08/11/2017 – Technology / Digital / Agriculture / Global

Agriculture for the Digital Age

The world’s farmers are responding to evolving regulatory, environmental and consumer-led pressures by operating more like efficient factories. Helena Haimes examines how technological leaps in precision agriculture are enabling food producers to meet unprecedented 21st century demands.

 

Recent figures released by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimate that the global population will have increased to just over 9.7 billion by 2050.  That’s a full third larger than it is today, with the most growth projected to occur in Africa (an increase of 1.3 billion) and Asia (an additional 750 million).  The most pressing challenge presented by such a vast increase is basic but tough to overcome: how will these 2.2 billion extra mouths be fed? Global food production, we are told, will need to grow by 70 per cent to meet that anticipated rise in demand.  

 

With most of the world’s suitable land already being farmed and many of its oceans overfished, a key way to prevent catastrophic food poverty by the century’s mid-point will be to maximise yields and reduce waste.  Rising consumer concern over food provenance and more government regulations to ensure sustainability and food safety add complexity to the mammoth task at hand, as producers strive to remain competitive in an increasingly globalised sector.

 

While that might sound like a worryingly tall order, technological advances look set to save the day.  From smart sensors and agricultural drones to fully automated farming equipment and the unprecedented accuracy to be found in genome editing, the global agricultural sector is embracing the potential of pioneering technologies at an impressive rate.  All such innovations are part of a shift towards precision agriculture, otherwise known as ‘smart farming’ – a movement that is rapidly gathering momentum in developed countries and making impactful, if nascent, progress in emerging ones.

 

Taking root

 

As you might expect from one of the world’s largest agritech companies, John Deere was one of the earliest to seriously invest in developing precision agriculture technology.  It was back in 2001 when it started fitting its farm vehicles with GPS – a tool that prevents tractors in fields covering the same ground twice or missing areas completely (both previously common problems), and allowing farmers to track their vehicles anywhere on earth to within a few centimetres.  As well as leading to much more uniform distribution of pesticides and fertilisers, the systems also lowered users’ fuel bills by up to 40 per cent.

 

It was a promising start that has since been exponentially built upon.  John Deere’s systems – mainly used in the US – now allow for detailed data collection capable of creating extraordinary levels of efficiency.  The company’s sensors and connected computers harvest, analyse and share key data on mineral and water content in different patches of farmland, for example, allowing farmers to tailor fertiliser, seeding and watering levels according to precise conditions.  Advanced, high-density soil testing allows producers to see which of their land is likely to be the most fertile at given times.  Equipment installed on harvester tanks also accurately tracks and logs the flow of crops harvested from individual patches.  All this information then allows food producers to create yield maps that indicate which sections of land have been the most productive, enabling farmers not only to see just how effective their sensors and soil nutrient tests were, but also to devise a planting strategy for the following season based on solid data rather than informed hunches.

 

Green shoots for IoT

 

The risk of losing entire crops has historically made farmers understandably cautious when it come to experimenting with promising new technologies.  Despite this reputation for prudence, a recent Inmarsat report focusing on the impact of the Internet of Things on enterprise found the agritech sector to be considerably ahead of other surveyed industries (energy, transport and mining) in terms of both current and future IoT deployment levels.  The report anticipates 100 per cent of its agritech respondents – geographically spread across the EMEA, Americas and Asia-Pacific regions – will be implementing IoT-based solutions in their operations within just two years, up from an already impressive 50 per cent of respondents as of June 2017.

 

According to the report, this rapid embrace is due to market- and government-driven necessity, rather than a sudden explosion in technological enthusiasm among farmers.  Alongside burgeoning consumer demand for organic and free-range food, and growing concern over food provenance, there are other forces at play, as Inmarsat’s analysts explain:  “Along with government environmental regulations and pressure exerted by shareholders, environmental and social sustainability has been pushed to the top of the agricultural agenda,” states the report.  “The net result is a framework of complex standards and regulations, many of which present logistical and operational challenges for the industry….IoT, combined with other elements of digital transformation, is essential to minimise the burden and costs of new regulations.  IoT can boost the globalisation of food production, enable access to new markets and create greater prosperity in the developing world.”

 

Indeed, food producers in developing countries who want to export to regulation-heavy developed nations are set to benefit hugely from the implementation of agricultural IoT solutions.  IoT sensors along entire supply chains are capable of keeping track of a product as it makes its way from farm to fork, providing proof that stringent import standards are being consistently adhered to.  In turn, this is opening up valuable new markets, especially in the US and EU, for producers in the developing world.

