Big data, analytics and machinery that is becoming increasingly smarter and more autonomous are transforming the world of agriculture as we know it. Technological innovation is on the fast track to facilitate productivity in the agricultural sector, supporting a global population that is increasing by over 80 million people each year. Topsoil continues to erode at an alarming rate, and unpredictable weather patterns present frequent challenges to farmers, demanding nuanced real-time responses. Digital, user-friendly innovations, designed to help monitor and mitigate these challenges are needed to increase efficiencies, and to meet food quality expectations and demand.
Digital technologies and analytics are used to optimize key components of food systems, increasing productivity and profitability, while reducing environmental impacts. Virtually all stages of production, from refining crop genetics to managing transportation logistics, have the potential to be digitally integrated in the near future. This digital agricultural revolution will provide new means and methods for farmers to further optimize management of resources, improve crop quality and quantity, and remain productive in a changing climate.
How does it work?
From milking robots on dairy farms to greenhouses with fully-automated climate control – opportunities abound to integrate digital agricultural systems.
For example, in a field operation a host of sensors at ground and crop level can provide real-time information on soil health, water availability, crop fertility needs, and pest and disease pressure, while satellites and drones monitor weather changes, field conditions and crop health from above. Complex software will analyze this constant influx of data and package it into usable information, delivered to the farmer’s cell phone in real-time, providing precise guidance on what to do next. What specific actions are needed to optimize crop growth? Are pest levels reaching a threshold where they will adversely affect crop yield or quality?
Smart farm machinery, equipped with real-time kinematic (RTK) global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and other sensors, will aid in the farmer’s response to emerging needs and opportunities – planting seeds with millimeter precision in the right place at the right time, and applying nutrients and pesticides only where and when needed. Specialized software aids in tracking tasks such as seeding, watering, and nutrient applications, and associate relationships between specific activities and their impact on crop development and yield.
Come harvest time, a network of sensors will track crop yield along with quality values, like water or nutrient content, in real-time and with reference to an exact field location. Radio frequency identification (RFID) will make it possible to track a head of lettuce sold in any grocery store back to the specific farm and field where it was grown.
Technological innovation, coupled with careful research, teaching and outreach, can provide useful and exciting tools to support food production on into the future.