There is no spoon

J Matthew Pryor

J Matthew Pryor / September 01, 2022

4 min read––– views

When we talk about digitally native agriculture, it is easy to assume we're talking about the digitization of farming. There is no doubt that the digital transformation of farm operations is happening and will be impactful.

Like so many other industries, agriculture will benefit greatly from increased efficiency, accuracy and speed of digital technologies:

  • Satellite and drone-derived imagery will provide better, more actionable information to farmers

  • Software-based farm management system will improve decision-making and increase collaboration

  • Connected machines and sensors will ensure that we only use what is needed, lowering inputs and increasing yields

If digital farming is the PC, then digitally native agriculture is the internet.

Digitally native agriculture is about reimagining how systems can work and challenging the current structure of core elements of the agrifood value chain. It won't be enough to improve the efficiency of existing systems - we need to imagine what entirely new ways of working might be enabled by a digitally native approach.

VisiCalc and then Excel were a step-change in business productivity allowing far more efficient accounting and inventory management. But eBay and then Amazon, built natively for the internet, fundamentally changed how people went about buying and selling goods.

Digitally native approaches in agriculture and food will challenge traditional systems and create entirely new ways of getting jobs done - questioning the very existence of current structures.

Incremental and even step-change efficiency improvements are important, but to meet the challenges of 2030 and beyond, we need systems-level change.

What if there is no spoon?

In The Matrix (1999), Neo was asked to imagine that there was no spoon. We can see an example of this 'look past' approach playing out in public, and it relates to fundamental aspects of go-to-market strategy (albeit in a different industry).

In Australia, the entire national Mercedes-Benz dealership network is taking the German manufacturer to court over their right to buy and sell Mercedes cars. Mercedes-Benz GmBH imagines a world without dealers, where customers buy (or even rent) cars directly. In this world, dealers are not needed; it only requires intermediate infrastructure like showrooms and customer service staff.

This new world, powered by the internet and by informed, conscious consumers connected via social media, is a system-level change. It threatens the entire existence of car dealers and a franchise they have controlled for decades. Is it any wonder that this is a huge legal battle?

Enabling entirely new ways of working.

Part of understanding how fundamental these changes will be is to appreciate how much agriculture is dependent on current structures, and the degree to which those structures have their origins in the industrial era. This is why we believe that a digitally native perspective is so important. Rather than looking for linear and incremental improvement, we need to ask "what if we look through the current structure, and imagine entirely new approaches to our food system that are only possible in a digitally native world".

Jupiter Ionics imagines a world without the heavily industrialized Haber-Bosch process or the fragile, global logistics that this fertilizer supply chain requires. A world where on-farm production of ammonia (and more) can be done with just sunlight, air and water - on-demand with zero emissions. This is a systems level change to one of the key industrial artifacts of the green revolution.

SwarmFarm Robotics imagines a world of platform agricultural autonomy, and in this world, persistent industry challenges like spray drift cease to exist. One of the robot swarm, with a fully digital understanding of the spray payload and its entire operating environment, simply stops and waits for safety - completely avoiding the problem in the first place.

Our pathways to climate solutions through digitally native agriculture.

Incremental improvements won't be enough to transition our global food system to a sustainable and resilient future of affordable and nutritious food.

We see that transformation following seven key pathways. Jupiter Ionics and SwarmFarm Robotics are good examples of those pathways in action: lower intensity production, agricultural autonomy, democratised infrastructure.

Digitisation of operations will be critical to improve efficiency, but we will need fundamental changes enabled by digitally native approaches to meet the massive challenges faced by our global food system.