editing Farming

[Image: Gene Editing Farming]

Another area of research is Gene Editing (GE), which seeks to change existing genes within living things and, as an example, is used  to change the DNA that exists in plants. Research scientists claim that crops will therefore become resistant to disease using this method, and subsequently crops will require less treatments of pesticidesands herbicides.

Some campaigners, however, view GE as a technology that will actually create new toxins and allergens and claim there has been insufficient testing.  Scientists are, for example, aiming to further enhance the vitamin D content in tomatoes using GE, whilst some crops of wheat in the UK have already been genetically edited to enhance yields and outcomes.  Controversially, the UK Government has stated that consumers don’t need to be informed of foods that have been on the receiving end of Gene Editing and do not need to be labelled as such. The Government claims these foods are no different to conventional foods. Incidentally, GE has also been used within farming to introduce a genetic code in cows, resulting in dairy cattle that will no longer have horns.

Vertical Farming

Vertical Farming

[Image: Growing Lettuce using Vertical Farming Techniques]

Interestingly, the European Commision suggests that 60% of the revenue that can be earned from Vertical Farming is likely to be used just to cover the high cost of electricity needed.  This process involves growing plants in a multi-level stacking system, within a controlled environment.

It appears that only around 25% of these operations are successful, with many owners having to make the decision to close down.  Other than electricity costs, further high costs are incurred with the conversion – or the building from scratch – of suitable units within which to grow produce.  Research suggests that growing food using this vertical stacking system (Ie layer upon layer of produce), would require far more acreage of traditional land if similar quantities were to be grown outdoors.

In some cases, Vertical Farms can be set up closer to customers (Such as Marks and Spencers, who did partner with a Vertical Farm to supply some of its produce) which, in turn, reduces transport costs and cuts down on emissions. Another advantage of Vertical Farming is the controlled environment used to grow produce which means that less pesticides and hertbicides are required. Having learnt from the mistakes of those operations that have failed, there are investors out there, now, who are seeking opportunties to set up and develop Vertical Farms in the future. Of course, there will always be some consumers who place distrust over any new growing method and they will be more likely, therefore, to purchase produce that has been grown traditiionally.

Aeriel Imaging (Drones/Satellites)

using drones on farms

[Image: Drones used on farm land]

Precission spraying of crops,  less run-offs of pesticides and fertilisers and less need for manual field inspections are quoted as being some of the advantages of using aeriel methods. Both satellites systems and drones can be utilised for imaging purposes and these tools can assist in many ways.

Identification of land that requires watering, or application of additional fertilsiers, can assist farmers with the management of their crops. Meanwhile, further monitoring of the land can highlight areas of crop damage, disease or deficencies, enabling farmers and growers to give attention to these matters in good time. Incidentally, there is an NDVI index (Ie Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) which is a technology that can be used to monitor crop health and to assist with irrigation along with the management of soils.  A disadvantage to be aware of with regard to satellites, is that poor weather conditions or even heavy overcast cloud conditions can have an affect upon the quality of the images being received

Automonous Tractors

It is said that some driverless tractors can be around half the size of traditional tractors, whilst though, others are not.  Whatever the size, if these do catch on, it appears that we have moved on a great deal from the days of the old, grey, and much loved classic Massey Ferguson!  The idea is that production will be faster, along with lowered production costs, resulting in increased profits. Of course, there will be the intial investment to consider.  And, whilst a selling point is that driverless tractors don’t get tired or need any comfort breaks (They can work in the dark too) the operators overseing them will naturally get tired and will need comfort breaks too.

Operaters sitting in an office, for example, will be fed live images on their screens from the cameras fitted on the driverless tractors. The operaters can then monitor the tractor(s) activities at will. The fitted radars, sensors or ultrasound technology being used will prevent the tractors from colliding with any obstacles in the field, whether it be human or otherwise.  Further, the tractors will also be fitted with remote emergency stop technology, should it be needed.

It is claimed that one advantage of using Automonous Tractors is the more accurate spread of fertilisers, which reduces wastage, run off, and operating costs. Other examples of usage include the monitoring of crop health and the collection of harvesting data.  Incidentally, manufacturers such as John Deere, will enable the monitoring of the tractors progress from a mobile device and not just computer screens located in an office.

Farming Technology In General

It is estimated that by 2050, planet Earth will need 70% additional produce to be grown to feed an expected additional population of 2.2 Billion people. This means that by 2050 the world’s population could be up to 9 Billion. Naturally, this places further pressures on governments, agencies and producers to provide food and utilities in sufficient quantities. Meanwhile the NFU (National Farmers Union) has a wish to achieve a net zero rating by 2040. The NFU  believes it might be able to do reach its target by encouraging a different approach to land management, in turn, improving efficiency. An example of this would be activity to capture larger quantities of carbon from farm land. Meanwhile, Defra has provided £16.5 Million of funding for Agri Technology start ups.


Generally, more use of technology – and indeed Artificial Intelligence (AI) – is sweeping across many industries and, of course, farming is no different.  Perhaps one approach is for the Government and recognised agencies to research further into both the advantages and disadavantages of new methods and technologies heading our way. Investment remains a key  obstacle in some cases, as does consumer perception. In a similar vein, there does remain concerns about insufficient testing of these new technologies and, likewise, there is a view from some commentators that some aspects of Smart Farming can actually lead to the creation of new allergens and toxins.

It will be very interesting to see how this technology and corresponding scientific studies are accepted, utiised and debated in the future.