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August 10, 2015

Precision agriculture could help feed 9 billion people in 2050

An ear of wheat is seen on the Canadian prairies near Lethbridge, Alberta, September 7, 2011.

As concerns over how to best manage the world’s food supply emerge, one of world’s oldest professions is attempting to help boost agriculture productivity in a way that benefits not just the farming business, but global food security and nutrition.

Precision agriculture, also known as site specific crop management, is a technology-enabled farming management concept that allows farmers to use data to measure, analyze and respond to their crops too boost yield and preserve resources.

“It’s a hot topic,” says Andrew Fletcher, senior manager of the Data Innovation Lab at Thomson Reuters."As we near the maximum limits of the world’s land that can be farmed, monitoring it and managing it better is one way to increase supply beyond what can currently be attained.”

Some of the technology has been around of years, such as satellites and drones, but is now being used in different ways with data to help monitor and manage crop activities, creating more on-demand agriculture systems.

“We are just beginning to see food production as something where we can grow under controlled conditions and have it close to point-of-need, which helps to reduce waste,” Fletcher says.

This is also important for farmers facing rising prices for crop inputs such as water, fertilizer and pesticides.

“Precision agriculture technologies ease this pressure by increasing the efficiency of agriculture, either by minimizing required inputs or by maximizing yields,” notes a report by Lux Research.

It said large farms (about 5,000 acres in size) using precision agriculture technologies could reduce input costs by an average of $24.50 per acre (U.S.) and increase output gains by $42 per acre.

It’s no surprise then that agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer are aggressively pursuing precision agriculture technologies. Monsanto upped its game in 2013 after buying Climate Corp., an agriculture analytics company founded in 2006 by a couple of former Google data scientists and software engineers. Monsanto has developed what it calls and “Integrated Farming Systems” platform, which includes expertise in seed and field science as well as data analysis and precision equipment. DuPont Pioneer and farm equipment giant John Deere have also teamed up to offer farmers real-time software to help producers make quick decisions on seed and fertilizer applications.

Open data to feed the world

The advantages go well beyond the farmer’s field to the feeding the growing population, which is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

Given the fragility of supply chains and the vulnerability of the food system from the effects of climate change, extreme weather, natural disaster, wars and political unrest, precision agriculture is seen as increasingly important. That includes a need for the global agriculture industry to share information to help prevent supply disruptions, which can increase food prices and availability.

“The interest in open data is really substantial and growing. There’s a lot of interest in what this movement can do to help farmers and consumers around the world,” says Dr. Catherine Woteki, the undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Research, Education, and Economics mission area and its chief scientist. She also works with Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), an organization that advocates countries to develop open data policies to help deliver food security and advance nutrition.

Woteki says public sector support for research has been declining in some developed countries. “Having observed this trend we immediately jumped on to this global movement of open access to data, recognizing that for agriculture, with the public sector in research going down, we really needed to be doing more partnering to make sure research funds go further,” she says. “One of the easiest ways to facilitate those research partnerships is by making access to this scientific research data open and accessible to the scientific community.”

She adds that there are are many examples of how open data has helped to create new business and provide consumers with a variety of data including, for example, the smartphone weather apps users have come to rely on. For farmers, open data can be used for crop planning, such as finding soil quality information, and determining ideal harvesting times based on weather trends.

Field of data
More farmers are using big data to better manage their crops, which is transforming the art of farming into more of a science.

“Agriculture is one of the only industries where such high-stakes poker is played; where farmers make decisions based on their gut,” said Wade Barnes, president and chief executive of Farmers Edge, a Winnipeg-based precision agriculture and data management company. “Our goal is to put tools in place to help them gain better information.”

Technology is also empowering growers to be able to show that they are sustainable, Barnes says. It comes at a time when major retailers such as Wal-Mart are pressuring suppliers to prove they’re taking steps reduce their environmental footprint.

Farmers are increasingly finding value in big data, which is evident in the rising number of smartphone wielders.

Farm Credit Canada released a survey last year showing 76 per cent of farmers own a smartphone, up from 29 per cent in 2011 and 54 per cent have a tablet, up from six per cent three years earlier.

Still, as is the case with most technology, privacy is a concern for farmers sharing their data.

A consortium of American farm organizations and agriculture data technology providers recently struck a set of data privacy and security principles to try to reassure farmers their data won’t be misused.

The Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data covers areas such as data ownership, collection and third-party access and use, among others.

Calvin Mulligan, a senior intelligence strategist at Farm Credit Canada, says privacy is a worry, but believes precision agriculture will continue to evolve and advance; changing how business is done on the farm. That includes farm labour, where there is expected to be an increase in the number of technical jobs where workers operate computers and analyze data.

Mulligan also sees more real-time connection between producers and suppliers as they develop more technologies and share data. For example, an equipment supplier could monitor the wear and tear of machinery, knowing when to reach out to the farmer and let him or her know it needs replacing.

“The farm is developing a central nervous system,” said Mulligan, citing a convergence of data, software and information technology to “up the management game.”

While some agricultural sectors are ahead of others today, “I would be hard pressed to think of a sector that isn’t going to be deriving information from big data in future,” Mulligan said.