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The Role of Food Technology

Opportunities which food technology presents e.g showcase the role of agribotics to help overcome the reduced workforce
My name is Thomas Engel, and I’m working for John Deere as manager technology innovation strategy at the European Technology Innovation Centre in Germany. Who is John Deere? John Deere is the world’s market leader for agricultural and forestry machines and will play also a prominent role in the area of turf and construction machinery. Besides integrity, commitment, and quality, innovation is one of our four core values, and we are investing heavily in the development of new technologies. So let’s have a closer look how modern technology impacts our farmers. We see technology as key to increase productivity and competitiveness of our farmers. It starts with our automatic steering system autotrack.
With the help of global navigation satellite systems, we are able to automatically steer the vehicle in the field with an accuracy of less than 1 inch. This increases productivity by at least 10% and takes quite a bit of workload from the operator. By the way, besides steering an operator has a lot of things to do in complex machines like combine harvesters. An average operator uses the built in machine capacity only by 60%. Therefore, we are putting a lot of sensors and artificial intelligence into the machines to make them more intelligent and self adjusted. This helps to increase the performance of the machine, significantly even with less experienced drivers. Question is, do we still need a driver?
We are also working on fully autonomous machines without a driver and have some prototypes in the fields. But there are still a lot of challenges like safeguarding and legal aspects to overcome. Therefore, we do not plan to introduce these in the near future, because cost savings are low. The labour cost percentage in traditional large acre production of cereals is typically less than 5% to 10%.
The situation is very much different in specialty crops, like vegetables or strawberries. There, a lot of production steps are not mechanised yet, and labour costs can be more than 50% of the total production costs. In addition, it is getting harder and harder to find people who are willing to do these physically intense jobs. In Germany, the work is typically done by seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. But it is also getting more and more difficult to attract them. Therefore, we see a huge potential for agricultural robots in specialty crops. During the last years, the research has been intensified, and a lot of universities and startup companies are very active in that domain. But there are not many robots commercially available yet.
So what is the impact of COVID-19 for farming in Germany so far? Besides price turbulences at the commodity markets, the impact on traditional large acre arable farming is not so high yet. As you can imagine, there is not much risk for infections sitting alone in a tractor cab. The biggest impact is for vegetable farmers. For example, harvesting of white asparagus has just started. And there is not enough labour available due to closed orders and current time procedures. Recently, the government decided to make an exception and allow seasonal workers from Romania, et cetera, to come in the country. The prerequisite is that they come via airplane, that they stay in quarantine first and do not leave their accommodation after work.
This is really not sustainable. In future, technology, like agricultural robots, will mitigate that problem, ultimately, technology and the primary production sector is helping to drive resiliency and competitiveness of our food chain and to overcome challenges related to feeding a growing population and the changing social and climatic conditions.

In this video, Dr. Thomas Engel, working for John Deere as manager of the technology innovation strategy at the European Technology Innovation Centre in Germany, discusses how innovation and modern technology can increase the productivity and competitiveness of our farmers.

The role of technology

Technological innovations present an opportunity to transform the food system and have the potential to deliver significant positive impacts in food systems by 2030 if scaled properly.

The World Economic Council recently published a report: Innovation with a purpose: The role of technology innovation in accelerating food systems transformation. This report identified 12 emerging technology innovations that have the potential to drive rapid progress in sustainability, inclusiveness, efficiency and health impacts of the food systems and helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

These 12 key technologies include:

  • Precision agriculture for input and water use optimization
  • Gene editing for multi-trait seed improvements
  • Biological-based crop protection and micronutrients for soil management
  • Off-grid renewable energy generation and storage for access to electricity
  • Microbiome technologies to renew crop resilience
  • Internet of things for supply chain transparency and traceability
  • Blockchain enabled traceability
  • Big data and advanced analytics for insurance
  • Mobile service delivery
  • Alternative proteins
  • Food sensing technologies for food safety, quality and traceability
  • Nutragenics for personalised nutrition

The report estimates the concrete benefits which could be delivered in terms of reduced water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and food waste; increased productivity and farmer income; and reduced obesity and undernourishment of consumers.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts on the use of technology to transform the food system

  • Do you think technology can help transform the food system?
  • Can you think of how technology is already used by the food sector?

Please note that due to Covid-19, all our video contributors had to self-record themselves using a laptop or smartphone. As a result, the audio quality is not optimal. We apologise for the inconvenience. Should you want to better understand the video content, we have provided the English audio transcript in the below downloads section.

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Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

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