AgTech is a sector unlike any other. It involves the digitalisation of a lot of physical assets and typically spans over very vast, remote environments, which collectively have a huge role to play in the sustainability and climate agenda.
At Syngenta, they thrive off innovation and offer solutions to fight climate change and tackle the challenge of feeding the world in a sustainable manner.
As the Group Chief Information and Digital Officer (CIO and CDO) at Syngenta Group, Feroz Sheikh is guiding the organisation's entire digital transformation through technology.
AgTech and the key challenges it faces
Syngenta’s mission is to help farmers improve their yield, increase their profitability and grow more sustainably. These three aspects are what define the mantra underpinning the company’s digital strategy. “We are actually counting on the role of technology in helping farmers to be able to achieve these goals,” says Sheikh.
“Some of our competitors, for example, are more focused around growing the adoption of their tools, increasing the acreage and capturing the data, whereas we look at the value of this data to help the farmers make better decisions and to help us make a better innovation available to the farmers,” he adds.
Sheikh explains that, in a typical season, the farmer has to make anywhere close to a 100-150 decisions ranging from what seed variety to use, how are they going to plant it, how to protect their crop during the season and when to harvest, for example.
“Technology plays an increasingly important and relevant role to help the farmers make better decisions. There is still a lot of untapped economic headroom in agriculture. We have algorithms that factor in elements such as soil characteristics, weather predictions, and seed variety and performance data from R&D, which help make recommendations so they can make better business decisions as a grower, ” says Sheikh.
Sheikh sees a future where machines autonomously inspect fields on behalf of farmers for signs of plant stress and crop protection decisions. For instance: “You could have machines that are moving in the field, inspecting the condition of the crop using cameras and computer vision, and then taking application decisions autonomously.”
Sheikh also references drones, which are deciding whether to harvest the fruit in an orchard; taking a picture of an apple and determining if it is ready to pluck it from the branch or not.
All this may sound like a sci-fi story, but it is happening around us. “You can gauge the impact of AgTech from the fact that it is predicted to soar to US$22.5Bn in 5 years from the current US$9Bn market size – a CAGR of 150%” says Sheikh.
Technological advancement in AgTech
Syngenta has close to 180 million acres digitally connected to their tools. Growers access these tools on their tablets or smartphones, or in-cab displays when they're out in the field, or they may have a desktop when they're in their control room, for example.
Looking at modern equipment that's in the field, such as the latest tractors and combines, Sheikh adds: “You have so much computational power that it's probably nothing short of a data centre on wheels!”
And, pushing the envelope a little further: “We get into the realm of IOT and sensors. Soil sensors, which are six inches below the ground, or weather stations out in the field – all connected to their farm management systems through wireless, wifi or Bluetooth BLE technologies that help them send the data they collect back to the servers.
Offering a different perspective to technology and digital adoption, the pandemic accelerated that transformation for the industry.
“Simple things like having collaborations over a video call. Covid-19 accelerated the need to digitise that entire data collection value chain. Advisors are able to offer suggestions to growers without being out in the field. Our marketing events turned purely virtual, and we are now thinking about creating a virtual metaverse solution, where growers and industry partners can interact, share knowledge or attend a marketing event. Equally, internal seminars or conferences that we do within the company also went virtual,” says Sheikh.
“You could have the advisor sitting miles away from the farm, looking at a drone or satellite image and then making a recommendation to the grower on which part of the field they should scout,” he adds. “In terms of what happens in the value stream further after the harvest, this has also been accelerated by the transformation using digital systems.”
From field to fork, the entire supply chain accelerated the transformation from paperwork to digital systems, and from manual to autonomous processes.
Aiming for carbon neutrality and net zero
Regenerative agriculture or nature positive farming is a key aspect of Syngenta’s global strategy; regenerative agriculture is an outcome-based farming approach that protects and improves soil health, biodiversity, climate and water resources while ensuring farm productivity. It consists of practices such as:
- Minimise soil disturbance (minimal or no tilling before planting)
- Use of cover crops to protect soil erosion
- Crop rotation and crop diversification
- Optimise synthetic inputs (fertiliser, pesticides)
Key benefits of regenerative agriculture:
- Improved soil health and lower carbon emissions plus carbon sequestration
- Higher yields
- Improved biodiversity
- Better and more efficient use of water
Syngenta looks at carbon neutrality or nature positive farming in a slightly more holistic sense, from a regenerative agriculture, soil health and biodiversity perspective.
“Agriculture accounts for more than 12% of the global emissions today, which means all of us have a role to play in the carbon conversation”, according to Sheikh.
“There are two or three different aspects in there. One is the emissions produced by the farming activities, as well as helping to reverse some of that through sequestration (above ground and below the ground, when the plants absorb carbon dioxide, they effectively take that carbon out of the air and store it in the soil and as part of the biomass).
“And this happens because of nitrous oxide being released through the use of fertilisers, methane being released by the livestock on the field, and carbon dioxide released through the farm equipment and machinery on the field.”
From that perspective, agriculture has a key role to play in getting to carbon neutrality and perhaps even reversing some of those trends. Syngenta's focus on helping farmers to adopt regenerative practices and monitor soil health and biodiversity is actually a conscious step in that direction.
“These are examples where we are using agronomically, scientifically proven techniques as recommendations to the farmer through the use of our digital tools to help them make those decisions and regenerate the land on their field.
“Similarly, from a biodiversity perspective, there is a direct link between the biodiversity and the actual yield that the growers have.”
Soil health and degraded farmland
As farmland degrades, farmers experience a drop in yield due to the reduction in soil productivity. According to Sheikh, there comes a time when the economic threshold is no longer viable, so the farmers would either have to abandon that field or turn it into pasture land for cattle grazing.
“What it means is that the economic value that existed in that parcel of land is no longer available to the farm. It's our belief – in conjunction with agriculture experts, academia, and our own researchers – that through the use of regenerative agriculture practices, it's possible to actually turn this around.”
This is an idea Syngenta are actively experimenting with, and it could take anywhere between five to 10 years to fully explore potential outcomes, with some instances where it could be a loss-making effort to try and farm on the land, because you would end up spending more on resources and inputs than what you get back from a yield perspective.
Sheikh insists that by turning this around, it “restores the productivity and the yield of that land”.
An example of this is a programme Syngenta are running in Brazil, which is specifically focusing on restoring the productivity of degraded farmland and incentivising the growers to continue to follow these practices for future restoration of their land, spread over a few seasons.
“Through the use of technology season after season, you can prevent it from getting degraded in the first place, rather than trying to turn it around once it has lost its productivity,” adds Sheikh.
Whether it's around AI, machine learning, data science, or keeping their ERPs and CRM systems up and running at the same time, Sheikh says it is important to bring the best skillset, while balancing the cost aspect of it between different geographies having nearshore and offshore options, “where we are looking at helping to scale the internal team members by working with partners”.
Sheikh continues: “We made a conscious decision to retain some of the thought leadership, architecture, and future vision internally, and then work with partners as extended members of our engineering and digital teams.”
“The other dimension of the question is from an impact perspective. It is a call to action for us and each of our partners to join hands to make a greater impact in agriculture.
“Personally, this is what gets me out of bed in the morning. We are here to help agriculture and in service of feeding an increasing population. This includes climate neutrality and nature positive farming.
“We not only feed the world, but also take care of the planet – that's the mission that we are on, and we welcome every partner who comes along to be part of that journey with us,” says Sheikh.