Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Tech & Science

The risks and rewards of big data and tech in agriculture

Farmers are turning to high-tech solutions in the face of climate change and rising costs, but are met by cybersecurity dilemmas — revealing the tightrope between tech resilience and potential pitfalls

Farmers are turning to high-tech solutions in the face of climate change and rising costs, but are met by cybersecurity dilemmas — revealing the tightrope between tech resilience and potential pitfalls
Farmers are turning to high-tech solutions in the face of climate change and rising costs, but are met by cybersecurity dilemmas — revealing the tightrope between tech resilience and potential pitfalls

The threats to global food security are immense. Climate change is wreaking havoc, costs are increasing on everything from equipment to fertilizer, war rages in the breadbasket of Ukraine and there are fewer farmers tilling the fields, to name a few. 

Farming itself can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or water contamination through fertilizers, and the way a field is managed can help sequester carbon for wildlife habitat, or emit that carbon and sterilize the landscape. 

It’s all part of a complex balance of production, protection, cost and benefits that farmers must contend with, and which directly impacts global food supply and costs at the till. 

In the face of these threats, farmers do what they have always done — adapt. 

Farming has always been a sector of experimentation, change and technology — setting the stage for civilization as we know it if you go back far enough. But the pace of the changes and the challenges stacking up makes this moment in time different. 

And like most things in our complex contemporary world, the potential solutions to some of these threats raise issues of their own. As farms and farmers embrace new digital tools, including AI, they must then grapple with questions of data ownership, cybersecurity and the impacts of corporate consolidation.

Getting it wrong can leave farmers in a more precarious spot, while getting it right can help them navigate a changing world and climate while reducing costs. 

“I think there’s some potential, but just like other technologies, it’s not the technology itself that necessarily raises concerns, but it’s often who controls the technology,” said Kelly Bronson, Canada research chair in Science and Technology at the University of Ottawa, who studies the intersection of data and agriculture.

The complexity of farming

With the stereotype of farmers being stuck in the past, some assume farming isn’t overly complex. You grow the product, sell it, and wait for the next season.

The reality is much more complicated.

The interplay of weather, climate, soil, and pests along with the cost of equipment, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide — not to mention international markets and the increasing use of agriculture for things like fibres and fuels — are just some of the reasons a contemporary North American farm is a significant enterprise.

It also means turning a profit could be challenging. One bad crop, too much fertilizer, or equipment failure can mean the difference between making it or losing out at a time when a modern combine can cost $1 million.

“We think, actually, it’s the constraints that are going to drive and continue to drive the adoption of technology and innovation to continue to try and push the risk down and to find margin where margins are otherwise tight,” says Wilson Acton, a managing partner at Tall Grass Ventures, which invests in agrifood technology companies. 

Tall Grass’ portfolio includes companies that use machine learning and big data to manage fruit production, track the health and well being of livestock, and maintain real-time tracking and monitoring of grain quality as it’s collected. 

Those investments are geared towards improving profits, but they also help mitigate contributions to climate change and better understand how to farm in a more unpredictable environment. 

“How can we replace some of the things that we are using today to produce food, fuels and fibres with things that are more sustainable, natural or, you know, less polluting — with less risk associated with them?” says Acton.

Those solutions extend beyond traditional concepts of agriculture as a source of food. 

Powerful tools

One company in Tall Grass’ portfolio makes a bio epoxy resin from vegetable oils that can help make products like snowboards or sunglasses more sustainable.

Those sorts of tools and technologies can be invaluable for a farmer trying to make the best decisions about which crops to grow and market, not to mention where and when to plant them. It can help greenhouses find optimal conditions. It can reduce pollution and it can help drive a giant combine in a straight line — no small thing.

Automated combine. Photo by Antony Trivet on Pexels

The end result should be more, produced for less, but all of that innovation relies on, and generates, a new critical resource: data.

Big data, machine learning and applications geared towards agriculture can have significant impacts, says University of Ottawa’s Bronson. More automation decreases labour needs and results in more efficient supply chains. It can also help reduce the use of gas and fertilizers through optimization, subsequently reducing the environmental footprint of a farm.

