“Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply.” Opening lines by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug at a lecture delivered in 1970.
Agriculture has been at the core of the evolution of human civilization, thriving alongside humanity. However, despite its crucial role, the agricultural industry has advanced at a slower pace as compared to other trades. This is partially because of the complacency in the farm sector. However, this is fast changing. Here are some of the challenges facing agriculture, and how advanced technologies are getting integrated to benefit the farming sector.
Agriculture's Impact, Challenges
Agriculture currently contributes 3.8% to the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), although its contribution across the spectrum of individual nations varies widely, at 0%-60%.
The food and agribusiness is a massive $5 trillion industry—representing about 10% of global consumer spending, 40% of employment, and 30% of greenhouse-gas emissions, as per a McKinsey report.
With projections about the world population increasing from the present 7.5 billion in 2017 to 9.15 billion by 2040 and 9.71 billion by 2050, food needs will increase manifolds. In 2009, the United Nations factored in the rise in population and estimated that, “In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) must increase by 70%.”
It is estimated that about 40% of all potential food production each year is destroyed by insects, plant pathogen and weed pests while an estimated 69% of world’s fresh water is used for growing crops.
With increased demand on one hand, and limited resources and other challenges on the other, the farm sector is looking towards technology to enable solutions.
The presence of remote sensors, drones, and GPS devices in the farms is generating a rich source of information about the soil, temperature, humidity, seeds, farm equipment, livestock, fertilizers, terrain, crops sown, water usage, and more.
Advanced analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) are utilizing such data to provide insights that could lead to higher crop productivity, less waste, resource conservation, and cost control, thereby enabling the faster adoption of ‘Smart Agriculture’ and ‘Precision Farming’ by farmers.
By 2020, the number of agricultural IoT device shipments is projected to be 75 million, more than double of 36 million in 2016. With the increasing scale of connected devices, drones and robotics, there is a plethora of structured and unstructured data that is being generated.
This data can be valuable—but only when it can be optimally utilized. This is where AI and cognitive computing come into play as they can extract that knowledge and provide better insights, solutions and recommendations to entities involved.
Who Is Involved?
Technology companies such as Cisco (CSCO), IBM (IBM) and Microsoft (MSFT) are actively involved in the field.
“Agribusiness is rapidly embracing IoT to capitalize on automation, real-time visibility, and remote diagnostics to produce more at lower cost,” says Cisco; some customers of the Cisco Jasper platform include names such as Litems, Motech, Semios, Observant and Topcon Precision Agriculture.
Cisco Investments has even invested in Prospera Technologies—a company that uses advanced data analytics, computer vision, and AI to provide easy-to-use digital tools to farmers.
IBM’s Watson is enabling the sector with more accurate projections and results, with precision agriculture being one of its major research areas. IBM is building models and simulations that can predict future conditions and help farmers make proactive decisions.
In 2016, Microsoft partnered with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to launch a Sowing Application for farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In January, the results of the pilot were announced that showed a 30% higher average in yield per hectare. Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite including Machine Learning were adopted by ICRISAT. Further, Microsoft’s IoT partners (such as DunavNET) are offering varied kinds of smart agricultural solutions.
A growing number of companies and start-ups are creating AI-based agricultural solutions. In mid-2017, Monsanto Company (MON) and Atomwise collaborated to discover and develop new crop protection products using AI. Some of the other active players include names such as Accenture, Ag Leader Technology, Trimble, John Deere and Iteris, Inc. (ITI).
These initiatives aren’t without a reason. The smart agriculture market alone is expected to grow from $5.18 billion in 2016 to $11.23 billion by 2022. Meanwhile, the global AI market in agriculture industry is projected to grow at a CAGR of 22.68% during the period 2017-2021.
Increasing integration of agriculture and technology will boost the business for providers of all such advanced technologies.
Farmers have begun to understand and embrace high-tech techniques to enhance farm production and gain efficiency in processes to achieve healthier crops and better profit. It’s not far in future, when big data, analytics, IoT, cloud, cognitive computing and AI will be as important to agriculture as seeds, irrigation, pesticides, tractors, and scarecrows.