Agri-Tech Offers Hope for Food Security

The world’s population will exceed 9.1 billion by 2050. Farmers will need to harness all the government and technological supports available to ensure production is raised by 70% to accommodate all the new mouths. Some scientists are saying the situation is more tenuous than originally thought.

2023 is expected to be the crossover point when we will no longer produce enough calories for our population.

Arable-Land-Map

 

To meet projected demand, we need Arable Land and Farmers.

 

Cities and suburban sprawl are consuming valuable farm land – contributing to unsustainable erosion. According to David Pimental, “It takes approximately 500 years to replace 25 millimeters (1 inch) of topsoil lost to erosion. The minimal soil depth for agricultural production is 150 millimeters. From this perspective, productive fertile soil is a nonrenewable, endangered ecosystem.” The earth has lost one-third of its arable land within the last 40 years. 

 

Farming has become a less attractive occupation. The work is intensive, unreliable, and unappreciated by consumers. In the U.S, about 40% of farmers are over 65 years of age. That number is increasing as fewer young people are able to break into the industry. 

 

Prohibitive start-up costs are keeping young people out of the profession. Someone (Shawn Williamson, a Missouri accountant) did the math: 

Williamson’s calculations put the start up costs for a grain farm at a grand total of $5 157,500 which covers acreage, tractors, grain platforms, gain trucks, planters, drills, disks, chisel-plows, field cultivators, sprayers, grain dryers, utility tractors, and assorted tools, as well as storage, seeds, and fertilizers. The cost of a dairy farm is in the same ballpark, at a grand total of $4,477,500. Neither of these totals factor in labour costs.

 

Scientists are looking for ways to improve plant phenotypes and lower costs so as to entice more farmers to produce better yields on less land.

 

The primary technology behind recent advances in Agri-Tech are sensors. When coupled with edge computing systems, sensors provide actionable data which can automate certain processes.

 

Sensors

The primary technology behind recent advances in Agri-Tech are sensors. When coupled with edge computing systems, sensors provide actionable data which can automate certain processes.

Sensors are small devices which capture data on environmental conditions. Sensors help farmers make informed decisions by enabling real-time traceability and diagnosis of crop, livestock, and mechanical states. By detecting nascent issues, farmers can nip problems in the bud – preventing huge losses due to irregular watering, parasites, or machine failure.

The use cases for sensors in agriculture range from the very simple (detecting moisture levels in soil) to the very complex (using light imaging to detect parasites present in sugar beets).

Plant Tracking RFID and Bluetooth

Phenotyping

In order to feed a burgeoning population, farmers need to develop hardier and more nutrient-dense plant phenotypes. Accurate phenotyping increasingly relies on sensors coupled with 3-D imaging of entire crop fields. By sequencing the genome of a plant and then observing how it grows in various certain and climatic conditions, farmers can breed pest, frost, and drought resistant strains of crop.

 

IoT Smart Farming

 

Without accurate sensors, anomalies in field drainage and soil conditions can throw off phenotyping. When plants begin to grow, high-tech farms create a high-def digital ground model of a field’s surface. Each week, the growth of the plans is measured to an accuracy of one-centimeter. Uniformity of the soil can be determined through gamma-ray sensors which measure the radioactivity emitted by isotopes such as potassium 40. Gamma spectrometry is a highly accurate method of determining how much sand or clay is in soil based on emissions.
Researchers are able to deduct a plant’s biomass from its height to determine how well plants grew in different areas of a field. The greater the density, the more desirable the phenotype.

 

Farm IoTPreventing Parasites

Farmers are also looking for innovative and prescriptive ways to detect and avert losses due to parasites and fungal infections. One key use case is the brainchild of Bonn University’s Birgit Fricke. She has developed a non-invasive method of detecting parasites attacking the roots of sugar beets using spectral sensors which measure light waves.

All plants absorb a small percent of sunlight during photosynthesis. The rest is reflected back immediately. By detecting how much light a plant is absorbing or reflecting, scientists can tell how much stress a plant is under. Treating plants with pesticides only when needed will save farmers a great deal of effort, time, and money.

The same benefits can be reaped using sensors which detect the presence of weeds. “Smart” Herbicide Sprayers are equipped with chlorophyll-detecting fluorescence sensors which sort crop from crap. Each sensor takes a scan of the ground in 4 sections and informs the spray nozzles where to direct a sub-second stream of herbicide. This technology can be used for targeted spraying or to increase or decrease the volume of herbicide used depending on how thick an area is with target weeds.

“They shine a red light on the plant, and then the wavelength of that light gets shifted in the chlorophyll of the plant and a little tiny amount of it gets beamed back out of the plant as near infrared.” Instead of blanket spraying an entire field with herbicides, spot targeting severely reduces the risk on environmental contamination and pollution from excess spray.

To see it in action – check out this Youtube video.

IoT farming

Data Sharing

Technology is also connecting farmers more efficiently into agronomic networks.These networks aggregate and process data – providing farmers with actionable insights on seed choices, soil qualities, and rainfall. In the U.S, the Farmer Business Network (FBN) connects upwards of two thousand farmers in 28 states with data regarding coffee prices, profitability, and agronomic performance.

“Farmers can see how seeding dates, population density, precipitation levels, rotations, and soil temperatures affect yields in their area.” (Sean Pratt, 2016)

As sensors collect better and more diverse data from farming operations, the shareable data becomes invaluable. Optimizing growing conditions towards producing better yields on less land is the only route towards food security.

 

 Automation in Greenhouses

 

With the aging and declining farming demographic, greenhouses and hydroponics are seeing increasing demand and innovations. Climate variations and unpredictable weather are also contributing to rising interest in greenhouse automation.

According to Newbean Capital, indoor growing facilities “solve a real problem of meeting year round consumer demand for local produce.”

Greenhouses hold the most potential for IoT (Internet of Things) applications because they are a closed environment. Diverse sensor systems can cohabit the space without environmental interference. The integration of sensors into software solutions enables greenhouse operators to make informed decisions based on multiple data points.

For example, humidity, temperature, light, and moisture readings can trigger a cascade effect as a result of edge computing which would automate irrigation decisions. Systems which currently rely on manual labour and human decisions can be made hyper-efficient through sensor implementation.

In Sum

The interventions required to prevent a food crisis are multi-faceted. The Internet of Things – with its sensors, insights, and automation – is one tool in an arsenal devoted to maintaining food security.

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