July 16, 2015

16/07/2015: The Pelletier Column: New technologies open a whole new world

First published in Milling and Grain, July 2015

The emergence and the development of new technologies offer an exciting new look on the future of food and agriculture. While innovations in automation during the 20th century were relying on the human being the central operator, this is not necessarily the case with current technological innovation. In the past, mechanisation was about adding “muscle” and increase physical performance.

Today’s technologies are more about replacing the muscle by a brain and a nervous system. The rise of robots, sensors, unmanned vehicles, satellites, nanotechnologies and artificial intelligence together with the interconnection of machines, systems, human beings and farm animals opens almost unbelievable possibilities.
Image: Edward Webb
New devices will act as extensions of the operators’ senses. They will make it the monitoring activities and data collection like never before. We soon will have the ability to monitor and map the entire Earth in real time, locally and globally. Producers, government and NGOs will be able to look at the equivalents of Google Earth for various production and environmental parameters such as the status of aquifers, of crops and yields, of potential diseases or pests, environment contamination or damage, soil erosion, soil salinity and plant nutrients, to name a few.

Application possibilities of the new technologies are not just for production purposes anymore. They are going to be used to monitor the environment just as well. Their use through the entire value chains and across the different value chains will integrate information from all stakeholders all the way from farming activities to consumers shopping habits. By connecting all the data at all levels of the value chains, I expect new technologies will help recreate the lost connection between food producers and consumers. Similarly, and because of this commonwealth of data, they will help reconcile production objectives with environmental concerns.

Having open data in real time will be instrumental in monitoring, forecasting and assessing the sustainability status of any particular operation. Since I expect data monitoring to be carried out by producers as well as government and NGOs, the data will be available to all stakeholders for evaluation, simulations and policymaking.
Image: Roger W
It will give all parties information to be able to make better and faster decisions and corrections as needed to ensure food and agriculture moves in the right direction. New technologies will enhance a more effective and open collaboration between stakeholders, which is essential since nobody can solve all the challenges ahead of us on their own. It will also benefit producers, as they will be able to show what they are doing and demonstrate they meet environmental, food safety and food security targets. Transparency will strongly improve and will meet the concerns of environmental organisations as well as consumer demands. New technologies will support sustainability by helping reduce inefficiencies and waste. They will help setting up better processes and improve decision-making.

Another difference with the previous century is that most of the new technologies do not originate from or were not developed specifically for the food and agriculture sectors. Food producers must find out what their applications can be.  Curiosity, creativity and pragmatism will be essential qualities to get the most beneficial use of these technologies. There are already many great developments, but we have only scratched the surface of the potential.

The dynamics of value chains will change. As more information is available in a timelier manner, planning and logistics will further improve and so will traceability. Connecting information on production status and product quality in real time will help optimise the right business partners at the right time between crop farms, animal feed industry, animal farms processors and retailers or food service operators. As the new technologies will help reconnect consumers with producers, long-term planning for new product development and quality features of all products from DNA to consumer plate will become more effective.

Transparent value chains offer the possibility to adjust future market demand faster and more effectively through all the links of the chains. I expect data transparency and enhanced communication to remove much of the uncertainty and help genetics companies in their decision process. Food processing will also follow a similar process. I expect the use of robots, sensors and data software to monitor close to 100 percent of the production lines on physical, bacteriological and genetic quality. These systems will identify and take corrective action immediately without hardly any human involvement.

It will change the role of operators and managers. They are going to be both a supervisor and a part of this mega nervous system. It will be even more critical than before for producers to stay up to date with new developments and to be trained properly about the potential -and also the dangers of technologies. After all, technology is only as useful and effective as the skills of those using it.

See Christophe's blog, The Food Futurist, HERE.
Read the magazine HERE.

The Global Miller
This blog is maintained by The Global Miller staff and is supported by the magazine GFMT
which is published by Perendale Publishers Limited.

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