Will IoT be the answer to the looming food crisis?

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An SZ DJI Technology Co. Phantom 4 drone, top, and a Mavic Pro 2 drone fly over palm oil trees at the Genting Tanah Merah Estate, operated by Genting Plantations Bhd., in this aerial photograph taken in Johore, Malaysia. Similarly, farmers in Southeast Asia are turning to technology to tackle the daunting task of increasing food production to meet the needs of a larger population.
MARCH 09, 2020 - 9:10 AM

At the World Economic Forum annual meeting this year, 70,000 meals were served, with sustainability underpinning every step of the food selection and preparation process. Detailed information collected from specialised software helped chef select the most eco-friendly ingredients, while Artificial Intelligence monitored and analysed food waste to produce recommendations for better food operations.

This all seems over the top, but when we are faced with the concerning impact of global climate change combined with the need to feed a global population expected to reach 9.1 billion people in 2050, the pressure is on. Farmers need to increase food production 70 per cent compared to 2007 levels to meet the needs of the larger population, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and they need to do this in a sustainable and profitable way.

Similar to the chefs at Davos, many farmers in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, are turning to technology to tackle this daunting task. At the heart of the new wave of innovative agricultural practices is the Internet of Things, or IoT, and its potential to offer farmers more automation and intelligence than ever before. 

IoT provides much needed boost to Asia’s crop yields

When it comes to elements that have a direct impact on agricultural production, it is interesting to note that outside of climate and weather, a majority of variables in the food growing cycle are controllable factors, such as plant population, soil preparation or previous crops.

More and more farms in Asia are taking advantage of new agricultural equipment, including auto-guided tractors, combines, tillers, robotic sprayers and weeding robots to automate and optimise their activities. But the key to immediate productivity improvements is IoT-powered agri-tech, which combines all the data available from the sensor grid built into farmlands, feeds it to analytics platforms, and improves the overall farming practices through valuable insights.

Hardware devices embedded in farming equipment — such as tractors, combines, liquid applicators, and planters — can capture machine and field data from IoT sensors as farmers traverse their fields. An analysis of sensor data combined with weather, geospatial and satellite data can identify the optimal yield scenarios for that farm or field. The key to agricultural success is not to hope for the perfect weather season but, instead, to ensure that all factors within a farmer’s control are optimised. 

This is the vision behind recent aggressive investments into the smart farming sector across Asia’s agricultural powerhouses such as Thailand and Vietnam. However, the road to large-scale IoT implementation is not without hurdles. 

Is the promise of agri-tech out of reach for farmers?

There is a general sense of optimism around the use of IoT to address this region’s food security issue, with government bodies, business investors, and individual farmers increasingly recognising the potential of smart farming. But there is still a big gap in tailoring the digital tools to meet farmers’ specific needs.

A recent study looking at 60 leading digital solutions across the globe for the agricultural sector found that the listed solutions were used by just 2.5 per cent of the 71 million smallholders in Southeast Asia.

This is a significant and frustrating challenge for the farming community. Despite their promising potential, analytics platforms that leverage data streaming; extract, transform and load tools; geospatial analytics and machine learning are not exactly on the local farmer roadmap.

The only way to solve this problem is to change the approach to agri-tech – it’s not about deploying the most advanced technology, but rather, identifying key pain points for farmers  and building scalable – and affordable – digital solutions that can create meaningful outcomes. Simply put, we need to make technology work for us.

Feeding the world with valuable data from IoT

In a race against time to devise sustainable food production practices to feed the growing world population, Asia needs to act fast. It is predicted that by 2030, this region will house more than half of the global population but only one quarter of the world’s agricultural land.

There are many opinions on the future of agriculture and ideas about boosting yields – from genetically modified crops to lab-grown food. But if the goal is to mass produce high-quality ingredients in the most sustainable and productive way possible, leveraging data in order to create the best possible circumstance for crop growth is the most viable next step for farmers. The future of agricultural success will be highly dependent on analytics powered by IoT, provided to local farmers on their tablets or smartphones as they continue to feed the world.

The writer is the president, Asia Pacific and Japan, at Micro Focus.