The agricultural sector is going to face enormous challenges in order to feed the 9.6 billion people that the FAO predicts are going to inhabit the planet by 2050: food production must increase by 70% by 2050, and this has to be achieved in spite of the limited availability of arable lands, the increasing need for fresh water (agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply) and other less predictable factors, such as the impact of climate change, which, according a recent report by the UN could lead, among other things, to changes to seasonal events in the life cycle of plant and animals.
One way to address these issues and increase the quality and quantity of agricultural production is using sensing technology to make farms more “intelligent” and more connected thorugh the so-called “precision agriculture” also known as ‘smart farming’.
It’s something that’s already happening, as corporations and farm offices collect vast amounts of information from crop yields, soil-mapping, fertiliser applications, weather data, machinery, and animal health. In a subset of smart farming, Precision Livestock Farming (PLF), sensors are used for monitoring and early detection of reproduction events and health disorders in animals.
Typical monitored data are the body temperature, the animal activity, tissues resistivity, pulse and the GPS position. SMS alerts can be sent to the breeder based on predefined events, say, if a cow is ready for reproduction.
The European Union has sponsored several projects on the topic during the Seventh Framework Programme and, now, during Horizon 2020. The currently running EU-PLF project for instance, is designed to look at the feasibility of bringing proven and cost-effective Precision Livestock Farming tools from the lab to the farm.
Several private companies are also starting to be active in this field, such as Anemon (Switzerland), eCow (UK), Connected Cow (Medria Technologies and Deutsche Telekom. Smart fishing is at initial stage with some projects in Europe, South Korea, North America and Japan.
“Precision agriculture is not new. The agricultural vehicle manufacturers (John Deere, CNH Global, Class and others) have been involved in this segment for some time. Initially, it was about position technologies (GNSS) mainly, but it is becoming more complex moving towards the idea of a connected harvester,” Beeachm Research’s principal analyst, Saverio Romeo tells me.”
Romeo is the co-author of a report called “Towards smart farming – Agriculture embracing the IoT vision” published in January by Beecham and focused – you guessed – to explore how agricultural operations are changing through the Internet of Things.
The aim of the agriculture sector is to optimize processes and uses of resources and efficient use of existing arable land. The Internet of Things can enable all that. It can increase production, but it can also increase the level of quality of agriculture.
“ I would like to highlight the fact,” Romeo says, “that the aim should not be ‘industrializing’ agriculture, but make agriculture more efficient, sustainable and of high quality. We should not look for revolutions. We should look for re-interpretation of the farming practices through use of data-centric technologies. And this re-interpretation should be placed also within a new vision of rural areas.”
That is to say that smart rural areas should not come out of the blue and live in a void, but be connected with smart agri-food industry, smart tourism and other activities that move in rural areas and around agriculture.
Although the cost of smart farming is still high for any but the largest farms (this, by the way, helps explain why the USA, with its vast territories, is at the forefront of this new paradygm), this doesn’t mean precision agriculture can’t be done in small places. Actually, there are quite a few applications in small-field farming too. In vineyards for instance. “Sensors are installed in various location in the fields in order to have data about the soil and the plants and then this data are used to prevent diseases such as the peronospera,” Romeo says.
Helpful and sought after as it might be, smart farming has still to overcome many hurdles before it becomes more widespread. “One is that the agricultural sector is extremely low margin. Therefore, investments in innovation are difficult,” the researchers says. Then there’s also what we might call an ‘image problem’, that is causing an hemorrhage of labour. “Being a farmer is not cool because agriculture is perceived as something that belong to history, to the grandfathers,” Romeo tells me.
There are also a number of concerns about the role of giant companies such as DuPont, John Deere and Monsanto MON -0.09% that raise questions: for example, data ownership. Who is the owner of soil sensing data? Monsanto or the farmer? And if it is Monsanto (or another company), what does it do with that? One answer could be price discrimination: data on the soil or on the water could be used by biotech giants to charge farmers a different amount for the same product or service.
Access to real time information about harvesting, planting and yelds could also help corporation predict the property value of farms better than anyone else and have unparalleled insight into the commodities market.
Another problem that could slow down IoT in agriculture, is the issue of communicating with farmers, who could often not understand the technicalities. “If we tell them that you can do this and that with IoT, they will not understand. The language of the IoT industry has to change dramatically,” Romeo says, “here, we need a revolution.”
Analysts, however, are positive that in the end this and other barriers will be cancelled.
“It will require some time, also, because the agriculture does not have the same pace of other sectors because of its nature. But, we will be there because we need it. And allow me this, because agriculture will return to be cool.”