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Smart agriculture - The fight to feed 10 billion

9-minute read

How smart agriculture can feed the world in 2050 


The phrase, “Please, sir, I want some more,” was uttered by Charles Dickens’ fictional character, Oliver Twist, in a London orphanage in 1837. At that time, there were approximately 1.2 billion people on the planet and many went hungry. Nearly 200 years later, even more people are asking the same question. The world’s population has reached 7.6 billion, but low-income families in cities of the developed world still go hungry, while drought and war cause famine for millions in developing countries. Given these problems, how will it be possible to feed the projected 10 billion people on the planet in 2050?

A recent report by the World Resources Institute stated that in order to feed a population of 10 billion in 2050 (see Figure 1), the following gaps would need to be addressed:

  • A 56 percent food gap between crop calories produced in 2010 and those needed in 2050 under business-as-usual growth
  • A 593-million-hectare land gap (an area nearly twice the size of India) between global agricultural land area in 2010 and expected agricultural expansion by 2050
Figure 1. Creating a sustainable food future by 2050

What’s important to note is that the world already produces enough food to feed the current population, but over-production, over-consumption and supply chain issues lead to huge amounts of waste. The US Food and Drug Administration estimates that 30–40 percent of the US food supply is thrown away. Waste food is the single largest category of material placed in its landfills. The World Counts estimates that the 800 million people suffering from hunger and undernourishment could be fed by less than a quarter of the food lost or wasted in the US and Europe. A sobering thought. And it gets worse because every kilo of overproduction also represents wasted water, energy, and labor while, incredibly, forests and land continue to be cleared for industrialized livestock farming and crop planting.

It’s clear that production and consumption need managing, but equally, global supply chains are not delivering food and nutrients where they’re most needed. All these wasted resources adversely impact both the natural and human capital needed in sustainable economies and societies.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that agriculture is directly responsible for up to 8.5 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with a further 14.5 percent coming from land use change (mainly deforestation in the developing world to clear land for food production) as well as methane generated by livestock. Emissions are further increased by crops and processed derivatives being flown, shipped or driven thousands of kilometers before they are sold—and as we know, not always consumed.

Mitigation of these factors in agriculture, therefore, is central to the solution for climate change. If agriculture and associated businesses can increase their yield and at the same time minimize waste and environmental damage, it will deliver on at least four of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (2 – Zero hunger; 12 – Responsible consumption & production; 13 – Climate action; 15 – Life on land). The question is, what is the best way to achieve these goals?

Can technology make agriculture more efficient and sustainable?

Technology is often seen as the answer to many modern-day problems, but in truth, it is only part of the solution and complementary to other actions. For example, by far the greatest amount of GHG emissions in this sector comes from methane, a gas generated by farm animals. Emissions will only reduce if demand for meat and dairy decreases. Moving people to a more plant-based diet requires a cultural change that could take a generation to achieve, even though Generation Z is already enthusiastically embracing this lifestyle. Science plans to deliver genetically modified (GM) crops to increase yield and make them resistant to pests and disease, so reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers, but this too takes time as it requires government backing and is fraught with ethical issues.

 
In the meantime, technology can ensure best practices in existing (as well as future) agricultural production. Technologies such as digital connectivity—via public satellite and public or private LTE and 5G networks—digital Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, drones, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics can make agriculture more sustainable by minimizing the use of pesticides, fertilizer and water. These technologies can enable precision farming, and Bell Labs consulting predicts that if 25 percent of all farms adopted precision farming by 2030, it would lead to yield increases of up to 300 million tonnes per year, a reduction in farming costs of up to US$100 billion per year and a reduction of waste water by up to 150 billion cubic meters per year.

How can we make agriculture smart?

By deploying IoT sensors across a field and connecting to a private network or local mobile network—farms can monitor water and test nutrient levels in the soil. This ensures that expensive fertilizers and chemicals are only dispersed when necessary to boost yield. The IoT network can be used to monitor the performance of farm machinery and irrigation systems while drones can be sent out for routine visual checks.

