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AgTech for Agriculture: The Promise and Peril of Digital Services for Growers

February 5, 2021

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Agriculture is a global enterprise, but it lags far behind other industries in its use of digital tools and social media. According to a recent McKinsey study, few farmers actively order farming products online or engage in digital agronomy services, even in high income countries in Europe or the United States. Most growers still prefer personal interactions with their agronomists and peers to get information about new varieties, risks, and solutions to problems. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is rapidly changing this desire for face-to-face engagement.

Digital agronomy is an end-to-end digitization and use of phones or computers to deliver information on agronomical practices, agricultural inputs, and farm services. This information can be delivered without face-to-face interaction or travel. Agronomic information could include what and when to plant to get the highest yields or income, cultivation practices, pest management best practices, field disease observations, and the ability to order services such as harvesting. One could imagine significant cost savings if agronomists, salespeople, and service providers could avoid multiple trips to a farm to speak with a farmer, and a farmer could get advice and purchase seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs without visiting a store. This is particularly true in underserved markets and those with poor retail and transportation infrastructure. These cost savings, if passed on to the farmer, could result in substantial increases in income and productivity for farmers.

The promise of digital services is to be transformative for both the provider of agriculture services and inputs, as well as the growers themselves. Access to critical information and solutions could be massively expanded beyond growers in specific high value agriculture areas to more marginalized, part-time, or remote geographically. However, even basic AgTech services require that growers have a mobile phone or computer, access to Wi-Fi or cell phone towers, the income to afford these requirements, and sufficient digital literacy to identify and use appropriate applications or websites. The peril of AgTech for agriculture is that it may only exacerbate the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.  Farmers with access could gain increasing productivity and income, leaving those without further marginalized.

However, once effective and affordable AgTech solutions are devised that transform grower productivity, with clear and indisputable benefits for the grower, these services will motivate institutional and corporate investment in lowering barriers to access. Massive increases in the use of digital tools could transform multiple industries, from numbers the of retail locations to shared cultivators, trucks, or processing facilities. We may also see an enormous surge of investment in digital infrastructure, from new communications satellites to integrated internet-enabled tools and growers.

These tools require that growers, large and small, across all geographies, are motivated and enthusiastic in their use of tools to increase the productivity and profitability of their agricultural enterprises. Direct improvement of the farming enterprise is the foundation of AgTech benefits across the agricultural value chain.

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