According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, an estimated 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste. The issue, when put into context, is even more concerning. The World Food Programme says that 1 in 9 of the world population does not get enough to eat. With the effects of global climate change continuing to threaten crop yields, it’s becoming more important to find new ways to ensure that farming operations are able to face these challenges and keep up with the demands of the world’s skyrocketing population.
Improvements in technology have been a crucial part of the evolution of agriculture for centuries. From the oxen and plow to motorized tractors to center-pivot irrigation, agriculture has adapted over time. Once again, a slew of emerging technologies is beginning to redefine how agriculture supports the needs of civilization. Here are a few examples of technologies that could play a major role in the future of farming.
Drones, 3D Software, and Machine Learning
Drones have become a huge part of ensuring that farmers can maximize crop yields. There are quite a few startups working on proprietary image-analysis software specifically for farming. According to research firm Global Market Insights, the market for agricultural drones will top $1 billion by 2024, up from about $338 million in 2016.
Farm Flight is a startup based in Tucson, Arizona that provides one such product. Drones use the company’s software to scan fields and then create a 3D map of an entire property. Important insights, that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, are highlighted. For example, 3D maps can show precisely where water could be settling or running off. Near-infrared data coming off plants lets farmers know how plants are performing and specific areas where crops are struggling. Farm Flight partnered with Agremo, another agricultural tech startup, that utilizes machine learning to interpret data (i.e. weed count, pest detection, and waterlogging alerts) using the data from Farm Flight’s drones.
In 2018, there were over 150 startups using blockchain to bring innovation to agriculture. The US, UK, France, and Australia are leading the way with a number of agriculture-focused blockchain startups. According to one report, the size of blockchain innovations in the agriculture market is expected to grow from an estimated $41.2 million in 2017 to nearly $430 million by 2023, representing an impressive 47.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
Most of the projects in this space are focusing on improving supply chain logistics tracking. AgriDigital and Ripe are two examples. The goal of these blockchains is to optimize quality standards for crops, prevent food waste, and add transparency to every step of the supply chain route.
A few other blockchain startups are focused on providing an improved solution for crop insurance. Etherisc, for example, has developed a prototype application that sends automated insurance payouts to farmers based on drought or flood events reported by government agencies.
Renewable energy is playing an increasing role in farming operations, especially in the United States. For example, an article on Successful Farming details how a farmer in Illinois installed a ground-mounted solar array system capable of producing more than 18,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year in June 2015. WindSolarUS helped the farmer determine the optimal system size, type, and placement.
Once installed, the farm began to receive energy from the grid whenever needed. Any excess energy is now sent back to the grid, and the farmer receives a payment from a local electric cooperative. This concept of renewable-based farming is especially popular in the US thanks to a 30% federal tax credit for wind and solar power systems. The USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) loans and grants can also provide funding totaling up to around 40% of setup costs.
While robotics and automation are big themes in many industries, it’s not so common to associate these technologies with agriculture. However, they are already being used by some major companies in agriculture. Driscoll’s, a California-based seller of fresh strawberries and other berries, is using robots that can delicately pick fruits off vines without bruising them. Another company called Soft Robotics has a machine that can pick tomatoes off trees, place eggs in cartons, and put chicken breasts into packages. The latest John Deere tractors include sensors that can detect differences in terrain type and field conditions in order to disperse the optimal amount of fertilizer or herbicide over a given area.
What Do Technological Advancements Mean For Farms?
Undoubtedly, many newer technologies can take time to improve to the level where they are useful and affordable to smaller farming operations. In 2019, using the technologies featured in this article might seem cutting-edge anywhere in the world. In a decade, they could very well be commonly-used among both large and small producers.