How the Internet of Things could help us feed the world sustainably

Andrei Mihai

According to UN projections, the world could have 10 billion people by 2050, and feeding everyone will not be an easy task. At the same time, environmental problems like water scarcity or soil erosion put even more pressure on already strained agricultural systems. To top it all off, the threat of climate heating also looms above the entire planet.

But help is on its way, though not in the form you might expect it. It’s not bigger tractors or sharper plows — it’s cheap sensors and big data.

A solar-powered wireless sensor network at the CSIRO ICT Centre in Brisbane, Australia, offering information about temperature, soil moisture, water quality, humidity and solar energy levels. Image credits: CSIRO.

Agriculture 3.0

The moment when humans first settled down and started using tools and animals to plow the fields can probably be considered the start of agriculture. Plows improved and practices developed, but for thousands of years, agriculture still relied on human and animal labor. Then, the Industrial Revolution ushered a major transformation by bringing machines into the scene, and a new age began for agriculture.

But humans didn’t have to wait thousands for the next revolution. The new age of agriculture, what many are starting to call “Agriculture 3.0” (or smart farming, or precision agriculture) is already within grasp.

It involves using sensors to monitor plant and soil parameters, monitoring and navigating crop sites using remote sensing data and ground positioning systems, and coordinating using modern communication protocols. Farmers can quickly respond to changes in weather, monitor crops, and only deploy as much water and fertilizer as needed — often by simply using a smartphone.

“This could be a game-changer for agriculture all around the world, especially for small farms. It’s not just about the yield, you can reduce the amount of water and fertilizer you use so it’s more sustainable and more productive,” says Alexandra Gerea, who’s PhD work revolves around geophysical sensors for agriculture. “The sensors are becoming cheaper every year, and many of them are open-source, which makes it even better.”

A joint humidity/temperature sensor like this can go for a few Euro. Image via Wiki Commons.

Gerea’s work at the University of Birmingham, UK focuses on the geophysical imaging of the root area of agricultural plants, gaining insights regarding soil-root interactions. Her ideas would find an echo in much of the world. Around 80% of the global food supply comes from small farms, and these small farms are often the most vulnerable. These 500 million small and family farms constitute over 98% of all farms, the backbone of supply chains in much of the world, yet they often battle poverty or environmental degradation.

Farmers spend a big chunk keeping an eye on the weather, checking on the crops’ condition, fertilizing, and so on. It’s hard work and time-consuming. There’s also a lot of inefficiency in regards to water pumps and fertilization. An Internet of Things (IoT) approach could save time and resources for farmers, making practices more effective and sustainable.

Many of the tools in IoT agriculture are not a novelty, but this is where the “cheaper every year” part comes in. Most small-scale farms operate in low-resource settings, and implementing sensors or GPS receivers was simply not affordable. But thanks to recent developments, technology has become more affordable than ever. The fact that some solutions are open-source also makes them adaptable, which is significant for the highly variable conditions you encounter in farms around the world.

“You can monitor anything: water absorption, fertilizer use, wind, etc” adds Gerea. “You can direct tractors and workers where they are needed, you even have satellite imagery you can access for free. All this can help both farmers and the environment.”

The fact that complementary technology (like smartphones or the internet) have become cheaper and more readily available also favors the expansion of these practices. Already, IoT agriculture is cost-effective in many parts of the world, with similar solutions being deployed to track farm animals in Nigeria. The cost barriers can still be substantial (and in some cases, prohibitive), but nonetheless, these barriers are being reduced year after year.

Example of remote sensing data for agriculture. Image via Wiki Commons..

Urban farming, coming to a town near you

It’s not just rural agriculture, IoT could also pave the way for a new type of farm: the urban, “smart” farm.

“With the pandemic and all that’s happened, I think many people are seeing the appeal of a small garden. But the other thing that’s really exciting is urban farming. You can control the environment perfectly and grow organic, food right at people’s doorsteps, without the need to transport food over great lengths.”

Urban farming is an idea that has picked up tremendously in recent years. It technically refers to all types of urban farming (which can feed a surprisingly large number of people), but increasingly, one type of farm is drawing people’s attention: vertical farms.

Vertical farms often don’t use soil at all. They use a controlled environment that optimizes plant growth using hydroponics, aquaponics, and sometimes even aeroponics to grow plants. The greatly reduces one of agriculture’s main problems: the need for a large area. Agriculture normally takes up a lot of space, which often leads to deforestation, ecosystem degradation, soil erosion, and so on. But if you grow crops vertically in stacked layers, you can feed as many as 50,000 people within the surface of a skyscraper.

The main problem with vertical farming is its energy use. Vertical farms are grown indoor, so they need a source of light — and even with efficient LEDs, electricity can be costly and polluting. But if a country has access to cheap, clean energy, then vertical farms become much more appealing. Using sensors and cleverly designed systems, the entire system can operate much more efficiently than conventional farms, regardless of the local climate. This makes it a desirable proposition for countries like Denmark, which just opened a giant vertical farm, powered entirely by wind. The plant completely reuses all its water, has no soil, and when fully operational, can produce up to 1,000 tons of food per year in a previously abandoned warehouse.

Smart agriculture isn’t just a good idea — it’s a necessity

Current agricultural trends are unsustainable — there’s no way to sugar coat it. It’s causing land and water resources to degrade, and as the population is expected to grow over the next few decades, we simply have to do better (and also have to find ways to feed the over 800 million people that go hungry). Smart agriculture and IoT systems will almost certainly play a vital role in the transition to sustainable agriculture.

From rural family farms to large agricultural corporations and urban vertical farms, IoT has a lot to offer. This unlikely pair between IoT and agriculture, between the old and the new, promises increased efficiency, better yields, and more sustainability. Whether it’s cheap sensors, satellite data, self-driving tractors or drones, it can help in all geographic areas and all types of farms. As energy and technology become cheaper, we will undoubtedly be seeing this technology more and more.

The post How the Internet of Things could help us feed the world sustainably originally appeared on the HLFF SciLogs blog.