The term Agriculture 4.0 has been bandied around by policymakers, researchers and technology prospectors in seeking ways to utilize the ubiquitous availability of communication networks and digital devices to improve productivity and marketability of agricultural produce.
Recent digital and communications advancements have been very exciting with digital instrumentation permeating in every aspect of everyday life. Hand held devices are ubiquitous and communication protocols have developed exponentially with 5G touted as the most advanced technology nowadays. With these advancements come applications that capitalize on massive unorganized information such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence, internet of things and robotics which are then conveniently amalgamated into terms such as digitalization and Industry 4.0. Following this the equivalent term Agriculture 4.0 was coined to describe digitalization of agriculture, and this seems to be aggressively pursued by Governments in the form of policies to ‘modernize’ agriculture. There are various degrees of adoption for all these technologies, depending on the financial status, technical competencies and availability of all the various technologies. Smart Agriculture, Agri-technology, Precision farming, geospatial applications and use of GPS and sensors have been around for quite some time and have been adopted by companies or individuals who can afford and use them to improve agricultural productivity. Examples of recently popular technologies are those utilizing geospatial applications, new ledger distribution applications using blockchain technology and the use of drones are becoming more popular, while for some, the use of hand held devices are common.
This topic was discussed in a panel discussion during the International Tropical Fruits Network’s (TFNet) International Symposium on Tropical Fruits (ISTF 2019) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from 24 – 26 September 2019. All the panellists agreed that Agriculture 4.0 or the digitalization of agriculture is at an early stage of development and its adoption depends on the socio-economic status, cultural values and immediate needs of the adopters. It was also agreed that eventually, disruptive technologies will be inevitable and have to be adopted in some way or another, however its affordability and selected usage are limited to the digital advancement and socio-economic development status of countries concerned. This is in view of the challenges faced when dealing with smallholders including small land holdings, practice of mixed farming, level of literacy and inefficient production, that would have an impact in advancing digital agriculture.
Noting the fact that most of tropical fruit producers are smallholders, is tropical fruit production ready for Agriculture 4.0?
On the plus side, it was pointed out that with hand held devices such as mobile phones, younger smallholders are more receptive to new technologies, especially with the increasing popularity of online marketing. Currently online information on latest technologies and information on prices and market are readily available. With improved and expanding telecommunications coverage areas, mobile phones are effective tools that can be utilized in enhancing agricultural practices.
It is also apparent that Agriculture 4.0 is easily adopted by multinationals or companies that can afford the technologies to improve efficiency of production, improve quality and marketability, while smallholders are still stuck in the quagmire of low productivity, lack of financial support, poor market access and therefore earn low incomes. The higher initial costs of new technologies are a big concern for smallholders.
The panellists concurred that Governments would have to look at the target crop types to be developed based on economic and export values, and initiate selected digital applications for both the commercial players and smallholders to adopt. Another approach is to focus and prioritize components of the value chain that require improvement. Smallholders also need to be categorized according to their adoption response to new technologies. For instance, some smallholders can be trained to familiarize themselves with applications to identify and control pests and diseases using hand held devices. This also includes implementation of popular modern technologies, such as, the use of devices to measure produce maturity and ripeness, computer controlled fertilizer applications, soil moisture sensors and use of drones.
The role of Governments in drawing up policies and private sector to encourage the use of new technologies, including training, is imperative to get the smallholders on board. Sharing of information and cooperation on affordable and applicable technologies among countries, the private sector, and international organizations are also precursors for the introduction of Agriculture 4.0 in tropical fruits. International Tropical Fruits Network supports the various initiatives in the use of innovative and disruptive technologies to improve agriculture, particularly the tropical fruit industry.