Farming of the Future: Using Data to Produce More with Less

By August 27, 2015
farming 2.0

By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to number 9.2 billion people, 34% up on today’s figure. This will present a sizeable challenge for the agricultural sector worldwide. Global food production will need to increase by some 70% within 40 years.

Schematically, the history of agriculture breaks down into three main phases: the pre-industrial phase where food production was centred on self-sufficiency and the subsistence economy; secondly industrialised farming based on mass production methods; and lastly ‘precision agriculture’, which seeks to adjust resource consumption to the exact needs of specific crops.

This third step relies on using data coming from sensors, satellites, drones, etc., which measure in real time how crops are behaving so as to optimise the production process. This currently appears to be the only viable way to produce the required quantities of food with the resources available in the long term.

« Total funding for precision agriculture startups now close to $276 million »

Fortunately there are now a growing number of solutions on the market. In 2014, no less than 70 startups specialising in precision agriculture received funding totalling close to $276 million (Source: global agriculture industry online investment marketplace AgFunder).

Precision agriculture set to optimise production and use of resources

Farmers are able to access real-time data on the weather, soil, air quality, crop maturity and even equipment, cost of labour and availability, combined with predictive analysis, in order to make better-informed and more accurate decisions. 

Susan O’Shaughnessy, a researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture, has been working to make irrigation systems more effective. She has developed a system based on infrared sensors to measure leaf-canopy temperature as a means of gauging water demand, thus helping to avoid over-irrigating. An onsite computer processes data from the infrared sensors along with weather information and compares the data against stress thresholds for that particular crop, helping farmers to determine how much to irrigate so that they only water when and where needed.

Other solutions designed to help farmers take decisions on irrigation include the sensors developed by California-based startup Tule Technologies to measure ‘evapotranspiration’, i.e. the amount of moisture released by plants into the air. The sensors can cover an area of up to ten hectares. This data, coupled with a weather forecast, provides farmers with a precise irrigation schedule.

Basically it matters little how the data is collected – whether the sensors are set up in the fields, buried underground or attached to drones equipped with thermal imaging systems. Precision agriculture requires reliable data, wherever it comes from, plus sufficiently comprehensive databases to predict how different types of crop respond to given variations in the environment. Good data and high-quality algorithms are the two main success factors.

A key point here is that, according to Daniel Howes, Assistant Professor at the Irrigation Training and Research Center at California Polytechnic State University, farmers say they can only afford to spend on average 5% of their time taking decisions on irrigation. Software programmes designed to aid decision-making must therefore be highly ergonomic: simple to use and fast.

At the present time these tools are mainly used by major agricultural corporations. However, Ulisses Mello – an engineer working at IBM Research – thinks that it will not be too long before smaller farmers and cooperatives also adopt these new systems as they are becoming increasing affordable.

Farmers need worrying amounts of water

Based on current data on the worldwide availability of usable water, farming production systems and the average human dietary requirement of 3,000 calories per day, the agricultural sector is forecast to need 5,600 cubic km of additional water per year by 2050 in order to feed the several billion extra people joining the world’s population. This represents close to three times the amount of water used today for irrigation (Source: Stockholm International Water Institute).

Taken together with the worrying conclusion of the 2015 United Nations World Water Development report – ‘Water for a Sustainable World’ – unveiled on 20 March in New Delhi, India that ‟the planet is facing a 40 per cent shortfall in water supply by 2030 unless we dramatically improve the management of this precious resource”, the picture looks even more disturbing.

« Today agriculture consumes 70% of the planet’s accessible fresh water supply. Consequently the major efforts will need to be made in this sector. »

The fact is that agriculture is also quite wasteful of water. Leaky irrigation systems in need of repair and unsuitable farming methods, including growing crops that are not suited to the local environment and a lack of advanced weather analysis, are the two main causes of waste.

A close analysis of all the various aspects of farmers’ land could go a long way towards solving the problem of over-watering. Measuring soil moisture and leaf transpiration, checking the state of repair of irrigation systems and better weather forecasting – an amalgam of all this data would enable farmers to adopt a precision agriculture approach.    


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