IBM and Yara take guesswork out of farming: ‘We want to drive quality and sustainability in food production’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/Jevtic
©GettyImages/Jevtic

Related tags: farming, blockchain, Artificial intelligence, Machine learning

Yara International has teamed up with IBM to offer digital farming services to the agricultural sector, in an effort to bolster food production and “transform the future of farming”.

Norway-based Yara, which specialises in agriculture, crop nutrition and digital farming, is combining its expertise with IBM to launch a digital platform for farmers.

The initiative aims to advance the agricultural industry through the use of online-industry 4.0-inspired technology, which Yara’s SVP of digital farming Stefan Fürnsinn said could help bring the sector up to speed. 

“If we compare [agriculture] to the financial industry, we see that one benefits from online and mobile banking systems,” ​Fürnsinn told FoodNavigator. 

The energy industry also leverages digital platforms to develop “complex optimisations”, ​he continued, noting that in comparison, the agricultural system is lagging. “Agriculture is, by far, not there.”

These two companies want to change that. “We want to bring all these benefits into the sector. We want to drive quality and sustainability in food production,” ​he explained.

“There is massive opportunity to put much more knowledge into the hands of farmers, so they can make better decisions.

“Mobile connectivity, data, insights and information – and our ability to process this information using big data, artificial intelligence [AI] and advanced analytics – [will also help] other stakeholders create more productive, more sustainable and more wealthy food systems.”

Weather forecasts for ‘instant agronomic advice’

Among the services offered, the platform will provide farmers insight and ‘holistic’ advice in response to weather predictions.

Merging IBM’s analytic insights from its Watson Studio, IBM PAIRS technology, and The Weather Company, the platform will provide hyper-local weather forecasts and real-time recommendations for agricultural stakeholders.

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"One of the main influencing factors for farms is the weather," says Yara SVP of digital farming Stefan Fürnsinn ©GettyImages/Petrovich9

“One of the main influencing factors for farms is the weather,” ​explained Fürnsinn. “In agriculture, almost everything depends on it.”

Associated recommendations will include when crops should be planted and when, what variety and how much fertiliser should be applied. The technology will also predict how fast the crops will grow, and ultimately, how much farmers will be able to harvest.

“We want to take the guessing game out for the farmer…and offer something simple but practical to deal with these constraints,” ​Fürnsinn added.

Blockchain tech links farm to plate

Blockchain also presents a major opportunity within the food chain. The tie-up plans to explore ways IBM’s blockchain-enabled network of food chain players can improve traceability and supply chain efficiency.

“IBM Food Trust [a food-related blockchain system] has been missing a key element: the farm and field,” ​said Fürnsinn. “With Yara and the joint platform we are building, we are going to close this system to get farm to fork coverage.”

Increased traceability will also uncover food fraud along the supply chain, combat food waste and boost sustainability.

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The digital platform will leverage IBM's blockchain capabilities ©GettyImages/ismagilov

For the consumer, this means greater transparency regarding where and how their food was produced, how much CO₂ ​was emitted, and exactly how much water used.

It will also help companies to “de-average” ​statistics regarding their environmental footprint. “We want to know that on that [specific] farm, at that moment, exactly what was done. This is what this platform will enable,” ​said Fürnsinn.  

A global outlook

The collaborative project, which aims to launch first services before the end of the year, will cover both large-scale and marginal markets globally, with initial focus on Asia, Brazil and Europe.

With aspirations to reach 100 million hectares of farmland, the platform also aims to reach African farmers “very soon”​, Fürnsinn told us, highlighting the importance of small-scale agricultural businesses to global food production.

“There are high-end farmers in developed countries, but there are five to six million smallholder farmers out there that actually produce 80% of food supply.

“We cannot accept that today, 800 million people go hungry to bed. If we want to make a difference, if we care about the sustainability of farming, we also need to focus on smallholder farms.”

As a result, the partnership will offer a variety of commercialisation models to cater to smallholder and larger agricultural players, including subscription services, or new business models incorporating yield-participation schemes.

“We want to have a broad spectrum. We want to find models that will create value…and enable us to work with smallholder farmers in a sustainable way for them.”

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