Future of the Food: Agriculture Meets AI and Farm Data Analytics
COVID-19 and China
Agriculture drones spraying plants. Image credit: Pexel

Smart Agriculture is a relatively new term that essentially defines precision farming, which is the application of modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into agriculture, leading to what can be called the New Green Revolution. Smart farming has a real potential to deliver a more productive and sustainable agriculture, based on a more precise and resource-efficient approach.

A brief history of 20th-century agricultural revolutions

Thanks to the scientific developments, most of the 20th-century humanity managed to stay ahead in the Malthusian race between population growth and food supply. Technological innovations have significantly changed agricultural practices and increased the yield per unit of ground and the level of production per unit of labor.

There are four key innovations which transformed agricultural production – the internal combustion engine, the Haber-Bosch process of producing nitrogen fertilizer from the air, the introduction of hybrid corn and the focus on crop genetics and the development and use of farm chemicals.

Although internal combustion engines developed in the late 17th century, their adoption to a wide range of agricultural tasks, from field preparation to planting to harvest, came in the early 20th century. Tractors with internal combustion engines eliminated the need for draft animals, making land that had been used to grow draft animal feed available to produce food for human consumption, either directly or indirectly, through grain fed to food animals. Additionally, the introduction of tractors also reduced the level of human labor required by the agricultural sector.

Soon after, the Haber-Bosch process appeared in the agriculture scene. It enabled the extraction of nitrogen from the air and solved a significant limitation of agricultural production – the loss of soil fertility from continuous crop production in the same field.

This loss of soil fertility could be partially compensated by using animal manure, but this supply of nitrogen fertilizer either was not sufficient or did not provide the same revenue as the production of cash crops like corn, wheat and cotton.

The use of nitrogen produced by the Haber-Bosch process restored soil fertility and allowed for the continuous production of cash crops in a two or three crop rotation.

Another development came from chemistry. Crop diseases have been the bane of existence for farmers since ancient times. Farmers in the Fertile Crescent discovered that they could use Sulphur dust as a pesticide. However, the use of farm chemicals did not begin to accelerate until the 1920s with the development of a synthetic insecticide that could replace pyrethrum as an insecticide. From that point on, there has been a steady parade of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides to better control plant pests and diseases and reduce the farm labor needed for weed control.

The last innovation came when the world needed it the most. Speaking about global hunger at a meeting of the Ford Foundation in 1959, economist Forrest F. Hill said, “At best the world outlook for the decades ahead is grave; at worst it is frightening.” Nine years later, Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, ‘The Population Bomb,’ predicted that famines, especially in India, would kill hundreds of millions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Luckily before those grim visions could come to pass, ‘bioengineering and crop-genetics’ transformed global agriculture, especially wheat and rice.

Through selective breeding, Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, created a dwarf variety of wheat that put most of its energy into edible kernels rather than long, inedible stems. The result was more grain per acre.

With this innovation, from the 1960s through the 1990s, yields of rice and wheat in Asia doubled. Even as the continent’s population increased by 60 percent, grain prices fell, the average Asian consumed nearly a third more calories, and the poverty rate was cut in half.

Therefore, “More than any other person of this age, he helped provide bread for a hungry world,” was cited when Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

What’s next for agriculture?

Under the current socio-economic and environmental situation, it appears that the world needs more agricultural innovations to be able to stay ahead in the Malthusian race while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to which agriculture contributes 29%.

The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 the world’s population will grow by more than two billion people. Half of them will be born in sub-Saharan Africa, and another 30 percent in South and Southeast Asia.

Those regions are also where the effects of climate change – drought, heat waves, extreme weather – are expected to hit hardest. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world’s food supply is already jeopardized. “In the last 20 years, particularly for rice, wheat, and corn, there has been a slowdown in the growth rate of crop yields,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton. “In some areas yields have stopped growing entirely. My personal view is that the breakdown of food systems is the biggest threat of climate change.”

Thus, 21st-century agriculture needs high-tech upgrades, with a heavy emphasis on continuing Borlaug’s work of breeding better crops, but with modern genetic techniques, which can make farming more productive and resilient – smart agriculture.

The good news is that, in recognition of these developments, the industry has turned to technology for innovative and sustainable solutions. The market for smart agriculture is on the rise. In 2015, the industry’s investment in technology reached a whopping USD 4.6 billion. New technologies – such as IoT, machine learning and analytics, robotics and drone-crop monitoring – are being introduced to farms by various green startups.  Moreover, according to Bloomberg’s estimation, the global smart agriculture market will reach USD 23.1 billion by 2022.

The market consists of global players as well as some Chinese domestic startups. Key market players include Deere & Company (US), (Trimble) (US), AGCO (US), AgJunction (US), Raven Industries (US), AG Leader Technology (US), DeLaval (Sweden), GEA Group (Germany), Precision Planting (US), SST Development Group (US), Teejet Technologies (US), Topcon Positioning Systems (US), DICKEY-john Corporation (US), CropMetrics (US), Agribotix (US), The Climate Corporation (US), ec2ce (Spain), Descartes Labs (US), Gamaya (Switzerland), Granular (US), Prospera Technologies (Israel), Autonomous Tractor Corporation (US), Decisive Farming (Canada), Hexagon Agriculture (Brazil), and Autocopter Corp (US).

These players adopted various strategies such as new product developments, mergers, partnerships, collaborations, and expansions to cater to customer demands to dominate the global market.

In general, all these companies are providing technologies to improve efficiency and reduce waste in agribusiness.

Here are some applications of new technologies provided:

Machine learning and analytics:

Machine learning can predict which traits and genes will be best for crop production, giving farmers all over the world the best breed for their location and climate. Machine learning algorithms can also be used within the manufacturing aspect of agriculture, where consumers purchase their products. These algorithms can show which products are being purchased the most and which products are falling under in the market, thus creating proficient and effective forecasts for future farming.

Farming and robotics:

Just like using robots and AI in other industries, robotics in farms would improve productivity and would result in higher and faster yields. Various startups from all over the world are working on robots that can spray agricultural land. Such robots can reduce agrochemical use by an incredible 90%.

Other startup robotics companies – such as Abundant Robotics, PlantTape and Naio Technologies –  are experimenting with laser and camera guidance for identifying and removing weeds without human intervention, planting seeds and picking up crops. These robots can use the guidance to navigate between rows of crops on its own, reducing the manpower behind it.

Drones and crop monitoring:

Drones are being used for crop monitoring  as a means to combat drought and other harmful environmental factors. Drones that produce 3D imaging can be used to predict soil quality through analysis and planning seed planting patterns. They are also being used to spray chemicals on crops while being careful not to penetrate groundwater. Recent studies have shown that drones can increase the speed of spraying by five times compared to other types of machinery.

Although most of the agricultural drone companies are in the US, XAG and Shenzhen based DJI are producing agricultural drones for Chinese farmers.

IoT and sensors in equipment:

Sensors are being placed on agricultural equipment to track the health of the machine and more. Using the term ‘precision agriculture’ tractors and other farming equipments are being manufactured with navigation systems and a variety of sensors.

While some of these sensors are built with the capability of compensating for uneven terrain using GPS, others are built for yield mapping and harvest documentation. IoT and sensors are also being used in monitoring when tractors need to be serviced. In general, these sensors are reducing the amount of downtime machines experience.

All in all, with these innovations and technological developments as well as the amount of investment the market has attracted, smart agriculture might help to reduce climate change effects and feed the crowded world.

Editor: Luke Sheehan
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