But she warns agriculture has a long history of power consolidation and work needs to be done to democratize data in the interest of food security and food sovereignty.

“I think we need to be really careful and notice that the same companies that historically have controlled agricultural technologies, are, and have been for about 15 years, really dominating in this new sort of digital era with these new technologies,” says Bronson.

In a recent article in The Conversation, she points to Bayer as one example, noting it has “the capability to access data from almost half of all farmers in North America.”

So while farmers struggled in the past with consolidated control of seeds, the transport of grain by the railways, or market control by powerful corporate interests, today they also have to contend with control of data and information.

“There are a bunch of ways that the companies can profit from these data, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Bronson. 

“But there are some, maybe, misuses of farm data that can happen in the name of profit, for example, the sale of data to insurance or reinsurance companies.”

That sort of knowledge can be powerful. 

Insurance companies can profit off loss that follows a predictive model, or chemical companies can look to those same models and set prices accordingly, she says. 

Farmers can also benefit, but that knowledge will cost them while further increasing the bottom line of the companies collecting their data.

That value of the data also makes it an alluring target for nefarious political and criminal actors.

Cybersecurity

Anytime you link a device to the wider world, there is risk. When you’re talking about the global food system, and the needs of billions, the risk is more acute. 

Writing this summer in Modern Farmer, Charles Eagan, the chief technology officer for Blackberry, says the threat of malicious forces taking control of farm infrastructure isn’t hypothetical. 

“Hackers are jail-breaking tractors and they’re using ransomware to go after individual farms,” he wrote in August. “Earlier this month, a Quebec agricultural group, l’Union des producteurs agricoles, dealt with a ransomware attack that impacted its more than 40,000 members.” 

Eagan says there are end points that can be exploited at all levels of the agricultural sector, from refrigeration units to combines, and throughout the global supply chain. 

If enough of the new digital infrastructure for farming went down, it would pose an enormous threat.

“I spent a lot of time farming, before that stuff existed,” says Acton with Tall Grass Ventures, who grew up working the land in Saskatchewan without the help of GPS-guided combines. 

“So you had to learn how to drive straight lines, which is actually a real skill that takes time to develop. If the satellite goes out, that’s not really a big deal. But you can see how that starts to compound.”

Those same combines often operate on licensed technology that’s owned by the manufacturer. 

“That presents some risks to the, I would say, the food system at scale in terms of food security, because what if a nefarious actor were to hack all the John Deere tractors?” says Bronson. 

“If we think about the food system in terms of bioweaponry, I think that’s a real security risk that we should be aware of, in this new digital era for farming.”

The future of food security

According to the Food Security Information Network, approximately 238 million people in 48 countries faced acute levels of food insecurity due largely to war, economic shocks and extreme weather in 2023.

But even in areas where a food crisis hasn’t taken hold, the challenges are immense. In Canada, abnormally dry or drought conditions are present across the country and the summer could be devastating for crops and livestock. Extreme drought conditions currently exist throughout much of southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. 

Beyond the farm, everyone has noticed the ever increasing cost of groceries as paycheques stagnate. 

In addition to stresses felt across the globe, the age of farmers in Canada continues to rise, while the number of farms and farmers continues to decrease, according to the latest agricultural census.

All of these factors as a whole means agriculture will increasingly rely on technologies in order to maintain production and face down some daunting challenges — taking proven technologies from other sectors and applying them in fields and greenhouses. 

Acton calls it a generational shift. 

“There’s risk and we have to make sure that we’re building resilient technology around it,” he says, specifically referencing security. “But because there’s risk in it is, in our opinion, not a good enough reason to just not adopt.”

The benefits of doing so are plentiful, it’s just a question of for whom it’s plentiful for.

Avatar photo
Written By

Drew Anderson is a Calgary-based journalist and is the prairies reporter for The Narwhal. Prior to joining The Narwhal, he worked for CBC News and was the editor and publisher of the now-defunct Fast Forward Weekly.

You may also like:

Business

Smoking bans and the long-term impact of restrictions on our overall health has been a widely debated topic for decades.

Tech & Science

The AI-regulation law is an interesting step in mostly the right direction.

Entertainment

Michael C. Hall and Princess Goes release their new song and music video for "Beija (Live)."