What is digital farming? Discussion with Tobias Menne, Head Digital Farming Unit, BASF

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How is digitization changing agronomics?


Digital farming is hot. No surprise: several life-changing global developments – the biggest being the growing world population and climate change – require a revolutionary approach to modern farming. Yet, people don’t seem to truly grasp what digital farming is and what it will bring us. Despite its urgency, or perhaps because of it.

I recently sat down with Tobias Menne, global head of Digital Farming Unit BASF , to discuss the many ways in which digitization is changing agronomics. In the first blog of this two-part series, we talk about what digital farming is – and what it is not.

Digital farming is not precision farming

I notice that people often confuse digital farming with precision farming. To me, this illustrates a lack of understanding the digitization of agriculture. And without proper knowledge of the concept, how can we implement it? So I asked Tobias to define precision farming and digital farming:

“Precision farming is when you do different things on one field. For instance, dosing slightly differently across various parts of the field, or using different types of seeds and fertilizing rates. Satellite data is used to guide the farmer’s actions. In digital farming, by contrast, farmers use data from multiple sources: drone images, weather reports, satellite data, and many more.”

“Whereas data in precision farming is generally used only as a stream from the provider to the farmer, data in digital farming is circular. Farmers provide the data themselves, for instance, by taking a picture with their smartphone. That data is then aggregated by third party players like Bayer, who combine it with, and compare it to, data provided by other farmers and then feed it back into the system.”

“Farmers benefit in two ways: first from the data provided by other farmers in their neighborhood – or even across the globe – and also from the additional information the third-party algorithms provide.”

“Sharing is caring”

A known challenge of digital farming is convincing farmers to share their data. In reality, many are afraid that sharing will hurt their business. “The key,” Tobias explains, “is to demonstrate that farmers truly benefit from sharing. We clearly see that farmers are willing to share data when they get an immediate return.”

“Our scouting app, for instance, is currently used in over 100 countries. When farmers take a picture of a certain weed and upload it, they probably immediately get an accurate analysis of which weed it is. Just because of the sheer volume of users. Sharing data is very powerful and we are showing farmers how they can all benefit from it.”

“To understand the power of sharing data we have to realize that some paradigms have changed in the digital world in comparison to the classical world. For instance: traditionally, I don’t want everybody wearing the same sweater as I am, I don’t want everybody taking the same train in the morning and I don’t want everybody using the same crop protection because it will lead to or increase resistance.”

“In the digital world things are very different: I want everybody to be on Facebook because I am on Facebook. That way I can have a much bigger and stronger network than I could ever have in the physical world. And these digital networks are driving innovation. They have dramatically reduced the cost of collaboration so that we can collaborate more often. We promote cross-sharing of data because it is the reality of digital farming.”

Talk to me, plant

But where should the data come from? In my experience, many people see drones as the ultimate symbol of digital farming. However, when you rely on data provided by drones alone, you limit yourself to finding patterns in your crop or fields based on what drones can do.

For me, therefore, the essence of digital farming is the combination of different types of data. The promise of digital farming is that it allows us to ask: what does the crop need? This is so much better than asking: what can I do with a drone?

Tobias agrees: “Scalability is crucial for digital farming. A few years ago, sensors were seen as the big next thing. But digging a sensor into the soil on every hectare clearly is not scalable. So, we are now trying to “teach” plants to speak with us through bio-engineering. They already tell us certain things, for instance when they are dying of water shortage. Insightful, but often it is too late to do something about it.”

“To prevent that from happening in the future, we are engineering plants so that they change the protein structure in their leaves when they are thirsty or when they have a certain deficiency. That way we can read, in real time, the changes in protein structures and act accordingly. It won’t be long before we can use the plant as a reliable sensor.”

So, digital farming is: gathering, combining, and sharing relevant and scalable data to optimize and transform agronomics. Its potential is huge. In the next blog we will discuss how digital farming helps to decrease the complexity of farming and, with that, closes knowledge gaps and increases biodiversity, farmer confidence, and consumer trust around the globe.

Misconceptions about digital farming are common. We have debunked the 10 biggest myths of digital farming in the whitepaper “Feeding 10 billion people in 2050.” Download the whitepaper and truly understand digital farming.

For whitepaper go to https://go.capgeminigroup.com/whitepaper/agriculture

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