The way food is grown hasn’t fundamentally changed since humans began to shift from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers about 12,000 years ago. This first agricultural revolution triggered modern civilization because people stayed in one place long enough to put down roots.
But it wasn’t until the second agricultural revolution — beginning in Great Britain in the mid-17th century — that things started to really heat up. Industrial farming with better tools, selective breeding, crop rotations, the development of new fertilizers and pesticides, and significant increases in farm size dramatically increased yields. Improved transportation (including better roads, canals, ships and later railways) ensured the food made it to the burgeoning centers of population.
The second industrial revolution triggered an explosion in the global population that has continued unabated. According to the UN, the world’s population is expected to increase from 7.7 billion today, to 9.7 billion in just 30 years.
Feeding an extra two billion hungry people is not going to be easy. Despite heavy use of fertilizers, crop yields are already falling due to damage caused to topsoil from growing too limited a range of staples to feed both livestock and humans. Throw in the negative effects of climate change — rising temperatures, decreased rainfall and weather extremes — and today’s farming techniques won’t be able to feed the world of the future. Simply scaling conventional techniques to meet increased demand would rapidly exhaust the natural resources of the planet. Worse yet, according to Barclays Investment Bank, the agricultural sector is already responsible for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and striving to increase output would inevitably accelerate climate change and make the problems worse.
That means agriculture is in trouble. The world desperately needs a third agricultural revolution. “Smart farming” — with the IoT playing a pivotal role — promises quick answers. But what will the future of farming look like?
Just as in many aspects of ordinary life, advances in agriculture are driven by mobile technology. One of the fastest ways to adopt smart farming techniques is via a growing list of smartphone apps targeting farm businesses. When CropLife magazine first published a list of “top apps for agriculture” in 2011, Senior Online Editor, Matt Hopkins noted: “[The list] has turned into the most popular feature on [the magazine’s website]. The column has taken on a life of its own - with nearly 100 apps featured and more than one million total views.”
The 2019 list includes a weather-based pesticide apps that tell farmers when to spray; one that can recognize various forms of pest, disease, weed, and leaf damage from a digital photo; an app that allows farmers to remotely monitor and control their entire irrigation operation from anywhere; and a drone flying app that allows farmers to use auto-piloting drones to fly above fields and map a whole range of parameters including plant health and population.
“There are weather apps that suggest the best time to plant crops, robot fruit-pickers that use sensors to cut waste, apps to measure crop development, manure-management apps [including the imaginatively named ‘Farm Crap App’], machines that can electronically ‘zap’ weeds from the root up; and drones that can survey land and track livestock,” noted MoneyWeek magazine. “Firms are working on devices with face-scanning technology to locate dairy cows that look unwell and special wearables (think Fitbits for cows) to detect problems.” (One such example of the latter is the Healtag from Finnish startup, Anicare. This product tracks reindeer via Nordic NB-IoT cellular wireless technology to monitor their position, grazing patterns, health, and location if the animal is injured or dies due to a predator attack.
But apps represent just the start of the third agricultural revolution. Networks of low cost wireless sensors allied with powerful Cloud-based servers mean for the first time it’s commercially viable to collect, process and analyze vast amounts of data to enhance farming techniques.
This technology is a game changer. Overnight it allows farmers to apply more scientific techniques to the business of agriculture and move into “precision farming”; focusing on each animal and each square meter of arable land.
“The essence of precision farming is to produce more with less,” stated a report on precision farming by the European Commission (EC). “Simply put, [precision farming] allows farmers to increase yields while reducing use of water, pesticide, fertilizer, etc. This in turn reduces costs - both financially and in terms of health and environmental impacts. Using connected tools — such as satellites, GPS, drones and sensors — farmers can monitor and respond to their crops and animals’ precise needs.”
The report mentions two EC-funded projects that are working to make precision farming in the EU a reality. One is the called Internet of food and farm 2020 and aims to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the EU farming sector through precision farming and the IoT. The other is being conducted by the European Network of Broadband Competence Offices and aims to expand the reach of high-speed broadband to all citizens in the EU with a particular focus on rural and remote areas.
Another smart farming initiative worthy of note is vertical farming. The technique involves growing food in stacked layers in indoor controlled environments (using, for example, LED lighting to accelerate growth and hydroponics (whereby soil is replaced by nutrient-enriched water)). “Vertical farming is a revolutionary and more sustainable method of agriculture than its counterpart as it lowers the requirement of water by up to 70 per cent and also saves considerable space and soil,” noted Kashyap Vyas in an article published on the Interesting Engineering website.
Vertical farming is being shown to work; for example, Robotics farming pioneer, Iron Ox, claims its robots and vertical farming system can grow a wide range of vegetable greens using 90 per cent less water than traditional farms while producing around 30 times the crops per unit area. This is done by optimizing the entire planting and growing process from seed to harvest.
Since the industrial revolution, the global agricultural industry has coped with the demands of feeding an exploding world population by throwing more chemicals, bigger machines and more land at every problem, becoming a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. A sustainable future for agriculture producing yields sufficient to feed ten billion people will require yet another revolution – a revolution based on the IoT.