Technology is Transforming Agriculture. Here’s How
As the world’s population speeds toward the 9 billion mark and the land available for agriculture remains static, one subject that’s on many experts’ minds is food security. Fears are further compounded by climate change, degradation of finite natural resources, and unsustainable farming practices.
Fortunately, technology is once again playing the role of change agent and opening up new possibilities in farming. Agricultural technology is forcing farmers and policy makers to rethink plant growth, crop yield, water user and energy efficiency. Investment in ag-tech shot up from $500 million to $4.6 billion between 2012 and 2015.
The following are some of the most important ways technology is changing how we grow and nurture our food.
Precision agriculture or satellite farming is the use of satellite imagery, GPS tracking and testing kits to monitor soil levels, weather patterns and crop yields in order to increase efficiency and productivity on the farm.
Farmers can identify how productive each part of their farm is and what crops are best suited for each area. Precision agriculture increases sustainability by reducing the amount of water required to keep crops and livestock thriving. Analysis of aerial imagery can show how newly sprouted crops are faring. This eventually reduces wastage on seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.
Internet of Things
It was only a matter of time before the Internet of Things (IoT) changed the way we do farming. The IoT has moved precision farming to the next level. Wireless sensors, big data, agricultural research, cloud computing and mobile apps are together leveraged with profound productivity implications.
For example, IoT has found application in yield monitoring and irrigation technologies. Equipment use data to determine the precise quantity of fertilizer required by each plant. Soil content and other environmental factors are evaluated to minimize water waste. Sensors installed in grain bins help track moisture levels and temperature remotely. IoT has been used to observe increases in destructive insect species to ensure countermeasures are applied before the pest problem gets out hand.
A farm may span a vast area which increases the difficulty of regular monitoring. Drones are gradually taking the place of satellites and additional farm hands. In 2016, the market for drone-powered agricultural solutions was estimated at $32.4 billion. Thanks to drones, farmers can quickly pick out areas of the farms with damaged or diseased plants, accurately dispatch pesticides and fertilizers, and use photos to track progress.
Drones can be used to produce accurate 3-D maps of farmland for pre-planting soil analysis and seed planting planning. A number of startups have developed a planting that involves drones shooting seed pods into the soil that are encased with the nutrients the plant will require for sustenance. Distance-measuring tools such as ultrasonic lasers and echoing can be used by drones to detect topography and ensure crop spraying is evenly done from a standard height above ground.
Whereas the growing number of interconnected devices is a great opportunity for the agribusiness and food sector, this also adds a new level of complexity to the decision making process. In addition, there’s an exponential rise in the volume of unstructured information including social media posts, images and video content. Artificial intelligence is thus required to learn, understand, interpret and respond to this information in a way that improves efficiency.
There are a number of examples of artificial intelligence that may be applied in farming. Chatbots are currently used by organizations in the technology, travel, retail, media and financial services industries. While it’s early days for chatbots in agriculture, these applications could be used by organizations to provide advice, recommendations and answers to farmers. Image recognition software can ensure analysis of visual information in near real time and the execution of appropriate action.
3D printed chocolates, pizza and candy have excited the food industry. Yet, 3D printing has a much bigger role in changing food production. In particular, it has been used to print customized components and insert molding for agricultural equipment. Insert molding is the process of molding or forming plastic parts.
The combination of materials used to create the insert molding can be chosen to ensure optimal wear resistance, weight reduction and tensile strength. 3D printing provides design flexibility which enhances component reliability and ultimately improves the efficiency of farming equipment.
Location and Environment Flexibility
As the land available for farming continues to decline, it’s imperative that the world explore more innovative locations to grow food. Hydroponic technology has played a major part in opening up new spaces for crop cultivation. The use of a nutrient-rich water solution instead of soil means farmland is no longer a necessity.
Some organizations have gone further and developed special LEDs for indoor farming. The LEDs are calibrated to generate the required wavelengths for plant growth. Since the LEDs don’t become hot, they can be placed closer to plants and can be configured to produce lights specific to a given crop species.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) science is not new but is worth mentioning because it has proven to be a crucial milestone in the evolution of agricultural technology. GMO crops are genetically engineered to be pest resistant, herbicide resistant and more nutritional.
Some crops have been modified to thrive in specific habitats. The end result is faster growth and higher yields. Whereas GMO seeds will be more expensive, they lower overall costs by reducing production inputs of pesticides, machinery and fuel.
The technologies above are at varied stages of industry adoption. Some such as GMO are fairly well established. Newer ones like artificial intelligence and machine learning are still trying to find their space. Ultimately, the end goal of technology in agriculture is to maximize yields while minimizing farmer inputs. Exciting times lie ahead as agtech drives productivity, efficiency and sustainability in meeting the earth’s food needs.