Emerging Markets / November 26, 2019

Precision Agriculture: the Way Forward for Latin America?

By Jonathan Lloyd

Precision agriculture (PA) is the use of data-driven systems in farming. PA is not a single technology, but an entire range of tools including field mapping, yield monitoring, and variable rate applicators. Data can be collected using sensors in the field, on equipment, through drones and via satellite, and processed in order to improve profitability, maximize crop yields, and minimize the environmental impact of food production.

The global PA market is growing swiftly, and is expected to reach US $1.37 billion by 2023, compared with US $0.67 billion in 2018 – a growth rate of 15.4% p.a. This growth is driven by a rising demand for agricultural goods that is closely linked to population growth, as well as the increased availability of PA technology.

Despite the fact that Latin America is a major agricultural exporter, PA technology is yet to have a major impact on farming in the region. The majority of producers are still small scale family farmers who account for 50% of the region’s food production, with only large-scale producers having access to the capital necessary to implement PA technologies. Many Latin American farmers face challenges in terms of inefficient use of inputs, the identification of crop diseases, and a lack of analytical tools for decision-making.

Latin America is a vital food exporter, but production growth faces considerable challenges. Agricultural expansion into rainforest areas is unsustainable, and will come under increased scrutiny and pressure from NGOs, consumers, and governments. Many farmers will look to PA as an alternative method of increasing crop yields as the availability of arable land declines, especially in regions that concentrate heavily on soy and corn for the production of biofuels.

Fortunately, homegrown PA technology is gaining ground. For example, Brazilian startup Horus Aeronaves has raised $3 million in funding to develop the first-ever agriculture-focused drone service in Latin America. Products include carbon fiber drones which use multispectral cameras to produce high-resolution field imagery, providing valuable insights such as plant counting, crop health analysis, and field maps to allow targeted input applications.

It has been estimated that the application of precision agriculture could increase the productivity of the Colombian palm oil sector by up to 48%, and reduce the required labor force to about 75%. Colombian sugar cane production is centered on the Cauca valley, where the alluvial soils are varied but which appear relatively uniform. Here farmers are using Variable Rate Technology (VRT), grid sampling, and yield mapping to make more targeted input applications. These farms are also prone to soil compaction, and the use of guidance systems can help in minimizing the risks of compaction.

It is not only larger producers which stand to gain from using technology: the “Small Precision Coffee Farming Project” in Colombia is helping small scale producers to reduce costs and increase productivity. Data collected allows for more effective pest control and a 20% reduction in fungicide use through more targeted control of cochineal – a major coffee pest in the country.

If deployed appropriately, PA technology has the potential to allow Latin American farmers of all sizes to continue to expand production and to obtain a greater share of global export markets. As PA technology becomes more widely available, Latin American farmers will be able to improve crop yields, increase efficiency, and mitigate the effects of disease. As Latin America’s agricultural sector charges forward, precision agricultural will have a key role to play.