3 Reasons Precision Agriculture Will Help Us Feed the Planet

Christine Gould
Mar 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Precision agriculture empowers farmers to make better decisions based on the specific needs of their crops and farm by incorporating a variety of ag tech solutions. Although precision ag has been around for awhile, access to more data, better analytics and improved technology is enabling exciting innovations and new companies in this space.

Whether it’s about predicting planting and harvest outcomes, optimizing use of inputs and water resources, or reducing post-harvest losses, data-driven, precision farming approaches are quickly gathering pace and revolutionizing agriculture as we know it.

Here are 3 Reasons We’re Excited About Precision Ag to Feed the Future:

1. Advances in exponential technologies are enabling better, faster and cheaper decision-making by large and small-scale farmers around the world.

Companies like 2015 TFF Finalist Team AgroSmart provide farmers with in-field sensors to collect information on things like soil nutrition and acidity, air quality, crop maturity, and weather (including humidity and temperature). These sensors are becoming more precise, cheaper and easily accessible — even for farmers in developing countries who can power them with inexpensive solar panels.

The data generated by these field sensors is then processed by control centers, who often also use satellite images and/or drones to collect a well-rounded overview of all the factors that will lead to a successful crop, and then provide real-time updates back to farmers.

Due to imperfect mobile phone and WiFi coverage in rural areas, it can be difficult and costly to get the data back to the farmers. That’s why companies like Microsoft are experimenting with using “white space” — UHF and VHF radio frequencies that are normally used to broadcast television shows. This space is typically unlicensed in developing countries, so it can instead be picked up as additional bandwidth for mobile phone plans. Farmers are setting up data transmission sheds on their farms, using TV aerials to receive signals through a transceiver. According to Microsoft researcher Ranveer Chandra, these transceivers are currently built for $100, but the goal is to get them down to $15.

As more farm information is collected, the overall data pool grows, and, as farmers analyze this data and use platforms to share information with each other, the overall knowledge pool grows. This can only be a good thing! By integrating sophisticated algorithms which can then leverage machine learning and AI technologies, more and more people can make better decisions much more quickly going forward.

Companies like Gamaya are already employing AI to help analyze the data they gather. Portuguese startup Wise Crop are using data to provide a type of “concierge service” for farmers — based on the data they recieve, they match farmers with appropriate service providers (such as drone flyers) that can help to boost their production and sustainability.

Interesting crowd-sourcing solutions are also taking shape. IBM researcher and Distinguished Engineer, Ulisses Mello, outlines this vision: “A farmer could take a picture of a crop with his phone and upload it to a database where an expert could assess the maturity of the crop based on its coloring and other properties. People could provide their own reading on temperature and humidity and be a substitute for sensor data if none is available.”

2. In true next-generation innovation style, unexpected new minds are entering this domain, delivering breakthroughs.

Precision agriculture has opened the floodgates, bringing surprising and innovative new minds to help solve the challenges of farming. Talent from various disciplines outside of the traditional agriculture domain are applying their knowledge to the field — from coders and analysts to data scientists, software developers, hardware engineers and entrepreneurs.

Even space exploration companies are now setting their sights closer to home. Planetary Resources, for example, are using their satellites to provide specific data on how to optimize crop yields. CEO Chris Lewicki explains: “We are deploying a constellation of Arkyd 100 spacecraft in low-Earth orbit to deliver valuable information-rich data to markets today…With just 10 satellites, the Ceres constellation provides weekly hyperspectral and midwave infrared data for any spot on Earth. This means we can access new levels of actionable, crop-specific intelligence that will maximize yields and reduce input costs.”

Then there’s computer technology bigwigs like Microsoft and IBM, who are entering agriculture with innovations that could potentially change the ‘how’ of farming. As I mentioned above, Microsoft is working to optimize in-field sensors and drones. For example, they have designed an autopilot program for drones that chooses the most efficient flight route and ultimately reduces the time it would take a drone to cover an entire farm by 25%.

IBM is experimenting with “hyper-local weather forecasts” using their supercomputer Deep Thunder. Their system to able to predict weather conditions at much more accurate and specific time increments and locations than traditional weather systems, ultimately helping farmers save water and increase production.

3. Precision agriculture also enables surprisingly low-tech solutions.

Precision ag isn’t just for high-tech farmers in developed markets. Farmers in developing countries are also able to take advantage of this approach. In fact, to collect and make use of data and information, all you really need is a mobile phone. Not even a fancy smartphone — a run-of-the-mill phone in which talk and text are the main features works perfectly well.

For example, a partnership between CGIAR’s Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) West Africa and IT company Esoko provides local farmers in Ghana with climate information via text message. Kenya-based iCow is an agriculture information platform that sends updates to farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania via SMS in three different languages. The platform is also used to connect farmers with other members of the agriculture ecosystem, like financial services, NGOs and veterinarians.

Just last month, Zimbabwe launched a program, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), to provide smallholder farms with useful information via SMS. These daily updates include information about weather conditions, crop nutrition and general market updates. This digital extension program also includes WhatsApp chat groups, videos, audios, and an app that provides further information.

These “low-tech” solutions empower rural farmers with nothing more than a simple, yet incredibly informative, text message.

Conclusion

With the ability to make better decisions about their crops and farms, farmers can use precision ag approaches to increase yields, protect the environment and improve their livelihoods.

As with any technological advance, there are real questions that need to be thought through, including data compatibility, data ownership/privacy and liability. As more companies enter this sector and experiment with new types of services and solutions, these questions will become more abundant. Even so, we at TFF remain incredibly excited to see how new technologies combined with the new ideas brought forward by the next generation of innovators will further develop precision agriculture — and how this will contribute to our shared goal to feed and nourish 9+ billion people by 2050.

To learn more about precision agriculture and other ways new technology and innovative approaches are impacting the future of farming, check out the Thought For Food Global Summit, which is taking place May 26–27, 2017 in Amsterdam. The TFF Summit showcases how the food and agriculture industry is quickly changing through next-generation ingenuity. Come be part of the change, and meet industry leaders, students and others like you interested in understanding, exploring and experimenting with #whatsnext.

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