Precision Agriculture Could Be the Solution to Feeding 10 Billion People

Daniel Butler
Tue, 22 May 2018
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By the year 2050 the world’s population will hit 10 billion, 30 percent higher than it is today.

In order to be able to feed this growing population, global food production will need to increase by at least 70 percent.

So how will the agricultural industry adapt to the ever-increasing demand? Many experts believe precision agriculture could provide the solution.

 For millennia farmers have been learning how to read and respond to their land and climate. They made decisions based on weather patterns, soil conditions, pest and weed presence, and rotated crops to protect soil quality and improve diversity.

 Now, though, farmers are employing precision agriculture techniques to precisely apply water, fertiliser, pesticides, and other agricultural inputs to maximise crop yields in various and variable environments. Precision agriculture lets farmers know precisely how much and when to apply these inputs for optimum results.

 “Whether it’s the initial metal hoe and ox plough, manually dug dykes in Mali’s [Segou Region], or computerised, drip irrigation in California’s almond farms, technology has always been a key driver of agriculture. This isn’t new,” explains Chris Arsenault, food security correspondent for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 Making modern agriculture more efficient involves a lot of new technology. For example, many farmers now benefit from GPS in their agricultural vehicles, such as GPS guided harvesters and sprayers. Other precision agriculture practices include aerial imagery, variable-rate seeding, and digital soil mapping.

 Modern agriculture has had to face many challenges over the past century, none greater than the huge increase in the world’s population. The global population has grown from less than three billion people in 1950 to over seven billion people today.

 Of the approximate 800 million people currently undernourished in the world, roughly three quarters live in rural areas and are predominately dependent on agriculture for food and employment.

 Tackling world hunger is not just a matter of increasing food production; it is also a matter of increasing incomes and strengthening markets so that more people will be able to access food even if a crisis, such as a local drought, prevents them from growing enough food.

 The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that hunger levels are likely to decrease by hundreds of millions by 2030. Likewise, Bill and Melinda Gates made their “big bet” that Africa will be able to produce enough food to feed itself by 2030. They believe this will be achieved largely through increased innovation and subsequent improvements in access to precision farming techniques for smallholder farms.

 Developments in agriculture are intrinsically linked to economic growth that benefits the poor and alleviates global problems such as poverty and hunger. Indeed, the World Bank estimates that agricultural development is approximately two to four times more effective in increasing incomes among the poorest than growth in any other industry.

The Question of Productivity

Over three quarters of the required increase in food production will need to come from increased productivity. This, together with improved access to markets, can tackle hunger directly at the subsistence level and/or provide enough additional income to purchase food at market. For example, the agricultural industry comprises one-third of GDP and provides three-quarters of the jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Precision agriculture can play a significant role in improving agricultural efficiency, and it is not necessarily all about drones, sensors and automation. What makes technology beneficial to farmers is ease of use. This is especially the case for smallholder farms in developing countries where easily available devices such as mobile phones can improve communication and access to data.

“I have seen simple text messaging services […] being successfully used to raise yields and target inputs in Africa. It does not have to be the most complex of technology or sensors that help,” explained Clive Blacker, Director of precision farming services provider Precision Decisions.

“The benefits of precision agriculture have countless potential applications, and span the breadth of farm size and sophistication,” explains Dr Aubrey Longmore, Head of Agriculture at Challenge Advisory. “While much current investment in this industry focuses on ag-tech startups and disruptive technology, priorities largely remain the same as ever – innovation in resource use, especially land and water, to improve efficiency and maximise yields.”

 Perhaps one of the most significant developments in precision agriculture – especially for traditional farming models in developing countries – is the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS). This project is dedicated to constructing a continent-wide digital soil map framework for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and aims to help farmers make better decisions concerning the availability and suitability of arable land. In data-scarce areas such as Africa, mass digital soil mapping will be crucial to planning sustainable agricultural intensification and applying precision agriculture techniques to maximise productivity.

Falling Prices For Widespread Use

Precision agriculture has the potential to benefit all levels of the farming industry, from smallholder maize farmers in Uganda to corn growers in Kansas. Currently, precision technologies are predominantly used by larger companies as they require a complex IT infrastructure and the resources to do the monitoring.

However, as the technology becomes cheaper and more abundant over time, small farms and co-ops can use mobile devices and crowd sourcing to significantly improve their own agriculture. These developments will also have to be supported by improvements in global connectivity as, although mobile devices are now relatively abundant, the infrastructure required to connect them to the internet is far less accessible.

 “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 colouring and other properties. People could provide their own reading on temperature and humidity and be a substitute for sensor data if none is available,” explains Ulisses Mello, IBM researcher and Distinguished Engineer.

  The application of precision innovations in agriculture not only has the potential to meet the world’s growing food demands, but it can also stimulate global economies and help to alleviate global poverty. If the global community is to benefit from such innovations it is imperative that the technology – high and low – is made accessible to all. As Hilary Sutcliffe, director of Matter explains: “Some of the very hi-tech solutions need to be made accessible and be allowed to compete on equal footings”.

 There is much optimism surrounding precision agriculture, Sutcliffe said, if the people “with the money and the expertise are connected with the realities of farming then very exciting things can happen both at a small and large scale”.