By Tim Sparapani
There’s nothing more important than our food supply. America is a country synonymous with wheat farms and orange trees. But according to McKinsey & Company, about a third of food produced is lost or wasted every year. Globally, that’s a $940 billion economic hit. Inefficiencies in planting, harvesting, water use and trucking, as well as uncertainty about weather, pests, consumer demand and other intangibles contribute to the loss. On the consumer end, inadequate packaging and labeling can lead to waste and potentially life-threatening illness due to food-borne pathogens.
These are problems desperately in need of solutions and many of those solutions can be found in emerging technologies.
Big data is moving into agriculture in a big way. Need proof? Several well-known investors recently dropped a combined $40 million into Farmers Business Network, a data analytics startup. Venture capital has flooded the ag tech space, with investment increasing 80% annually since 2012, as investors realize big data can revolutionize the food chain from farm to table.
Sensors on fields and crops are starting to provide literally granular data points on soil conditions, as well as detailed info on wind, fertilizer requirements, water availability and pest infestations. GPS units on tractors, combines and trucks can help determine optimal usage of heavy equipment. Data analytics can help prevent spoilage by moving products faster and more efficiently. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can patrol fields and alert farmers to crop ripeness or potential problems. RFID-based traceability systems can provide a constant data stream on farm products as they move through the supply chain, from the farm to the compost or recycle bin. Individual plants can be monitored for nutrients and growth rates. Analytics looking forward and back assist in determining the best crops to plant, considering both sustainability and profitability. Agricultural technology can also help farmers hedge against losses and even out cash flow.
The software market for these sorts of precision farming tools (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% by 2022 in the United States alone. Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of these technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization.
For consumers, packaging sensors detect gases emitted as food starts to spoil and verify packaging integrity and freshness. Algorithms can even help create a recipe out of whatever you have in the pantry. Several startups are building finger-sized scanners that tell the composition of food on your plate, from ingredients to nutrient content, by sending data to an app on your smartphone. These applications help not only health-conscience consumers but also those with chemical sensitivities or food allergies. Some projections say it could help reduce overall health care costs, too, as consumers are increasingly empowered to customize their nutrition and avoid potentially spoiled or contaminated foods.
All these data points provide an unprecedented amount of information about the food we grow, process, eat and discard. They even enable farmers to customize individual fields to meet the demands of a specific region or consumer group. Buyers might be able to track their future loaf of bread from seed to flour.
Big data also holds enormous promise for urban farmers — people who are turning rooftops and abandoned lots into small farms. Lloyd Marino of Avetta Inc., a big-data expert who has written about seed preservation, points out that, “Big data in conjunction with the Internet of Things can revolutionize farming, reduce scarcity and increase our nation’s food supply in a dramatic fashion; we just have to institute policies that support farming modernization.”
What’s important now is to ensure that both the technology and data it generates are available to everyone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should step up its support for the use of drones and other data systems for precision farming. Congress should get into the act and add a title to the Farm Bill that is due for reauthorization in 2018 that explicitly supports the widespread implementation of data and emerging tech to maximize efficient farming, save precious water, reduce unnecessary chemicals and decrease food waste and contamination.
Access to data for farmers, food handlers, grocers and the public shouldn’t be cost prohibitive. Consumers and farmers both must trust the data, so how and why it’s being collected should be transparent (and of course protected). We need smart industry standards and best practices for ag tech, new infrastructure such as smart roads to ensure we get the most from the technology, as well as an overhaul of communications infrastructure that wasn’t designed for near-constant wireless input. Finally, research into farming robotics should be beefed up to develop robots that could respond to data for better, faster and more efficient production. In short, given the tremendous need for ag tech solutions we should all work to grow the use of precision farming and the application of wise data.
This piece was originally published in Forbes.