Smart Farming: 5 Ways IoT Helps Us Tackle Global Food Challenges
The global agricultural sector is under undue pressure. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), worldwide food production will need to increase by 50 percent by 2050 to feed an expected population of nearly 10 billion. Higher living standards in emerging economies is another amplifier of the explosive growth in food consumption. The challenge is, this pressing issue can’t be solved simply by increasing farming landmass. Intensive agriculture has already occupied around 40% of the earth’s surface and is accountable for a major loss in biodiversity, soil degradation alongside 11% of greenhouse emissions.
So, what are the viable solutions to these global problems? A major shift in our food consumption behavior is imperative, but there are ample opportunities to improve agricultural activities as well. Optimizing farming efficiencies paves the way to a sustainable food production system that can cater to global demand while reducing resource usage and environmental footprint. And, arising innovative technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) are deemed a catapult for achieving this target. Even if you aren’t in the industry, you’ve probably encountered the term smart farming given its surging traction. But, IoT-based precision agriculture is far more than just a tech buzzword; its compelling prospects have been understood across-the-board. As a simple piece of evidence, investment in AgTech has garnered a 43% year-over-year growth, topping $16.9 billion in 2018.
Why Smart Farming?
So, what makes smart agriculture such an enthralling trend? The short answer is, illuminating data and insights. Traditionally, farmers heavily rely on manual checks to examine the current state of their crop and livestock health. Needless to say, this laborious process incurs significant operational costs while failing to provide a timely and reliable picture of what’s happening on the field. Powered by granular wireless sensors, smart farming systems deliver real-time awareness of soil conditions and various external factors that play into crop growth. An analytics platform then processes this data for demand-based, targeted execution of various farming practices like seeding, irrigation, fertilization and fumigation. Having enough reliable data at hand, predictive models can even be developed to help identify and prevent conditions unfavorable to crop health. With IoT technologies, farmers can also monitor their cattle’s well-being and get immediate alerts on the first signs of illness or theft attempt from anywhere.
Besides reducing inefficient and error-prone human intervention, smart agriculture boosts yields while minimizing chemical, water and other resource utilization. This, in turn, translates into higher production rates at a lower environmental footprint. To explore the game-changing benefits of smart farming in detail, below we delve into some of its top applications.
1. Variable-Rate Application
The use of pesticides and fertilizers is highly tricky, even for the most seasoned farmers. Excessive use causes detrimental impacts on the environment and consumer’s safety while failing to apply treatments could take a heavy toll on production outputs. By installing numerous IoT sensors across the field, farmers can establish an accurate and fine-grained map of the topography, soil conditions (e.g. temperature, radiation, salinity, etc.) and pest levels on a sub-meter level. This allows for on-demand, tailored agrochemical applications to address specific needs of granular farm zones – instead of redundant, harmful blanket spraying or pre-emptive use. What’s more, soil data is highly influential in seeding and sowing decisions and can guide crop growers to the best timing for optimal yields.
2. Irrigation Control
Few of us know that agriculture is the most water-intensive industry with irrigation accounting for 70% of global water consumption. Amid progressive environmental challenges, the sector is prone to a growing water crisis in the foreseeable future. Leveraging soil moisture and weather data, farmers can effectively assess the water needs of discrete crop areas or even individual trees. Integrating this data into sprinkler systems enables automatic, customized irrigation activities to circumvent under- or overwatering for enhanced water efficiency and crop growth. Compared to a conventional, manual system, a smart irrigation system is expected to save up to 45 percent of water in the dry season and a startling 80 percent of water during rainy periods. Besides the substantial water conservation benefit, wireless sensors also help remotely monitor water tank levels – particularly at remote, logistically-difficult locations – to ensure seamless water supplies.
3. Livestock Management
As with crops, smart farming technologies are further instrumental in keeping livestock health in check. When it comes to large herds, anomalies or reproductive signs of individual animals often go unnoticed. Thanks to livestock wearables, farmers can now easily keep track of vital metrics of each animal – including temperature, respiration, geo-location and grazing activity. With the help of an analytics platform, they are instantly notified of any ongoing illness and distress to perform timely care and treatment and augment the herd’s well-being. Sensor inputs additionally inform about the heat cycle and calving process of each cow to improve conception rates and cattle reproduction health. Likewise, location data eases herd management at vast open fields and helps ranchers quickly detect animal thefts or find lost ones.
4. Storage Monitoring
Each year, an astonishing amount of 1.6 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide, much of which happens earlier in the supply chain due to poor infrastructure. In this context, IoT sensors can report temperature, humidity and other important parameters inside grain silos and elevators. As such, crop growers can stay alert to any abnormal storage conditions and take corrective action to minimize spoilages at the beginning of the food chain. At the same time, data on current stock levels assists in logistics coordination to avoid silo overfills and crop waste. Similarly, for containers storing livestock feeds, sensor insights enable farmers to optimize refill schedules and eliminate costly emergency deliveries.
5. Advanced Farming Practices
Beyond conventional farming approach, scientists and crop growers are striving for new agricultural innovations to combat the food shortage challenge. Offering unprecedented crop visibility, precision agriculture technologies are powerful enablers of new sustainable farming practices such as vertical farming, organic farming or agroecology. Vertical farming, wherein vegetation is planted in vertically stack layers, provides higher yields at much lower land and water requirements and is ideal for urban environments. To ensure consistent and healthy crop growth, these indoor farms entail very strict management of micro-climate factors like light, temperature and air quality using a wide array of wireless sensors. Likewise, agroecology and organic farming, wherein the use of agrochemicals is drastically reduced or abandoned altogether, requires round-the-clock monitoring of vulnerable crops for effective pest and disease control.
Also recommended for you: 4 Benefits of Smart Greenhouse and How to Get Started
Thanks to low-cost sensors and new wireless options like Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), granular data collection across large-scale farmland has never been so simple and affordable. Combined with other technologies like agricultural drones, IoT sensor networks empower farmers with increased control over their crop and livestock quality alongside resource utilization. Beyond profitability, IoT for precision agriculture will be a key component in our future sustainable food system.