Tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion will help to feed our planet in fu­ture

But tech­nol­ogy alone will not solve yield gaps, wastage or post-har­vest losses

The Star Early Edition - - BR | STOCKS - I AKOS STILLER

IN 2018 OUR tele­vi­sion screens were filled with thou­sands of mi­grants cross­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea to Europe in dan­ger­ous and un­sea­wor­thy boats.

More re­cently, we saw a car­a­van of 7 000 mi­grants from Cen­tral Amer­ica ar­riv­ing at the US bor­der near Ti­juana.

There are many rea­sons for the mi­gra­tion of peo­ple, such as se­vere in­se­cu­rity, run­away cor­rup­tion and a lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

How­ever, droughts, floods and other phe­nom­ena linked to cli­mate change are in­creas­ingly dev­as­tat­ing agri­cul­tural economies and ex­ac­er­bat­ing hunger among ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in some of the world’s most un­equal so­ci­eties.

De­spite a re­mark­able in­crease in food pro­duc­tion over the past 50 years, hunger still af­fects about 815 mil­lion peo­ple glob­ally.

One of the most chal­leng­ing prob­lems is how to feed an ex­pected world pop­u­la­tion of about 9 bil­lion by 2050.

Cer­tainly not a sil­ver bul­let, but tech­nol­ogy could con­trib­ute to im­prov­ing agri­cul­tural sus­tain­abil­ity and food se­cu­rity.

Over the past weeks, I have in­di­cated that the in­ter­con­nected tech­nolo­gies of the fourth in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion (4IR) have trans­formed vir­tu­ally ev­ery sec­tor of the global econ­omy. Agri­cul­ture is no ex­cep­tion.

In agri­cul­ture, in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies have grown con­sid­er­ably in re­cent years in both scale and scope.

The In­ter­net of Things (IoT) and tech­nolo­gies such as Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) farm man­age­ment sys­tems, big data anal­y­sis and ro­bot­ics have rev­o­lu­tionised agri­cul­ture. This has re­sulted in ef­fi­cient and sus­tain­able ways of farm­ing, higher yields, su­pe­rior qual­ity prod­ucts, cost re­duc­tions and even the en­hance­ment of food’s nu­tri­tional value.

Sev­eral dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies in the fields of biotech­nol­ogy, nan­otech­nol­ogy, ge­net­ics and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion of agri­cul­ture.

Smart farm­ing (in­clud­ing pre­ci­sion farm­ing) of­ten in­cor­po­rates tech­nolo­gies such as ge­o­graphic in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, GPS, re­mote sens­ing tech­nolo­gies, AI, ro­bot­ics, the IoT and big data.

Based on an anal­y­sis of the soil, an­i­mals and the weather, smart farm­ing con­tem­plates the in­di­vid­ual needs of a plant or an­i­mal to op­ti­mise yield.

Real-time data in­put from sen­sors are in­creas­ingly al­low­ing AI sys­tems (with ma­chine-learn­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties) to process big data, eval­u­ate sit­u­a­tions and make au­ton­o­mous de­ci­sions to im­prove ef­fi­ciency.

Smart farm­ing leans heav­ily on sen­sor tech­nol­ogy that de­tects events or changes in the en­vi­ron­ment and sends in­for­ma­tion in real-time to other de­vices within the ecosys­tem. It is used to col­lect data on soil mois­ture, soil nu­tri­ents, wa­ter lev­els, crop and an­i­mal health, as well as cli­matic, en­vi­ron­men­tal, and growth in­for­ma­tion through the in­te­gra­tion of dif­fer­ent kinds of agri­cul­tural de­vices and equip­ment, Un­manned Ae­rial Ve­hi­cles (UAVs) and even satel­lites.

Since the sen­sor data is real-time, it is very use­ful for crop/live­stock man­age­ment, pro­cess­ing and har­vest­ing.

Based on out­comes de­ter­mined in the au­to­mated de­ci­sion-mak­ing, ma­chin­ery will re­lease seeds, nu­tri­ents, and chem­i­cals to crops.

In In­dia, the IoT, big data and an­a­lyt­ics are used to cover the en­tire value chain from milk pro­duc­tion to pay­ments. Sen­sors are also used in agri­cul­tural trans­port tech­nol­ogy and lo­gis­tics to im­prove prod­uct trace­abil­ity.

