The UN reports that the global population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, mostly due to population growth in developing countries. Aside from the obvious environmental impact, the most pressing crisis the future brings is famine. The agricultural sector will play a crucial role in securing steady food production, and we’ll need new farming practices to meet the demand for food in tomorrow’s developing world. The developed world faces a related problem. Rapid urbanisation, the damage of monocrop farming, and the resources consumed to transport food over long distances are pushing us to rethink how and where we grow food for major urban centres.
Vertical farming could help us feed the world, while reducing agriculture’s environmental impact
As urban areas grow, and the world’s arable land shrinks, vertical farming has proven its ability to provide food for everyone. Vertical farms optimise space by using stacked rows of shelves. Plants are grown in beds arranged vertically inside controlled-environment structures designed to provide the optimal temperature, light, and humidity.
These vertical farms offer a number of advantages over traditional farming. Their small footprint means that food production can be moved from the periphery to the centre, bringing it closer to the demand. A series of vertical farms with the ground coverage of a large airport can feed tens of millions, vastly reducing the space needed for truly large-scale agriculture. And vertical farming uses at least 70 percent less water than traditional methods, stretching scarce resources further. According to a MarketsandMarkets research report, the vertical farming market is expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2022.
Advanced hydro- and aeroponic techniques can increase yield while doing away with agricultural runoff and water pollution. In a hydroponic system, plants are grown in water, and all the nutrients needed for the plants’ growth are provided by additives like fish waste. Aeroponics, by contrast, doesn’t require any growth medium at all. Instead, the plants are grown with their roots bathed in a fine mist of nutrient-rich water droplets.
Both approaches are independent of the growing season or climate, as they can use artificial light to enable photosynthesis. Air circulation provides plants with the CO2 needed for photosynthesis, potentially helping to freshen the air in mixed-use buildings. Both methods are sustainable as well, as they can use recycled water for irrigation. In fact, the most efficient systems use 10 times less water than traditional growing methods.
Artificial Intelligence, big data, and the IoT can help farmers improve productivity and protect crops from disease
Factors such as the growth of the world’s population and the impact of climate change are forcing farmers to re-evaluate their agribusiness. Often, their harvested crops are wasted or they don’t produce enough to meet the demands of the market. This happens mostly because of disease, or because their crops don’t meet the required standards, such as colour or size. But thanks to the power of AI and big data, this might become a thing of the past.
A team of researchers at the Pennsylvania State University and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, are using deep learning algorithms to help detect crop disease before it spreads. They developed an app that can recognise “26 different diseases in 14 different plant species” with an astonishing 99.35 per cent accuracy, allowing farmers to easily identify the disease afflicting their crops and react before it’s too late.
The foris.io sensor platform uses big data to help farmers maximise land use and minimise resource use. Along with soil sensors that can detect the soil’s moisture, pH level, and temperature, which is especially useful for reducing waste in irrigation, foris.io’s system also gathers “data from … grower records, machine learning, cognitive computing and analytics for field management”. This solution also uses IBM’s Watson AI to provide farmers with the most accurate data to help them reduce their water and energy consumption. What’s more, foris.io is also developing a blockchain platform that will enable “traceability using non-proprietary crop, field and treatment data”.
The IoT is giving farmers greater control as well, making traditional farming methods obsolete. By gathering real-time data from sensors and other farming equipment, farmers can boost yields, decrease energy costs, and improve water conservation. And the spread of the IoT in agriculture is just gaining steam. In fact, Allied Market Research reports that the global IoT in agriculture market was worth $16.33 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $48.71 billion by 2025.
Drones, robots, and autonomous vehicles are now increasingly used in agriculture
Drones are in increasing demand for everything from delivery to defense, but these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are revolutionising agriculture as well. According to a recent analysis by PwC, the overall value of the agricultural drone market is $32.4 billion.
Using a sophisticated 3D mapping system, drones can collect data on a field and provide farmers with information such as geography and soil structure. Those equipped with thermal sensors can also gather data about moisture, notifying the farmer if a certain area needs to be watered. Drones can monitor and detect minute differences in the reflected infrared and green light of the observed area, and by developing multispectral images, they can provide farmers with real-time information about their fields. Furthermore, drones can also help farmers to spray their fields with protective substances.
Autonomous robots are already used for tilling and harvesting grain, but they could have other agricultural applications as well, including picking fruit, spraying pesticides, and planting seeds. Also, since they’re wirelessly connected to a central operator to receive instructions, robots can report on crop conditions and provide valuable data.
In the next decade, self-driving vehicles are set to revolutionise the agriculture industry by turning farmers into remote operators. Heavy and bulky machinery often does more harm than good to the soil, causing additional environmental damage. However, designers are showing interest in developing smaller autonomous tractors and combining them into swarms to work together in the field. These smaller versions would reduce the soil consolidation often caused by large tractors.
The agricultural sector will transform itself to meet the needs of our growing population in the decades to come. Land scarcity and climate change have urged farmers to explore new farming methods and embrace technology. With the Internet of Things (IoT) and data collected and analysed in an intelligible way by AI, farmers can improve and increase their crop yields. And with robots and drones, they can better manage their fields. In fact, the latest innovations are the driving force of the agricultural sector, and embracing the changes they bring is an important step toward ending global hunger.