Consumers believe technology in ag is how we'll feed the world more sustainably—but that doesn't mean they want it, according to new survey
Technology in agriculture (ag-tech) is how we'll feed a growing population, make farming more sustainable and improve the lives of farm animals, say 85% of the 3,000 participants in Cargill's new three-continent consumer survey. At the same time, only about half of those surveyed want their food to come from a technologically advanced (versus traditional) farm. Industries like medicine and education are where respondents most want to see technology used. Farming ranks third—above defense, manufacturing, retail and food.
"We know that new technologies are allowing farmers to make better, faster, more informed decisions to feed a hungry world while protecting the planet," said Sri Raj Kantamneni, managing director of Cargill's digital business. "We also know that agriculture is still the least digitalized industry sector in the world. That means there's a lot of opportunity—and a lot of need—for greater investment in ag-tech. This survey highlights that in order to help humanity benefit from these advancements, we first need to do a better job of explaining the value of new technologies to consumers."
South Korea most positive about ag-tech; France, least; U.S., in-between
In its quarterly Feed4Thought survey, Cargill found markedly different perceptions of ag-tech across the three surveyed countries. South Korea was the most positive about high-tech farms—both as a source of food (70% pro) and for their potential to make farming more sustainable (95% pro). France was the most apprehensive—with only 37% wanting their food to come from a technologically advanced farm. France and the U.S. thought farmers should benefit most when ag-tech improves operations; South Korea chose consumers. When it comes to tech investments, South Korean and American consumers agreed the top priority should be that it "increases food safety," while French participants said technology should first and foremost "improve animal well-being."
Ag-tech can deliver on consumer and producer priorities simultaneously
"It's my responsibility as a farmer to make sure I'm doing a good job and thinking about nature," says Shelby Fite of Mann Farms in Ohio, U.S. "Technology is making everything faster, making everything more efficient."
Real-time scans in poultry houses, for example, use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to give farmers insights so they can maximize animal comfort and health and improve efficiency. iQuatic, Cargill's digital tool for aqua, lets shrimp farmers like Jose Alberto Fuentes of Ecuador's Fuzu, "sleep better," as it uses sensors to capture data on things like water quality, feeding patterns and weather to inform pond management and increase harvest yields. Facial recognition, through a strategic partnership between Cargill and Cainthus, will allow producers to track changes in a cow's appearance to gauge their productivity and well-being. Already, Cargill's Dairy Enteligen analysis integrates data on milk productivity, feed formulation, cow comfort and more so farmers like the van Bergeijks of Canada's Mountainoak can better monitor herd health.
"It helps me keep a close eye on the condition of my cows," says Montainoak co-owner Arjo van Bergeijk. "That way, I can identify and solve any health concerns or other issues that might come up—before they become serious problems."
Some technologies more accepted than others
Forty-two percent of survey takers said they'd welcome the use of sensors on the farms that grow their food. Thirty-five percent would be OK with AI. Devices that affix to an animal, such as 'Fitbits for cows' and robotic or automated labor (e.g. robotic milkers) were acceptable to 29% of respondents. Next came genomics. A quarter of contributors said they were comfortable with farmers breeding animals based on genetic markers for desirable traits. Finally,18% would embrace feed containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Younger French and American participants (aged 18 – 34) were slightly more likely than their older counterparts (aged 55+) to accept GM feed.
None of these innovations earned above a 50% approval rating, which correlates to respondents naming "consumers desire traditional products" as a top barrier to farmers adopting tech—second only to farm economics.
"That's why we launch partnerships like Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, which applies innovation to help create a safer, more sustainable food system, and the new Feeding Intelligence platform, which includes a website that offers expertise on topics like digitalization to help producers make better decisions," says Adriano Marcon, president of Cargill's animal nutrition business. "Both show consumers that technology in agriculture is how we'll address the very things they care about most."