Innovation and the Agtrade

The agricultural commodity trade is as old as the hills and one of the earliest professions. It has experienced constant change over the centuries and that change has accelerated over recent decades. Technological change and process innovation will continue to accelerate; we as a sector must continue to evolve and embrace these changes.

What have been the major innovations so far, and how will innovation and new technology further disrupt the sector?

Here are five ways in which the sector has already been disrupted:

  1. Social media has transferred market power from producers to traders and now to consumers, giving consumers a mass voice to start or reinforce trends, blacklist and shame some brands or products and promote others.
  2. Communication has become instant and virtually free. In the past trade houses invested huge sums of money in, and prided themselves on, their private in-house communication networks. These have now become redundant.
  3. Information has become widespread and democratic. This has eroded the price differentials that previously existed between surplus and deficit areas. It has also eroded the “information edge” that traders once had regarding future price movements.
  4. Satellites have improved crop forecasting, giving us better information regarding harvests and weather problems. Bigger and cheaper computers have made weather modelling and forecasting less of a luxury and more accessible. (Unfortunately for the trade houses, this information is now also widely available at a low or even zero cost.)
  5. Algorithmic trading systems have become so good they can be better at trading than humans. This is making it harder for traders to make a profit speculating in the futures markets, and more expensive for producers and consumers to hedge their price risks.

However, not all innovation has made things harder for traders. Here are five ways in which it has been positive—and will continue to be positive.

  1. Containerisation has undoubtedly been the biggest disruptor ever in the way that commodities are moved around the world. It has reduced shipping costs (and cargo loss) and improved traceability. There is no reason why this should not continue. Technology should continue to reduce transport and distribution costs in general.
  2. The “sharing economy” should further reduce shipping costs. Instead of trade houses owning fleets of ships or trucks, they will increasingly outsource distribution and transport to others who can better maximise capacity utilisation.
  3. Artificial intelligence will continue to reduce costs. Machine learning and artificial intelligence is already aiding or replacing some more complex roles. This is the flip side of the algorithmic trading point we saw in the earlier list. We have already seen the first successful blockchain transaction (a cargo of Canadian soybeans to China) and we expect momentum in this area to build.
  4. Technology in the form of RFID chips will soon allow traders to track commodities from the moment they leave the farm or producer until they arrive at destination. Pretty soon each bag of, say, coffee, tea and sugar will have one!
  5. Food composition itself will change. It could be simple stuff like Nestle’s new sugar, which is hollow and contains less calories. It could also be major innovations that will completely change the landscape of agriculture – like a switch to lab meat.

By definition, the biggest disruptor to the agricultural commodity trade will be the one that we don’t foresee. Take road transport. Who really predicted how improvements in battery technology would lead to the growth in electric vehicles, the sharing economy to the growth of Uber, and improvements in AI to driverless cars?

The technology companies are already targeting agriculture, whether in the form of vertical farming or retail distribution systems (think of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and their cashier-free stores.)

Who knows, maybe the next Elon Musk will start out as a grain trader!


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