Is Precision Agriculture Harder Than Medicine?
I’m sure the first thing you’re thinking is, “Nathan, you are crazy!” The truth is, I probably am to some extent, but that’s besides the point I’m trying to address in this article. The reason I bring up this potential debate is that about a year ago I heard someone mention that agronomy and its relation to agtech is actually more complicated than most think and is more complex than most medical practices today.
The one thing I want to make clear though is I’m definitely not against the medical field. I wouldn’t be married if I was since my wife is an experienced DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) and has had to make life and death decisions towards others that make most jobs look trivial. With all that said, with her experiences and line of work it has given me a unique perspective in how medicine is practiced compared to how technology is applied to agriculture production systems currently.
I’m not going to speak for all medical practices and issues here, but more of a general comparative analysis of how both industries approach common and different strategies when looking at solving problems. I’m basically looking at how agronomics can at times be much more complicated in certain technical ways, but not in emotional or life-altering ways as with the medical field that — when it comes down to it — trump agriculture decisions by a wide margin.
Let’s start this comparison with a simple common ailment that many humans succumb to at some point: a broken bone. When it comes to finding and treating a broken bone, the technique is usually generally straightforward. Something hurts or is swelling that you see or feel visually, so you go to your medical provider. They ask you your pain level, where it hurts, what happened, etc., to find out as much as possible. They check your medical records and ask you other questions that are related to your health. They chart all this down and then take an x-ray to see the extent of the damage. Then the doctor will assess the nature of the break and treat it accordingly with a cast or brace or some other common method while giving you a timeline of when it will heal and when to come back to get it checked out. More or less this is what happens and it is a fairly common everywhere and for every human except for rare instances.
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What I’m trying to really convey here is that when a person is sick or dealing with an issue that is medical in nature, there is a standard medical practice that works for all humans everywhere. Now like I said, it is the standard protocol. Based on the type of person, background, lifestyle, medical history, etc., the standard medical procedure to cure that patient can change, but the initial way to heal that ailment is standard.
When we look at agriculture, it is a little more complex than this. Not only are there many different types of crops and varieties out there, there are so many other factors that affect how a crop performs from biology, chemistry, weather, mechanical, ecological, and much much more. There really isn’t a great standard way to treat a specific need or issue that a crop is having. It really is more of a guess based on small trials done in very specific tests that cannot take into effect all the different and unique ecosystems that each field and really each square inch of a field presents.
In all reality, we are not even close to understanding and treating each of the small processes in agriculture comparatively to medical practices since there are so many more variables and species involved. The thing about it is, it’s okay since the emotional burden of one plant dying versus a human is a little different. Also, for the most part, plants are pretty robust and through time and evolution are pretty good at taking care of themselves. Really, the whole ecosystem of plants and animals is fairly stable, but the thing is we as humans are changing that at a very rapid pace with our day-to-day interactions both physical and nonphysical.
My point in all this is to look at how more complex ag decisions can become compared to something we naturally think as already incredibly complicated like medical decisions. It’s one thing to treat an agronomic decision as not as important and easier, but my worry is that with the advent of AI/machine-learning processes, are we really able to have those processes at this point make such complex decisions for us when we don’t even trust those processes 100% in the medical field when logistically it is less complex for a human?
That is the main thought I have between whether precision ag is more complex than medicine. Are we really treating the agronomic decisions made by us and computer programs seriously enough considering how complex they are? Not one dataset or situation with this crop or that field with this machine or process is the same compared to anything around it. There are some ways we can normalize all of these actions but should we? Are we trying hard enough to really understand how precision ag and agtech related processes and technology affect overall agronomics?
Overall, I know as an industry we need to do a little better at understanding the science behind all of it and be careful of just putting out some new cool tool or process that seems to “automate” the job. The medical field isn’t even there yet, so let us be a little more practical in our approach to solving all the world’s agricultural problems with tech. It’s not so easy that even a caveman can do it or an algorithm.