‘Technology will spectacularly change a farmer’s role’

Leo Tholhuijsen Arable writer
‘Technology will spectacularly change a farmer’s role’

I had an interesting conversation with Jacob de Vlieg the other day. He works as a professor of Applied Data Science at the University of Technology in Eindhoven (TU/e) in the south of the Netherlands.

De Vlieg operates as a TU/e ‘liaison officer’ with our agricultural university Wageningen University & Research. Together, they aim to develop the interdisciplinary area of AgriFoodTech. Before all of this, De Vlieg was an R&D top manager at Unilever, Organon, Schering-Plough/MSD and Bayer.

Jacob de Vlieg. Photo: Bert Jansen

Jacob de Vlieg. Photo: Bert Jansen

Technological change

De Vlieg has enormous expectations of how precision farming, smart farming, sensoring, big data, robotics and new algorithms will change agriculture and the food chain. An unparalleled technological change is taking place in the agrifoodchain. Not only with regard to increasing production, decreasing losses and improving quality (necessary to feed 9 billion people in the near future), but also with regard to what a farmer’s profession will look like in time.

Professor De Vlieg predicts that the farmer’s role as an expert in his company will spectacularly change, due to this technological push. He dismisses the objection that the implementation of precision farming in the agricultural practise will not soon take place because complex soil and refined precision do not mix, which would mean that the expert’s instinctive feel remains necessary. Not enough refined sensors in the soil, that is what De Vlieg thinks ‘complexity of the soil’ means, at best.

Rules and regulations

If we are to believe De Vlieg, the term disruptive technology is very appropriate. Things will indeed be shaken up. Growth models could become so dominant that farmers face the risk of becoming figureheads; condemned to watch how data-based algorithms manage their companies.

De Vlieg practised gliding and found that many commercial aircraft pilots operated gliders on Saturdays and Sundays. In their free time, they enjoyed flying even more. In a Boeing’s cockpit, they have become observers, given the fact that nearly everything during the flight is operated automatically. Their profession has radically changed. “Chances are that this will also happen to farmers. The developments are unstoppable,” says De Vlieg.

As always, pioneers pave the way. Imagine on the one hand a group of farmers who sustainably grow their crops with few pesticides, on the other, a group that does not. “How do you think,” he rhetorically asks, “that rules and regulations will develop?”

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