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A Potted History of Agriculture
Agritech, or agricultural technology, has been part of life for 12,000 years. In fact, the history of farming goes hand in hand with the the development and advance of civilization in the efforts to grow and trade food, feed, fiber, and fuel.
The advent of farming is often referred to as the Neolithic Revolution, when innovations in stone tools allowed humankind to transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. The cultivation of wheat and barley in 9000 BC was just the beginning. Advances in agricultural tools, particularly the plow, helped improve yield, efficiency, and profitability. Larger settlements began to form around agricultural land, forever transforming how land would be managed. In Britain, for example, the General Enclosures Acts of the 1800s gave landowners the right to enclose common land, ultimately enclosing 6.8 million acre.
The Industrial Revolution introduced machines to agriculture, mechanizing many tasks and replacing manual labor on farms, not to mention oxen and horses. The subsequent Agricultural Revolution saw an unprecedented increase in agricultural production through methods such as seed drilling, selective livestock breeding, and the use of the steam engine.
In the 1950s and 60s, the so-called Green Revolution took hold. Advances in biotechnology created high-yielding crops, and genetically-engineered weed, insect, and pathogen-resistant crops, paving the way for modern super-crops.
The Challenge for Agriculture
Today, farms range vastly in size, scale, and locations, from microfarms typically under five acres, to urban vertical farms, to large-scale megafarms, the largest of which, in China, extends across 22.5 million acres - approximately the size of Portugal.
But climate change and population growth are putting increasing pressure on agritech to provide solutions. Directly, agriculture contributes 17% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with up to a further 14% through changes in land use. Among a growing population, obesity is a growing problem, yet globally, 820 million people are undernourished or still go hungry. The United Nations forecasts that by 2050, the world’s population will be 9.7 billion, but available farmland is shrinking. This will force farmers to produce 70% more food, with fewer resources.
The introduction of digital technologies has disrupted agriculture, touching all aspects of farming, from smallholders and subsistence farmers in rural Africa, to the mega farms of China, Australia and the United States. So, what does the future hold for farming?
In the 1990s, the introduction of GPS guidance for tractors marked the beginning of precision farming. By using a GPS-connected controller, the tractor could automatically steer according to the coordinates of a field. This massively reduced human error, particularly overlap passes on the field, and provided efficiencies for seed, fertilizer, fuel, and time. Since then, the capabilities and demand for precision farming has exploded, and the market is expected to reach $43.4 billion by 2025.
Precision farming uses the technological applications within the Internet of Things (IoT) field to collect and disseminate spatial and temporal information pertaining to crops so that farmers are able to perform site-specific management. Inputs can be customized according to geo-referenced crop information provided by Remote Sensing Data, with the aim of increasing crop yield and farm profitability through more efficient use of resources. Applications and connected devices such as Electrochemical Nanobiosensors, automated planters, soil samplers, and surveilling methods such as Drone Monitoring, ****enable farmers to ****use data to make quicker, more efficient agronomic decisions through methods such as Yield Mapping.
The applications utilize sensors, cameras, robots, and drones to collect and input data into an app or monitoring system. Apps can feature real-time data collected from tiny sensors (accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers, Electrochemical Nanobiosensors, and often pressure sensors), small GPS modules, and a range of digital radios that have the potential to enhance agriculture for actions that once relied on eye-sight. This sensor-controlled monitoring system can provide stats regarding nutrient levels, water-stress, diseases, insect infestations, and overall plant health in aeroponic and hydroponic plantations.
Sensors can acquire the data by a number of methods: both on the ground, from tractors and handheld devices, and from the air, from satellites, manned aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Using UAVs for remote sensing has reached a relatively high level of maturity. By acquiring aerial imagery with Hyperspectral Imaging, the farmer can obtain critical data about the crop, such as nitrogen content, chlorophyll content, and many other crop properties. Thermal sensors then provide valuable information on the moisture content in the crops and soil, which can be used to optimize irrigation.
On the ground, tractor-mounted remote sensing devices such as the Yara N-Sensor offer farmers the ability to measure crop nitrogen requirement and variably adjust the fertilizer application to apply optimal quantities as the spreader passes across the field. Such variable rate fertilizer applications use a combination of remote sensing data, prescription maps detailing input rates, and controllers attached to variable-rate capable agricultural machinery to vary the rate of input. This can maximize crop potential, increase yields, and improve grain quality from more homogeneous crops, as well as improve combine performance, reducing harvesting time and cost as a result of growing more uniform crops.