In conjunction with Nokia, the Vodafone Foundation has launched Smart Agriculture-as-a-Service to improve the livelihood of 50,000 farmers across 10 districts in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in India. More than 400 sensors have been deployed over 100,000 hectares of farmland to collect data for analysis by the solution’s cloud-based and localized smart agriculture app. Sensors include soil probes, weather stations, insect traps and crop cameras. Insights from the data will help farmers to improve soy and cotton crop yields, as well as reduce their impact on the environment.

P. Balaji, Chief Regulatory & Corporate Affairs Officer at Vodafone Idea Limited, said: “Smart crop management using Smart IoT and AI-based solutions is transforming the prevalent agricultural practices into more ‘intelligent’ ones, enabling farmers with smart decision making and helping them improve production and crop quality through better utilization of resources.”

Figure 2. Technology solutions for smart agriculture

smart agriculture

Source: Nokia, WING IoT network grid

Can innovation move sustainable production closer to points of consumption?

It’s hard to understand why strawberries need to be in shops in January in the northern hemisphere; but consumer demand has led to global supply chains filling supermarket shelves with perishable, out of season products all year round. These supply chains are easily disrupted by fuel and labor shortages, trade disputes, and as we have seen, a global health crisis and of course climate change. Increasingly, consumer groups are drawing attention to food airmiles associated with produce and encouraging consumers to buy in-season fruit and vegetables and to shop locally to reduce the logistical costs and environmental impact of long journeys.

The global food supply is surprisingly fragile. According to the Food and Agriculture Administration of the United Nations (FAO), 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. Biodiversity rather than monoculture is an important consideration for future agricultural strategies and a resilient food supply chain.

The desire for food security with a resilient supply chain has given rise to farms in urban environments—for example, hydroponic warehouses and vertical farms. Hydroponic agriculture gives greater control over when and where food is produced as it doesn’t rely on the local climate or prevailing weather conditions and requires no soil.

 
Vertical faming takes the idea of high-density human habitation and uses the concept to cultivate, grow and harvest crops all year round. They are always sited close to the urban centers where they’ll be consumed. Take AeroFarms, which is located in New Jersey. It is working with Nokia Bell Labs on a proof of concept for an integrated system that tests technologies such as AI/ML, wireless networking and drone orchestration to monitor for abnormalities at the individual plant level. This system can image every plant every day.

David Rosenberg, CEO at AeroFarms notes, “This level of detailed imaging and insights helps us be better farmers by monitoring our plant biology dynamically and allowing us to course correct as needed to ensure the highest level of quality all year round.” The advantage of this approach is that as temperature, light, moisture and feed—in other words, the artificial climate—can be managed and optimized while the number of harvests per year are increased. The time between harvest, storage and distribution is also far shorter, meaning that produce arrives fresher and faster on the shelves while reducing the environmental impact of trucking and shipping produce long distances.

How to increase agricultural sustainability?

Small farming is the lifeblood of the planet. The GSMA reports that smallholders represent 500 million households who are responsible for producing food for ~70 percent of the world’s population. Yet while small-scale operations can be innovative and nimble, small farms are also the most vulnerable to changing climate patterns, which affect their yields and can impact supply chains. This is especially true in lower income countries, where farmers mainly need access to the internet to check weather reports, obtain the financial capital necessary to buy seeds and fertilizers, sell crops, and gain intelligence to improve their yield and business practices. In higher and in middle income countries, on the other hand, technology can supply far more sophisticated sensors, detailed imagery from drones, and fully automated machinery.

Today it still seems that there are too many Oliver Twists in the world and several factors still need to align to ensure the sustainable agricultural practices and food production necessary to feed our growing population. These include changing human behavior and consumption patterns, better management of food production and food waste, ensuring crop biodiversity, supporting farmers exposed to climate change and rethinking where farming occurs. Technology and innovation play a significant role in meeting these challenges, and in providing lower carbon and sustainable solutions for agriculture and food production. We can only hope, with all this in place, that by 2050 fewer people will need to ask for more.

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