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A horse-drawn hay cart on a farm in Ukraine. Photo credit: pxhere

Fully digitalized farming is nearly a reality. Emerging economies must keep pace

August 14, 2020

Editor’s note: Alisher Tyazhin is CEO of Kusto Agro, the agricultural division of Kusto Group, with farming operations in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

It is no secret that the future of farming is fully digital. It is also no secret that farming at present is already largely digital. Precision farming – the use of sensors, drones, data, and robotics – has the power to revolutionize agricultural sustainability through improved crop yields, efficient water usage, and reduced use of harmful chemical pollutants like pesticides.

Making that fully digital future a reality, however, is easier said than done. It requires both experimentation and a major investment in technology and training. With the EU set to put its colossal financial weight behind digitalization in agriculture over the coming decade, it’s vital that emerging economies — particularly those on Europe’s border dependent on the continent’s markets to sell their produce — keep up the pace. Otherwise, they risk being left behind.

The EU’s landmark €750 billion ($885 billion) Covid-19 recovery package, agreed after a marathon negotiation stretching over four days, could be an agricultural gamechanger. Included in the funding agreement is a hugely significant €15 billion ($17.7 billion) for the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). Digitalized agriculture – aimed at meeting the EU’s ambitious ‘Green Deal’ goals – will be a major target of the extra spending.

The funding boost should be warmly welcomed by proponents of sustainable agriculture. But for those of us involved in agribusiness on the EU’s border, we must also be wary of the risk it brings. A widening sustainability gap between the world’s wealthiest nations and emerging economies is a strategic headache – for businesses themselves, for efforts at rural sustainable development in emerging nations, and for the global fight against climate change.

In truth, agricultural companies in emerging markets – including my own in Ukraine, Kusto Agro – have long noted where the wind is blowing. Changing consumer habits, as much as anything, have forced the issue. Increasingly, buyers around the world demand transparency on how their food is produced. The whole food production process, from planting to plating, needs to be traceable by food standards authorities. Making such information easily and quickly accessible is only possible with large-scale digital monitoring of agricultural processes. Led by the EU and US, it is fast becoming standard and required practice all over the world.

But implementing precision farming is an altogether more significant challenge. Importing cutting-edge technology is costly and training farmers to use complex digital farming systems involves significant investments of time and resources. Moreover, it takes perseverance to reap the rewards. Precision farming is an incremental process, where farmers must make use of imperfect data to make delicate adjustments to moisture levels and yields. Mistakes are inevitable; but achieving sustainable outcomes demands sustained effort.

Digital agriculture: Why is predicting return on investment per field so hard? Find out here

For companies in emerging markets there are also significant cultural challenges to overcome. Historically, agriculture is not considered a glamorous job, which makes it difficult to recruit the top science and engineering graduates that a digitalizing industry needs.

Fortunately, that image is changing as more and more agribusinesses structure their corporate identity around a sustainable, forward-thinking philosophy. Genuine commitments to digital innovation help to attract talent with the promise of learning valuable technical skills that will serve them well throughout their career. It also helps that in many emerging nations, including in Ukraine, much of the country’s dollar income derives from agriculture, giving the industry a renewed prestige and the financial means to attract bright young people.

The tools for achieving total digitalization in agriculture are, therefore, within our reach. And if we can rise to the challenge, the benefits will be monumental. Agriculture in emerging economies will remain globally competitive and in touch with consumer demands. We can play our part in tackling this century’s greatest challenge: climate change. We can unlock vital sustainable development by creating highly skilled jobs in rural areas and spreading the benefits of growth more evenly across regions.

The EU’s drive towards sustainable agriculture and a green transition should be applauded for its ambition. But most importantly, it should spur the rest of the world on to embrace a totally digital farming future.

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