Black Friday

The Internet of Things to the Rescue to Feed a Hungry Planet

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

August 6, 2015

If you believed the experts who predicted the demise of fossil fuels as peak energy enthusiasts warned the world it would run out of oil in- pick the decade, the 70’s, 80’s, the year 2000. Experts are at it again in portraying a world unable to feed its inhabitants in- pick the year. In both instances, they overlook the ability of the world to innovate, and in the case of food and population growth neglect the most powerful innovation yet- the Internet. What follows is an engrossing look at how the nascent Internet of Things will impact this potential problem.

The prospect for The Internet of Things (TOT) is not so sanguine in view of the potential for harm with digital innovation. A glimpse of the looming problems can be seen in the recent hack of Fiat Chrysler vehicles

So it was at a two-day workshop in Silicon Valley last week hosted by the National Science Foundation that a few dozen academics grappled with both the problems and potential for TOT. While key elements of their agenda focused on bread-and-butter issues such as security and privacy, some time was spent exploring how TOT could affect a genuine bread-and-butter issue- namely food and the growing need for more of it to feed the growing population of the planet.

With this problem at the forefront, Lance Donny, founder of an agricultural technology start-up, OnFarm Systems , and raised on a family farm in Fresno ,CA gave a wide-ranging talk that laid out the history of farming and presented the case for its data-driven future. Inexpensive sensors, cloud computing and intelligent software, he suggested, hold the potential to transform agriculture and help feed the world’s growing population. He spoke of a world where inexpensive sensors, cloud computing, and intelligent software having the potential to make agriculture more productive amid a historical trip through the history of farming over the centuries. The third stage, calling it Ag 3.0, he suggests is just getting started and, if he is correct, will dampen dire predictions for starvation.

This stage involves exploiting data from many sources- sensors on farm equipment and plants, satellite imaging and weather tracking and water and fertilizer monitoring devices- all which will revolutionize farming. He foresees a demise of heavy machinery and big farms. “It’s a totally different world than walking out on the farmland and kicking the dirt and making a decision based on intuition,” he said. He forecasts higher crop yields but also greater transparency for the ever wary consumer keen to know where their food came from and what chemicals were involved in the process. “Data is the only way that can be done,” Donny said.

These developments come none too soon as the world’s global population by 2050 is expected to reach 9 billion up from some 7 billion today. And the population growth, likely to crave more grain-intensive foods like meat, will put an even greater strain on the food supply. Thus the grain-yield per acre is going to have to increase significantly- from 1.5 tons per acre to 2.5 tons per acre- a daunting task for small farm plots which, say, in Africa average about two acres in size, precluding quantity of scale production.

Even in places like the US, whose average farm is 465 acres, farmers are making sizable investments to position themselves for data-driven farming. The equipment manufacturer, John Deere, is adding data-control capabilities to its tractors and fertilizer king, Monsanto, made a splash with the billion dollar purchase of a weather data-analysis company. The trend has caught the attention of Venture capitalists, too, who view Donny’s work with enthusiasm. In the first half of this year, venture investments in so-called agtech start-ups reached $2 billion in 226 deals according to crowd-funding platform, AgFunder. This amount almost matched the total investments for all of 2014.

So with data replacing diesels, and with the prospects of innovative digital technology not likely to stop, there appears to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for a growing world.

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