“Agriculture has had a romance with technologies since the times of farm mechanization and precision agriculture. What makes the use case of industry 4.0 technology in agriculture exciting is that industry 4.0 technologies will increase the communication between the market and the production units (i.e. fields), which will thereby enhance the competitiveness of the food supply chains,” believes Rohit Sharma, Senior Research Scholar – Operations and Supply Chain Management, National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE), Mumbai.
AGRICULTURE holds immense potential in maximizing land utilization and increasing farmers profits. But the current food supply chains and agricultural systems are under enormous pressure due to unprecedented risks induced by recent events such as COVID19 pandemic, overshooting the timelines in meeting the SDGs, global climate change patterns, depleting natural resources, ever-shrinking land sizes, and food waste. Majority of farmers in India (approximately 86%) have fragmented land holdings, which makes it difficult for the economy to absorb the surplus.
Adding to it, there are major demand-supply imbalances in the current agricultural systems, which are a matter of concern for ensuring food security. It is estimated that with the current food production systems and technologies, it will be cumbersome to feed the next billion in India over the coming years. Critical issues that need to be effectively tackled are the lack of industrialization in the current agricultural and food processing systems, lack of information asymmetry, lack of market access, lack of produce traceability mechanisms, lack of sustainable agricultural practices, lack of stringent food safety and quality norms, and inefficient management practices. Therefore, in order to double farmers’ incomes and achieve the SDGs, technology intervention and market access becomes a necessity in the agribusiness sector.
The fourth industrial revolution was the national strategic initiative of the German government’s High Tech 2020 strategy. It was aimed to drive digital manufacturing forward through increased digitization and interconnectedness of smart products, business models, and value chains. In short, the fourth industrial revolution or industry 4.0 is the digitalization in industrial production and manufacturing sector, which is emerging from extensive networking and automation of all industrial manufacturing operations. This inter-connectedness between the products allows smart networking between various industrial units, leading to mobility in functions and processes, the flexibility of industrial operations, integration with customers and suppliers, and in the adoption of innovative business models. Industry 4.0 technologies and supporting technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Internet of Services, Drones (UAVs), Robotics and Cobotics, Cloud Computing, Additive Manufacturing, Blockchain Technology, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Big Data and Analytics have the capability to drive the current manufacturing systems towards digital platforms through seamless technology integration. As there is a lot of data generated throughout the food supply chains, the analysis of this (big) data would enable farmers and organizations to draw valuable insights from it, thereby enhancing productivity through data-driven decision-making.
The industry 4.0 paradigm creates an ecosystem where all elements are interlinked continuously. It is anticipated that as all the devices and functionalities are addressed as services which are in constant interaction with each other, will help in achieving a high level of coordination in the food supply chains. Industry 4.0 technologies can also lead to sustainability practices along the food supply chains. All the industry 4.0 technologies are transforming the current food supply chains into data driven food supply chains, it is therefore expected that industry 4.0 technologies will help in leveraging the visibility and enhance the sustainability of the food supply chains and agriculture as a whole.
INDUSTRY 4.0 TECHNOLOGIES IN AGRICULTURE
Agriculture has had a romance with technologies since the times of farm mechanization and precision agriculture. What makes the use case of industry 4.0 technology in agriculture exciting is that industry 4.0 technologies will increase the communication between the market and the production units (i.e. fields), which will thereby enhance the competitiveness of the food supply chains. Industry 4.0 technologies are highlighted below with their proposed sustainable impact on the triple bottom line frontier:
INTERNET OF THINGS (IoT)
Technologies such as IoT (one of the applications of modern information and communication technologies) helps in real-time sharing and collection of information through the help of connected devices. It makes use of low power wireless sensors (soil moisture, temperature, humidity, light) for effective machine-to-machine communication. It makes a profound use case in agriculture for real-time crop condition and monitoring and real time environment monitoring. There are a few challenges associated with the implementation of IoT in farming such as the high implementation costs, hardware and software complexities, and the lack of technical expertise.
Blockchain technology caused all the hype when it was introduced by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. Since then, there’s been no looking back for blockchain technology with use cases ranging from fintech, healthcare, tourism, and agriculture. Blockchain, as a technology allows participants to transfer value, or assets, among them without the need for a trusted intermediary (or a third party). In agriculture, blockchains are used for land records management, enhancing the real-time food supply chain visibility and produce traceability, and certifications. It allows effective product recalls and prevents fraudulent activities across the food supply chains and enhances responsiveness and risk management practices throughout the food supply chain. Despite the promises block chain holds in leveraging agricultural operations, few of the challenges such as technology integration and interoperability (communication and interaction with other technologies) issues need to be tackled effectively.
BIG DATA ANALYTICS
Big data is characterized by its 6Vs (viz. volume, velocity, variety, veracity, visualization and visibility) and is often seen as a prime source of novelty, competition, and efficiency. Big data analytics refers to the process of gathering, organizing, and investigating large datasets for discovering patterns and other useful information. It has transformed the traditional decision making into data-driven decision making. In agriculture, it is useful for pattern identification and crop planning (through descriptive analytics); in supply and demand forecasting, weather, price, and yield forecasting (through predictive analytics); effective decision-making through mathematical optimization (through prescriptive analytics). One of the major challenges in implementing any data-driven technology relates to the ethical usage of data (data accessibility), which leads to trust and privacy issues.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE/ MACHINE LEARNING
Artificial intelligence is the technology that enables machines to imitate human behaviour and machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence, which allows machines to learn from past data without being actually programmed. Artificial intelligence and machine learning make use of algorithms for varied applications in agriculture and food supply chains such as harvest planning, weed detection, weather management, water forecasting, sorting and grading, production planning, demand planning and forecast, and environmental protection. Artificial intelligence primarily faces social challenges as it is seen as a threat in replacing human labor and other challenges include higher implementation costs.
Food for thought
Industry 4.0 technologies in agriculture hold the potential to disrupt conventional agricultural practices and make way for sustainable agricultural practices. Government and policymakers should therefore take adequate steps in improving the infrastructure (enhanced connectivity for cloud and ICTs) for accommodating industry 4.0 technologies in agriculture. Data is the new currency and is more valuable than oil, hence, data will be the key to enhancing farm productivity and farmers profitability. Practitioners should ensure data standardization as data will be collected from various sources and data interoperability will certainly be a critical issue. Agribusiness practitioners can expect process transparency and visibility throughout the food supply chains with improved product traceability and efficient demand forecasting. Organizations will have to ensure data security and accessibility so as to have an even power symmetry with the farmers. The data-driven capabilities will enhance the quality control practices across the food supply chains and therefore guarantee food safety and quality. The computing and data capabilities of the food supply chains will also allow them to be more resilient and effectively tackle events such as the COVID19 pandemic. The need of the hour is to go for collective farming (as the majority of the farmers have small landholdings) in order to reap the benefits of agriculture 4.0. This will increase the affordability and distribute the risk equally among the stakeholders.
Agricultural sustainability holds the key in eradicating hunger and poverty and agriculture 4.0 will help in achieving this goal (as well as UN SDGs). As the agricultural operations generate tremendous amounts of data, conventional analysis techniques and processes will find it difficult in deriving useful insights. Therefore, Industry 4.0 technologies in agriculture are expected to leverage the development of smart farming techniques by introducing more automated solutions and artificial intelligence techniques. Overall, agriculture 4.0 will facilitate optimal usage of resources throughout the food supply chains and enhance sustainability and farmers’ profitability.