27 Mar 2018
Farming with precision
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As the precision farming revolution reaches smaller farms, will it lead to enormous gains for global food security?
Thanks to satellites, high precision positioning systems, smart sensors and a range of IT applications, farmers can now manage variations in their fields with extraordinary accuracy.
Once the mainstay of industrialized farms, new applications of precision farming are finding success with small farmers, even in developing nations.
Big yield boost
A Tata Chemicals trial in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh revealed that use of a precision ‘leveller’ can improve yield by almost 300%. This is compared to the traditional method where a wooden plank was hooked to an ox to level fields, an imperfect technique that leads to uneven water distribution.
With almost 500 million small-scale farms producing more than 80% of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world, such exponential effects could result in enormous gains for global food security.
For Sherman Black, the new CEO of early-stage American ag-tech startup, Conservis, the case for technology-aided precision farming is a clear-cut one.
“A digital service doesn’t depreciate; the more you use it the more valuable it is, as opposed to a tractor.”
He passionately extols how data can amplify and sometimes unlock value across the entire food production chain.
“Think about access to capital, something virtually every farmer right now considers a major challenge. If I own a small farm and I’m looking for funding, potential lenders look for precise information and real-time data about my farm, and that data burden increases once you have a loan.
“Data tells a story, and both bankers and farmers alike need to know real numbers, do their profitability analysis, scenario analysis, all with just a few clicks. Data allows for accuracy. Mobility is the mantra for product design today. The days of having to drive your car from one field to the next or rely on staff to manually record data ought to be a thing of the past.”
Barriers and blockchains
Carl Casale, the former CEO of CHS Industries, a Fortune 100-listed US agricultural co-operative, contends that technology is both a multiplier, but also a barrier to entry. This is especially true for older-generation farmers.
However, he is particularly excited about blockchain: “It will have a profound impact, both on understanding food production and on transparency from a food safety standpoint.”
From seed to supermarket
From pulling data via Bluetooth to using geo-mapping, Black and Casale are not the only ones believing in the power of big data and computer imaging when it comes to food security.
Dr. Fumiya Iida, a lecturer in Mechatronics at Cambridge University, sees computer vision and image analysis as “the most important technological progress for the purpose of food security.”
“Images obtained from satellites, drones and other types of machines can now be processed automatically by computers with relatively low cost, which allows us to monitor crops and logistics chains, thereby securing the quality control.”
Dr. Lida believes that although technology has just started being deployed in some agricultural sectors, early implications are impressive.
“Sooner or later we’ll be able to monitor every crop, especially high-value ones such as vegetables and fruits, across the entire production and logistics chain, from seeding to the supermarket.”
Robotics is another young, yet fast-growing technology quickly penetrating the farming world. Researchers in Shropshire, England proved this recently by sowing and harvesting a field of barley relying entirely on robots.
Dr. Iida recently received a Royal Society Translation Award to investigate the potential to commercialize his latest creation: a robot capable of working on a farm.
For this, he has been developing what he terms ‘soft robots’, made from materials such as rubber and sponge, as opposed to conventional, rigid materials. One of Dr. Iida’s latest collaborations yielded a self-sustaining, soft robot, complete with a mouth and an artificial gut.
Professor David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge and a Royal Society Research Fellow, highlights other emerging, experimental technologies.
For example, artificial photosynthesis is an especially radical solution for food and fuel in the future. It demonstrates “hugely interesting” early results, according to Professor Baulcombe.
“Existing crops and plants are not as efficient as they could be. There is incredibly exciting and cutting-edge work being done at the University of Illinois. They are exploring how we can maximize the results of this fundamental process by which plants manufacture carbohydrates, and therefore energy. Imagine achieving massive increases in yield without increasing land area.”
In the next article in our series on food, science, and technology, we’ll explore how a new breed of leaders are leading the technological revolution in food and farming.
This article is adapted from an in-depth look at food, science, and technology by Natasha D’Souza in the latest copy of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.