AgTech is technology used in agriculture. More specifically, it refers to new and emerging technologies that can help to transform agricultural production and connected functions.
After a period of stagnation in the late 20th and early 21st Century, there has recently been a dramatic and much needed resurgence in interest in applying technology to food and fibre production. This has been accompanied by a massive expansion of investment going into developing new ways of doing things in agriculture.
AgTech is the development and application of new technology, or application of existing technology from other sectors, to increase the productivity, profitability and sustainability of terrestrial primary production.
For the purpose of this blog, AgTech is the development and application of new technology, or application of existing technology from other sectors, to increase the productivity, profitability and sustainability of land based primary production.
In my mind, the label also includes the immediate inputs to, and outputs from production, or innovations which improve the quality of food and fibre produced. The term therefore also covers technologies to improve storability, nutrient density, ease of processing or economic value enhancement of agricultural produce. The boundaries are, admittedly, rather fuzzy, but I would exclude everything that happens at or after the factory such as food processing or food delivery.
The technologies that fall into my definition could derive from any field of scientific endeavour, eg biological (eg RNAi, gene editing), data/software (eg AI, data management), hardware related (eg robotics) or a combination of these (eg satellite-based-GPS controlled autonomous tractors planting GM seeds).
AgTech Isn’t New
Agriculture in the West is often described as having developed in four “Revolutions” characterised by adoption of different technologies.
Humans began to domesticate plants and animals and give up hunter-gatherer lifestyles about 8,000 BCE. In all likelihood this transition began gradually and without an intention to transition to an agrarian lifestyle. In any event, the change created a wave of new technologies such as ploughs, drainage and even wheels to transport surplus.
|Era & Approximate Dates||Inputs||Production Methods||Outputs|
|Development of Agriculture / 1st Revolution|
|2nd Agricultural Revolution |
|Selective livestock breeding||Seed Drill||Cotton Gin|
|3rd Agricultural Revolution / The Green Revolution|
|Synthetic fertilisers||Hybrid seeds||Cold chain distribution|
|4th Agricultural Revolution |
|Gene edited crops||Indoor growing||Robotic harvesting|
In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation and spawned a second Agricultural Revolution. Machines spun textiles, trains moved people and goods, and agriculture benefitted from threshing machines, seed drills and, long before genetics were understood, systematic breeding of livestock.
The Third, “Green” Revolution began in the 1940s and ’50s. Post-war munitions plants converted to producing synthetic fertiliser, while crop breeding programmes using growing knowledge of genetics and plant science to transform yields. Meanwhile the internal combustion engine took over the hard labour previously powered by humans, oxen, horses and other beasts of burden.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the transformation of food production in this era, investment in agricultural technology broadly stalled in the second half of the 20th Century. Computers, the internet, telecoms, robotics and biotechnology transformed economies and society, but by 2015 an oft-quoted McKinsey article highlighted that Agriculture was the least digitised sector of the US economy, correlating this with lower productivity and wage growth.
Why is AgTech having a resurgence?
Sufficient food and improvements in healthcare through the last 200 years has caused the human population to skyrocket from about 1bn people globally in 1800 to nearly 8bn today. Not only that, but average diets have changed dramatically over the same time, with global per capita consumption of animal products and fats higher than at any time in history.
It is truly remarkable that, in the long term and on a global level, as a species we have expanded the amount of food available to us to support a massive growth in population and an enrichment of the average human diet. However, it has become increasingly clear that our short-term successes in economic development generally, and agricultural production specifically, is coming at a very high long-term environmental price.
The climate crisis, dead zones caused by agricultural run-off and a frightening loss of biodiversity are just some of the ways it is becoming clear we are reaching the ecological limits of our planet with agriculture and food production a major contributor. Combined, these environmental factors would have focused minds on the need to find new ways to feed ourselves. To some in government this felt like a problem for the future until the 2007-2008 food price shocks and more recently the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted the political, economic and even the genetic risks within the contemporary food system.
Collectively these factors – relative lack of innovation in the sector despite massive advancement in underlying technologies, a need to produce ever more food for a growing and richer population, a pressing environmental crisis, and political awareness of systemic risks – set the scene for a huge expansion in investment in new technology for agriculture.
From about 2010 Agriculture became, once again, an area in which new technology and waves of innovation started to emerge. Investment started to flow back into Agriculture. This is why it’s fair to say the 4th Agricultural Revolution is now under way.