 

Traceability and visability

 

Inmarsat’s President, Paul Gudonis, is highly optimistic about the impact that the firm’s satellite-based technologies are having in emerging and developed markets alike: “Inmarsat is working with a variety of agritech companies globally to improve supply-chain efficiencies, particularly in locations where satellite plays a key part in the connectivity mix,” he says.  “We are seeing food producers rising to the challenge by deploying technology to improve traceability and increase visibility over their operations, leading to access into the richest food markets as they are able to easily demonstrate compliance with these standards.  Not only will this stand to enrich developing economies, it will also increase competition and lower prices in developed markets, while importantly conserving our precious natural resources.”

 

The Indonesian fishing fleet is a key example identified in the report.  IoT sensors fitted on its boats provide rock-solid proof that they are not venturing into overfished areas, while also making fishermen safer by giving added protection from piracy, which in turn brings down insurance costs.  Thanks to these sensors, the fleet is now able to meet the strict traceability standards required for them to export to the US and EU.  

 

Affordability means accessibility

 

In the developed world, unsurprisingly, deployment of such technologies has a longer history – industrial-scale corn farmers in the US, for example, were some of the first to experiment with precision agriculture back in the mid-‘90s.  Yet the real turning point has undoubtedly come in the last couple of years.  Thanks to time and money invested by technology giants such as Microsoft, the price of sensors, as well as the all-important systems to communicate their data to farmers, is falling rapidly.  The tech giant has been experimenting with ‘white space’ – unused UHF and VHF frequencies designed for TV broadcasts that’s plentiful in rural areas in developed countries.  Microsoft hopes to utilise this white space to enable small-scale producers in the US (and eventually those in developing countries) to benefit from the invaluable information that soil, moisture and temperature sensors can provide.  A special ‘white-space base station’ relays information from sensor to farmer using ordinary TV transceivers and aerials – a far more cost-effective system than existing custom precision farming setups.  The company is now looking to bring such advances to India, with plans to use smartphones mounted on helium balloons to help bring costs down even further.

 

Drones – creating a buzz

 

While sensors are undeniably useful, they can’t cover every patch of ocean or field.  Drones have become the favoured way to ensure every last part of an area is surveyed for information on growing conditions, pest levels and crop health.  When layered with sensor data, farmers can now build an impressively comprehensive map of their plot.  To translate these complex sets of data, Microsoft engineers have also created a platform that works on an ordinary laptop, as well as an autopilot program that enables farmers to send drones on the most efficient route possible – an essential feature given their limited battery power and flight times.

 

Again, as one would expect, drone technology is currently much more commonplace on larger scale farms in the US and EU – there are an estimated 8,000 distributed by market leader Airinov in use across France, for example.  However, an interesting project in West Africa points to the abundance of potential that such technology presents for farmers in emerging markets.  The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) – an international organisation that helps smallholders in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific advance food security, resilience and inclusive economic growth – has sent seven agricultural entrepreneurs from Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Benin and the DRC to Paris for a week-long training course in the use of Airinov drones, and given them a four-rotor model to take back to their communities where their services will be offered to local farmers and co-operatives.  The CTA hopes that this is just the first step for smallholders in the region who want to tap into the technology’s huge potential in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

A new frontier in farming

 

Such global enthusiasm for precision agriculture bodes well in terms of future large-scale adoption of the technologies that will facilitate this new frontier and the world’s ability to feed more than two billion extra people by 2050.  However, some crucial obstacles must yet be overcome – ones that go beyond pure cost.  The Inmarsat report identifies inadequate levels of satellite connectivity, alongside data security issues and an ongoing IT skills shortage, as key concerns that must be tackled effectively if farmers are to take full advantage of the increasingly sophisticated technologies on offer.

 

Likewise, developers must demonstate the applicability of such technologies in what remains a resolutely traditional sector in some parts of the world.  In order to be worthy of investment, precision agriculture technology must measure the many variables as accurately as is economically viable, while also automating as much of the resulting planning and strategic thinking as is desirable.  Inevitably, not every farmer feels at ease with the idea of handing total control over farm planning and logistics to a machine.

 

Nonetheless, the smart agriculture market is expected to experience tremendous growth in the coming years, expanding from a US$5.18 billion segment in 2016 to reach a value of US$11.23 billion by 2022, according to researcher MarketsandMarkets.  And the resounding note sounded by the Inmarsat report and others is a positive one, with 76 per cent of the survey’s respondents expressing firm faith in IoT’s potential to revolutionise their sector.  Accurate data collection, the report states, can lay the foundations for machine learning, AI, robotics, automation, 3D printing and augmented reality – innovations that could bring unparallelled value to farms the world over in the not-too-distant future.

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