Today’s precision farmers, who rely on a host of internet-driven high-tech equipment, face an increased likelihood of a cyberattack. This was so important that it was the subject of two sessions of presentations and discussion at the Africa Agri Tech Conference and Exhibition, held at the SunBet Arena, Menlyn, Pretoria from March 14-16.

Bill Petzer, the Research Group Leader, Cyber Security Systems, CSIR, told conference delegates that agriculture was the most targeted industry in the world by cyber hackers. He added that South Africa was the eighth most targeted country for cyber-attacks and suffered the fifth most cyber incidents.

Petzer explained that many farmers now used internet linked high tech IT platforms that were vulnerable to attack. He added that timing was critical for several farming operations, such as planting and harvesting and if faced with a cyber threat from Ransomware or the like at these times the farmers were under great pressure to succumb to demands.

The cyber expert warned that paying the hackers did not always result in the system being reinstated and he advised farmers not to pay as this encouraged more people to undertake these system hacks.

Lwando Cwane, the Cyber Underwriting Lead at Hollards Insurance, gave a further insight into the increasing challenges of hacking. He said that the number of attacks had grown by 85% in the past two years and sometimes it took almost a year for a person or company to realise they were being hacked. These hacks cost South African companies and individuals more than R2 billion annually and the country has the highest chance in the world of a second security breach at the same victim.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was, of course, a subject spoken of by several of the presenters at the conference, as it holds great promise for the agricultural sector, particularly the precision farming community.

“AI holds out great promise for Africa’s agricultural sector,” said Professor John Steyn of AI for Business. “AI should not be seen as making people redundant but rather as a means of making work easier and more fulfilling. For instance, it can highlight simple things that can make a significant difference when they are changed.”

Alec Azar, General Manager: Agricultural Economics and Advisory at the Land Bank, said that farmers intending to use AI take small steps when entering this environment which he sees as an ideal tool to balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

“Big data is generated on a farm and those compiling it must tailor it to make it their own. It is no good just collecting data. Remember you can’t manage what you don’t measure. You must know what you want to do with it and collect only the data that will be useful and relevant to improving your business,” added Azar.

However, in a conference focused on technology and how it can be used to improve all facets of the agricultural business, there is still a serious lack of proper data in the field of statistical information about this vital business sector.

Wandile Sihlobo, the Chief Economist at Agbiz, provided a startling revelation of the incomplete statistics in South African agriculture.

He explained that the number of farmers in the country is usually quoted as 40 000 but this was completely erroneous as it only related to the number listed as commercial farmers by SARS due to the fact that they paid VAT where qualification was a turnover of at least R500 000 per annum.

“This figure does not include the hundreds of thousands of so-called smallholder farmer. There are only guesstimates of this number, where the vast majority are black farmers. When one drills down into data obtained during a census we come to a figure of approximately 250 000 people who say their main source of income is farming,” explained Sihlobo.

“The Western Cape is the only region where substantial statistical gathering is being undertaken. This has highlighted, for instance, that where there has been a decrease in the area of land used for viniculture the reason is often that the vines have been replaced by high value commodities such as berries and soft citrus.

“It is essential for the development of the so-called emerging farmers that country-wide data about farmers is collected and used for the betterment of this industry which contributes 3-4% of South Africa’s GDP and provides substantial employment,” concluded Sihlobo.

Source: Agri Tech