Purdue’s Dr. Allen Gray Forecasts How Tech Will Enable Agrifood Trends

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By Dr. Allan Gray, Professor, Land O’Lakes Chair in Food and Agribusiness, and Executive Director, Purdue University

The numerous articles recently published about the future of the food and agriculture industry in 2024 are overwhelming. To set my perspective apart, I’ve chosen to focus on how digital technologies will enable and facilitate key trends in 2024. This perspective is vital as the convergence of various digital technologies accelerates the pace of change across many trends. When strategically planning for 2024 and beyond, it becomes vital to harness technology and recognize its role in accelerating the trends likely to significantly affect our business. As the industry evolves, technological advancements push us towards a revolution. This article explores five key trends and their associated technologies, signaling a transformative era in this sector.

1. Sustainability

Sustainability is increasingly emphasized in the agriculture industry, with a growing adoption of practices prioritizing soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. Technology is pivotal in this shift towards eco-friendliness. Automated irrigation systems, now common in regenerative farming, use sensors for efficient water management, reducing waste. Precision agriculture is also gaining traction, employing GPS, sensors, and drones for detailed monitoring of soil and crop health. This technological integration enables precise water and nutrient application, minimizing environmental impact. Advanced data analytics further enhance farming decisions, analyzing extensive data on environmental factors to bolster sustainable practices and yields. These advancements highlight technology’s integral role in sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture.

2. Digital transformation

The sector is witnessing a digital revolution, leveraging AI, IoT, and blockchain to improve efficiency and transparency. Generative AI and advanced analytics are at the forefront, revolutionizing operations and enabling efficient, responsive supply chains. These technologies offer predictive insights, optimize food processing, and enhance production efficiencies. Moreover, IoT’s role in precision agriculture underscores a shift toward data-driven, sustainable practices, contributing to improved productivity and resource management​​​​.

Several compelling use cases illustrate how these technologies are reshaping the industry. For instance, AI-powered inventory management systems are revolutionizing how agricultural products are stored and distributed, reducing food waste and increasing efficiency. These systems use sensors and AI algorithms to monitor stock levels and environmental conditions, ensuring optimal storage and timely distribution of perishable goods. In the realm of IoT, precision agriculture has been significantly enhanced. Furthermore, blockchain technology is employed to create transparent and secure supply chains. This technology allows for real-time tracking of agricultural products from farm to table, enhancing traceability and building consumer trust in the quality and safety of food products.

3. Addressing labor challenges

To counter labor shortages, the industry is embracing high-tech solutions like automation and digitalization. Farms are adopting technologies such as autonomous tractors and drone technology to automate traditional labor-intensive tasks. These technologies not only address labor shortages but also contribute to increased operational efficiency and precision in agricultural practices​​​​​​.

One noteworthy example of a company leveraging technology to address labor shortages and enhance operational efficiency in agriculture is Monarch Tractor. Specializing in developing autonomous tractors equipped with advanced technologies like AI and automation, Monarch Tractor enables these machines to perform various farming tasks such as plowing, seeding, and harvesting with minimal human intervention. The utilization of autonomous tractors allows farms to mitigate labor shortages while enhancing efficiency, precision, and safety in their practices. These tractors significantly reduce operational workload and optimize resource use, thereby improving overall farm productivity.

Another example is Croft, a startup company created by Purdue DIAL Ventures. Croft offers a seasonal worker management platform designed to simplify the H-2A process for agribusinesses. It provides an online platform for managing partners and digitizing labor data, aimed at reducing administrative time by over 50%, optimizing worker performance, and ensuring readiness for audits and investigations. Croft’s platform offers features such as data digitization and verification, secure storage, remote data entry by workers, document uploads, and electronic completion of processes. The platform focuses on enhancing workforce insights for better hiring, training, and team optimization, ultimately boosting productivity and profitability for agribusinesses.

4. Food traceability and safety

The impact of technology on food safety and traceability is profound, with digital tools ensuring the integrity of food products. RFID and blockchain technologies exemplify this trend by offering real-time tracking and creating transparent, secure transaction records. These technologies enhance food safety by enabling quicker contamination source identification, streamlining supply chains, and facilitating rapid responses to food safety incidents​​.

For example, Walmart and Nestlé offer transparent and secure records of their food products’ journey from farm to store. This ensures swift identification and resolution of any issues in the supply chain, increasing consumer trust in their products. These implementations by Walmart and Nestlé underscore the significant impact of RFID and blockchain technologies in improving food safety and traceability in the modern food industry.

5. Agribusiness financing

The integration of blockchain and AI in finance is reshaping agribusiness operations. Blockchain’s decentralized ledger system ensures secure and transparent transactions, particularly beneficial in supply chain financing. AI and big data analytics play a pivotal role in financial decision-making, offering insights for more informed lending decisions and risk management. Technologies like digital lending platforms and smart contract systems are examples of these trends in action, improving access to finance and enhancing transaction efficiency​​​​.

The incorporation of blockchain and AI in agribusiness finance is exemplified by companies like AgriDigital and FarmDrive. AgriDigital effectively utilizes blockchain for secure, real-time commodity management, thereby enhancing the transparency and efficiency of agricultural transactions. On the other hand, FarmDrive employs AI and data analytics to extend credit facilities to smallholder farmers, improving financial inclusion and decision-making in lending based on comprehensive risk assessments. These technologies are revolutionizing agribusiness financing by offering secure, transparent transactions and more accessible financial services to farmers.

In conclusion, these technological trends are not only addressing current challenges in the agriculture and food industry but are also paving the way for a more efficient, sustainable, and safer future. As you prepare your business to thrive in 2024, make sure that you are paying close attention to the ways in which technologies are shaping these key trends. Are you experimenting with these technologies? Do you have the talent in place to understand these technologies and guide your company in adoption? Are you leading or following your customers in this technological revolution?