As a re­sult of edge com­put­ing (pro­cess­ing data near the edge of the net­work where the data is gen­er­ated), sen­sors are be­com­ing smarter, smaller, cheaper and more in­te­grated into farm­ing tech­nol­ogy and sys­tems.

UAVs or drones are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar and are used for sur­vey­ing, re­mote sens­ing, and the as­sess­ment of crop health.

Drone-based soil anal­y­sis can pro­vide data for ir­ri­gation and ni­tro­gen level man­age­ment.

Drones can also as­sist in pre­cisely ap­ply­ing pes­ti­cides to crops through early de­tec­tion. Ad­vanced satel­lite mon­i­tor­ing tech­nolo­gies, such as the In­ter­fer­o­met­ric Syn­thetic Aper­ture Radar (InSAR), are as­sist­ing the man­age­ment of ground­wa­ter.

InSAR uses in­frared light to as­cer­tain im­ages and pro­vides in­sight within a cen­time­tre’s pre­ci­sion. This level of hy­dro­log­i­cal in­sight can pro­vide an un­par­al­leled un­der­stand­ing of ground­wa­ter us­age, in par­tic­u­lar is­sues of ne­glect, over-ex­trac­tion and ca­pac­ity as­sump­tions.

Vir­tual sen­sors are also be­ing de­ployed to help im­prove our un­der­stand­ing of wa­ter us­age. These vir­tual sen­sors em­ploy AI soft­ware that uses de­duc­tive rea­son­ing to process in­for­ma­tion from var­i­ous ma­chines to de­ter­mine what a phys­i­cal sen­sor out­put would be. If only Cape Town had used some of this tech­nol­ogy to timeously pre­vent the now in­fa­mous day zero!

An­other 4IR drive is the mech­a­ni­sa­tion of agri­cul­ture through the use of ro­bots for te­dious op­er­a­tional tasks and to in­crease the food sup­ply and yield on farms. AI al­lows the con­trol sys­tem to co-or­di­nate ro­bots to work har­mo­niously and ef­fi­ciently.

Tasks such as plant­ing and pack­ing lend them­selves to robotic au­to­ma­tion. Ro­bots can iden­tify ripe berries eas­ily and har­vest them au­to­mat­i­cally at high speed with­out dam­ag­ing the crop.

In 2017, a robotic farm in the UK har­vested its first fully ma­chine-oper­ated crop. Five tons of bar­ley were sown, fer­tilised and har­vested by au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. Ro­bots will in fu­ture per­form more and more tasks pre­vi­ously re­served for hu­man oper­a­tors.

Nan­otech­nol­ogy is used to in­crease yields through op­ti­mised nu­tri­ent man­age­ment and to min­imise nu­tri­ent losses in fer­til­i­sa­tion. Soil-en­hancer prod­ucts are avail­able that en­hance wa­ter distri­bu­tion, stor­age and wa­ter sav­ing.

After an out­break in the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic in 2015, the ster­ile in­sect tech­nique (SIT) was ap­plied to erad­i­cate the Mediter­ranean fruit fly within two years. SIT is a ground-break­ing tech­nique in which male in­sects are ster­ilised in labs. When re­leased, they mate with fe­males but do not pro­duce any off­spring.

An AI plat­form by Agripredict en­ables a farmer to use a cell­phone photo to iden­tify pests or dis­eases. It can also fore­cast the prob­a­bil­ity of pest in­va­sions and pre­dict the pos­si­bil­ity of ad­verse weather pat­terns, such as drought, floods and cold fronts.

The chal­lenges pre­sented by the cur­rent and fu­ture global food sup­ply will con­tinue to drive agri­cul­ture to­wards tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions. Tech­nol­ogy can make a ma­jor dif­fer­ence, but tech­nol­ogy alone will not solve yield gaps, wastage or post-har­vest losses. With­out elec­tric­ity the most ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy in South Africa is worth­less. Pro­fes­sor Louis Fourie is the deputy vicechan­cel­lor: knowl­edge & in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy at Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

A COM­BINE har­vester drives through a field of wheat dur­ing the sum­mer har­vest on a farm in this ae­rial pho­to­graph taken by a drone in Hun­gary. Bloomberg

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