By providing so much data, this becomes a significant platform of decision making and support. Such Agritech-as-a-Service models can provide tailormade insights to farmers through data collected from satellites, UAVs, local cameras, and sensors.
Digital Farming Networks
Of course, it is not just the super-farms that can benefit from precision agriculture to improve efficiency and profitability. After all, disruption democratizes information.
Mobile phones are gradually transforming agriculture, and even in the most impoverished areas, most farmers own mobile phones. Specific mobile apps and platforms are designed for farmers to access information that can help them compare local prices of production, avoid scams, retrieve crop or animal-specific details (even for the illiterate), apply for financing without a bank account, and get connected to data-driven "cloud agriculture" services by building a complex farming ecosystem. Both Agritech-as-a-Service and Crowd Farming apps allow farmers to access critical data, and even trade with each other and direct to consumers on Bartering Platforms.
At Purdue University, West Lafayette, the Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE) began as an agronomy farm and research station in 1949. Today, teams of researchers are developing and assessing a wide range of methods to increase crop yields and improve efficiency, including from sensors and remote sensing.
WinField United provides agriculture solutions, products, and services, including demonstration plots. The US-based company also offer agronomic prescription services tailored to each user with customized plans, and portals to provide decision-support and application management.
In early 2021, BASF Digital Farming GmbH, in partnership with VanderSat, will be the first company globally to offer access to scalable, daily cloud-free biomass images derived from satellites. Integrating three different satellite products together to interpret Remote Sensing Data, has a high spatial resolution (10 meters x 10 meters) and provides a single, consistent metric of crop biomass. This allows farmers to monitor crop conditions continually, such as to monitor crop growth or compare the performance of several fields over a large area or in different growing seasons.
John Deere, a major machinery manufacturer, has been a pioneer in agritech since the beginning, developing GPS-guided tractors and partnering with NASA to develop autonomous farm machinery. John Deere is using today's smartest technology to crea more sustainable food production for tomorrow.
UK-based Yara develop crop nutrition solutions and precision farming applications to allow farmers to increase yields and improve product quality while reducing environmental impact. Yara developed Atfarm, a digital tool utilizing satellite images, nitrogen sensors, and algorithms to assist farmers around the world to monitor the growth of their crops and create application maps for variable rate fertilization.
Trimble offers a range of precision solutions compatible with most manufacturers. The Trimble Connected Farm helps farmers access data to manage their crops more efficiently. Through universal vehicle and implement integration, seamless data transfer and analysis, and the best positioning/corrections available, farmers can connect as much or as little of their operation as they choose.
Increasingly, data gathered from agritech is being processed and used as a means to feed a knowledge database accessible by farmers, consumers, and industries. In time, AI could use big data to develop a comprehensible guide and statistical visualization of all the information collected and processed through this digital farming ecosystem. This crowd knowledge database might boost precision farming in many places around the globe and produce more food with fewer resources, and with less of an environmental impact.
Inputs and outputs from precision farming could feed into Global Land Use Optimization strategies to target practices that are harming the environment and avoid repeating solutions known to be hazardous. Variable-rate technologies can be used to benefit the environment through more targeted use of inputs, thereby reducing the consumption and use of harmful substances. Similarly, precision farming and knowledge databases can also be valuable for organic farming.
The rise of technology in precision farming signals the advent of the fourth agricultural revolution, and represents a leap from managing a farm based on experience to a managing a farm based on information. As farmers continue to embrace self-driving tractors, remote monitoring systems, and UAVs, the steps towards full automation are being taken. It is likely that the farm of the future will operate based on a collaboration between ground and air vehicles that will monitor the crop and communicate with each other to efficiently perform the necessary tasks.
But while farms in the Global North continue to expand and deploy precision farming, the introduction of digital technologies in rural areas can be challenging due mainly to the prohibitive costs associated with the IT infrastructure. Social, economic, and policy systems will need to provide the enablers and necessary conditions for digital transformation. This transformation must be done carefully and will require a systematic and holistic approach to avoid increasing the ‘digital divide’ between markets, sectors, and between those with differing capabilities to adopt new technologies.