Sure, the idea of a cow using Google Glass or even robots running farms might sound far-fetched, but it may not actually be that far from the truth. In fact, 'precision agriculture', where technology is woven into every aspect of food production is set to be a key driving force in the future of dairy - the subject of my recent study on behalf of Arla called Smart Dairy 2025. Contrary to the popular image of a sector stuck in the past, the study found dairy farmers are keen to embrace new technologies that will help them meet society's changing food needs.
But let's back track for a moment. What exactly are these 'evolving needs' the modern dairy sector must now seek to address?
In recent years, the growing popularity of veganism and the rise of fad diets has seen the dairy industry face vocal and diverse criticism. Although the majority of Western governments and health bodies extol the benefits of including dairy in a balanced diet, the concept of humans consuming cow's milk has been branded unnatural, unhealthy and unfashionable by impassioned detractors.
Against this backdrop, it might be hard to imagine a bright future for dairy, but the emergence of a new era of 'Connected Consumption', characterised by a general move towards varied, flexible eating and a stronger focus on natural foods consumed in moderation, is set to give it a fresh lease of life.
Connected Consumption marks a return to the early 20th century when eating habits were based around simple, earthy and pure foods. The difference this time is that most experts agree the trend is here to stay. It also reaches far beyond just the actual milk. From CO2 emissions to animal welfare, GM technology to water usage, today's consumers want complete transparency when it comes to the environmental impact of how their food is produced, packaged and delivered to them too. Meanwhile, the growing availability of technology means people all over the world can now easily access and track the nutritional value of what they eat.
Put another way, we all want to feel connected to what we eat - whether that's through cameras that offer 24/7 live steaming from the farm, home blood testing kits with which to self-monitor vitamin deficiencies, diet sensors to track calorie levels and food quality, or even VR technology that allows us to step inside the food production process and experience it 'first hand'.
This places food companies, including dairy producers, under greater pressure to prove both the health credentials of their products and the responsibility of their operations. And while rapid advances in food science and personal digitalisation have a big role to play, it's in production technologies that the most exciting and ground-breaking possibilities can be found. Developments that are set to change the face of modern dairy farming for years to come.
For example, farmers are already looking at ways to use augmented reality to pinpoint and optimise the performance of a tractor or piece of machinery, and in doing so improve cost and energy efficiency at a key stage of the supply chain. Likewise, drones will increasingly be used to monitor crops and grazing cattle on the farm, and as a cheaper, faster method of delivering products to consumers' front doors. Elsewhere, the makers of the Farmbot, an open source CNC agricultural robot, are reporting unprecedented levels of demand. And of course, there's the wearable tech for livestock I mentioned earlier. A way for farmers to accurately track feed consumption rates and the overall health of their herds in real-time.
As a fellow contributor to the Smart Dairy 2025 study, Food Futurist Christophe Pelletier, said to me recently: "Previously we were adding horsepower and muscle, now we are adding the nervous system. What's more, today, technologies are being developed by start-ups not just the agricultural sector. Then they meet a farmer-entrepreneur and they see there is an application that would be useful. The agricultural sector needs to feed these start-ups, to identify the problems that need solving. The future is about collaboration."
And therein lies the rub. If there's one thing the dairy sector can take away from all this, it is the need to innovate on all fronts - and with all comers. Only by harnessing the power of pioneering technology and partnering with new, tech-savvy players can the industry transform its future fortunes. First, by delivering the natural quality and flavour consumers have been demanding since the 1920s and, second, by meeting society's modern expectations on nutrition, sustainability, provenance and cost.
In other words, if dairy companies are to remain as relevant to people's lives in the future as they have been up until now, they have to look back...and forward. And that may just start with cows in headsets.
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