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Saving the planet with digital farming – our discussion with Tobias Menne (Global Head Digital Farming, BASF)


Digital farming matters. Why? Because farmers are tasked with feeding a growing world population, expected to reach 10 billion by 2057 according to the UN, while dealing with the consequences of climate change. To achieve that, they need to embrace the digitization of agriculture.

I recently sat down with Tobias Menne, head of Global head Digital Farming at BASF  to discuss this important topic within modern agronomics. In the final blog of this two-part series, we discuss the immense potential of digital farming. What can change and will it change?

The end of information asymmetry

In the previous blog, we defined digital farming as the gathering, combining, and sharing of relevant and scalable data to optimize and transform agronomics. The immense amounts of data offer insight, understanding, and quick learnings. This way it can help to battle global food and climate challenges.

Tobias elaborates: “What digital farming offers is insight into what is happening on the field. To understand whether or not a certain weed or disease is a threat to the crop. And all this information is available through smartphones, at a very low price point.”

Digital farming is particularly revolutionary for farmers in Africa and South East Asia where over 80% of farmers are small holders. Tobias: “These farmers not only gain a lot because they generally are further away from agronomic optimum compared to larger farms in the West. They mostly benefit because digital technology removes the information asymmetry that currently plagues them.”

Take the Himalayas, for instance. Because of limited biology training and a lack of qualified people in rural areas, farmers are often unaware of the types of weeds that grow on their fields. Thanks to digital farming, this is changing rapidly.

Farming with confidence

Digitalization transforms decision-making practices in agronomics. “In the past, farmers invested heavily in labor or crop protection to improve their agronomic situation,” Tobias explains. “They still need to do that. The difference, however, is that now they can be really sure that what they are doing is the right thing. So rather than increasing investments, they simply make smarter decisions. This is why digitization is so powerful.”

“Farmers will be able to embrace new technology much more confidently than in the past. And they can better deal with new weather phenomena and new situations. Because they profit from the learnings of other farmers around them.”

“Climate change makes farm life more daring and more challenging. That requires much better information on how to farm, what actions to take. Due to climate change we see weeds entering new territories. We already observe the migration of insects, for instance. Digitalization enables us to learn quicker, to combat those new developments.”

In other words: digital farming allows adaptable farming. Farmers can anticipate new situations better and faster. A true necessity in this time of climate change.

Save the planet

Because farmers can farm with more confidence, they are also able to grow a greater variety of crops. This will increase global biodiversity.

“Farming is often criticized for its perceived low level of biodiversity,” Tobias says. “You see a lot of corn and soy, and not a lot of variation within those crops. Industrial farming is so homogeneous because farmers wanted to reduce their complexity of decision making. If we start to trust systems for good agronomic decision making, adding crops and increasing functional biodiversity will no longer drive up the complexity of farms.”

This means that niche crops like cassava, quinoa, and buckwheat will become more widespread. And that, in turn, means we will find more diverse products in our local shops.

Digital farming can decrease the negative impact of farming tremendously. Next to improved biodiversity and water quality, the use of fewer crop protection products is beneficial for the environment. Tobias gives an example:

“I’m excited about smart sprayers. In the near future, these will go over the field and identify each weed with their camera. Their nozzles only open when they detect certain weeds. This will not only reduce the amount of product used per square meter, it also allows for species of rare weeds to be preserved.”

Trust me, I’m a farmer

As consumers we want to have food that is healthy for us, that has not impacted the environment in a negative way, that ideally was grown in our vicinity, and that is tasty. More importantly, we want to trust the information farmers, distributors, and retailers provide about our food. Through transparency, digitalization can increase or rebuild that trust.

“I would love to buy the fresh produce”, Tobias says, “knowing that I am contributing to a healthy community in the areas where it was grown. At the moment, I have little opportunity to do so. Sure, I can buy Fair Trade coffee or bananas, but for other products this is really challenging. I believe we can use digital farming to create more transparency on where food comes from and how it empowers the community that produce it.”

By reducing the impact farming has on the environment, digital farming can have a positive impact on consumers’ perception of food and food production, contribute to a healthy ecosystem, and offer insight into the food production chain.

Open innovation

Generating data is the backbone of digital farming, but its true power lies in sharing data. “At BASF, we decided to donate the data we generate with our scouting app via a live stream to Quantified Planet, a Swedish data GNO and an exclusive partner of the Habitat Free Program of the UN. Through Quantified Planet, we make the data available for public research on new farming practices in general and the sustainability of farming in particular,” Tobias says.

“The great thing about open innovation is that things happen with the data that you never thought possible. One university approached us and asked for all the pictures of items that had not been identified by the algorithm. A very unique request. What can you do with that “useless” data? They replied: we are convinced that through crowd sourcing we will identify unknown species and previously unclassified species.”

“This is the power of open innovation. Many people work at BASF, but the majority of mankind is actually not working for us. Data that we see as worthless can be very valuable to somebody else. That is the tremendous innovation power that we are tapping into.”