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IoT technology helps feed the growing world population

Over the last century, the global population has more than quadrupled. In 1915, there were 1.8 billion people in the world, according to Harvard Business Review. Today, there is an estimated 7.7 billion, and we might reach 9.7 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations.

As a result, food demand will escalate with an estimated increase of 59% to 98% by 2050, according to a Harvard Business Review article titled “Global Demand for Food Is Rising. Can We Meet It?” This will place added pressure on the agriculture industry worldwide to increase crop production, boost yield-per-acre and improve sustainability. Advanced technology such as IoT is instrumental in transforming farms — no matter the size — into highly efficient enterprises. By utilizing smart practices such as precision farming, modern farms and food processors will step up to the challenge and help feed the world population.

Today’s state of the farm

Farmers today are tech-savvy professionals who must master the economics of supply and demand, coaching life from soil, partnering with nature for food safety and sustainability, and overcoming the brutal extremes of weather. Just as other industries have experienced wide-reaching changes from digitalization, farming has also been modernized to leverage data, predictive science, machine-to-machine connectivity and cloud computing.

In some regions, progress is in the early stages as small to mid-sized family-owned farms still outnumber the corporate-like agribusinesses, which are gaining traction and bringing agriculture technology (agri-tech) into the spotlight. But even small farms leverage technology. It’s estimated that 15% of small farms will leverage precision agri-tech in the next year.

This starts with the machinery, which is a critical element to a farm’s productivity level. Modern tractors  are complex pieces of equipment using GPS technology, embedded sensors and dashboards that resemble a commercial jet’s cockpit. Sensors not only help guide straight rows in the field, but they also provide valuable information about the performance of the equipment, such as when it is due for preventive maintenance. Unexpected downtime during planting or harvest season can be disastrous.

The issues are global. Farmers worldwide will need to harvest more crops, either by increasing the amount of land dedicated to farming or enhancing productivity on existing agricultural lands. In highly populated areas, more land is not available. Getting smarter is the only choice.

The U.S. has long been a superpower in food markets and a major exporter. But China typically out-produces the U.S. by taking advantage of a large labor force, estimated to be as high as 315 million laborers. India is another mega producer. With China and India having the world’s largest populations by a wide margin, they both consume most of their own products. These top three producers far outpace the other contenders. The U.S., China and India each produce more food than the entire European Union put together.

Growing trends and results

IoT device installations in the agriculture world will increase from 30 million in 2015 to 75 million in 2020 for a compound annual growth rate of 20%, according to Business Insider Intelligence.

Closely related, the global precision farming market size is also anticipated to escalate. A new report by Grand View Research, Inc., says it will reach $10.23 billion by 2025. The U.S. currently leads the world in IoT smart agriculture, producing 7,340 kgs of cereal per hectare — 2.5 acres — of farmland compared to the global average of 3,851 kgs of cereal per hectare.

This efficiency could improve in the coming decades as farms leverage IoT applications and data generated from sensors. As more sensors are used and embedded in machinery, storage units, barns and facilities — even on livestock — the average farm could generate as much as 4.1 million data points per day in 2050. Software to analyze the data and form conclusions will be the key to turning data into insights.

This is not just a challenge for farms and the agriculture community, but this impacts all aspects of the food industry supply chain. Food and beverage manufacturers are dependent on a network of suppliers to provide the ingredients for their businesses. They are experienced at dealing with the fluctuations in quality and quantity that occurs in nature, but the tightening of supplies in some areas has raised the emphasis on improved sustainability initiatives and the value that technology can play to help ensure a more predictable supply.

IoT applications in food and beverage manufacturers

Soil sensors: Sensors and IoT technology can monitor soil conditions, analyze data points and use AI-driven analytics to automatically determine proactive treatments such as irrigation or use of fertilizers. Farmers can identify proper resource allocation, track results and leverage machine learning to refine optimal best practices. Over time, the system will learn the best combinations and how to adjust applications.

Herd health: For farms with livestock, sensors can monitor herd weight and other signs of herd health, such as milk production in dairy cows. Sensors and timers can also automate feeding cycles, which help control the diet of the animals as needed. Breeding can also benefit from controlled environments, including brooding barns and hatcheries, which require strict temperature control.

Equipment location and maintenance: IoT technology also helps maintenance by tracking the physical location of assets. Modern farms can be massive. Many are spread over miles of land with multiple pieces of machinery in operation at once. Being able to find the machinery and its operator offers a layer of safety precaution. Sensors embedded on equipment can monitor for early warning signs of failure so parts can be ordered. Technology helps make service a science, not an afterthought.

Agricultural robots: Robotics will also use IoT technology and AI-driven analytics to aid in decision-making and automation of tasks. With escalating labor costs, robotics can be valuable in helping to execute routine tasks, from unloading trucks to stacking supplies, inventorying resources and delivering feed or pharmaceuticals to livestock.

Sensors and temperatures: Temperature control is one of the most important ways IoT technology can assist farmers and manufacturers. Sensors embedded in crates, storage containers and refrigeration units can monitor ambient conditions, creating alerts when conditions begin to slide toward non-compliance. Early warning signs of non-compliance give personnel time to intervene before shipments spoil.

Manufacturing machinery: At the processing and manufacturing plants, complex equipment such as ovens, freezers, conveyers and forklifts are used in preparing and packaging products. IoT technology can use embedded sensors to monitor the operating performance of the machinery, looking for early warning signs of equipment failure. Intervention and preemptive maintenance will keep the machinery operating without shut-downs.

Advanced logistics: Monitoring smart transportation, storage and processing are also crucial for making sure that food goes from the farm to the manufacturer safely and quickly. Tracking where shipments are in their journey helps to ensure deliveries stay on time and on the right route. They can also be re-routed in case of last-minute changes.

Traceability: Knowing where food and food ingredients come from is increasingly important to today’s consumer. IoT technology helps track origins of food so manufacturers and retailers can make promises about organic growing conditions and non-GMO foods.

Final thoughts

The value of adopting new sensor-driven practices lies with the ability to analyze the data and make meaningful conclusions. With the right analytics and reporting tools, companies can make well-informed decisions based on data insight, not hunches. Data obtained through IoT technology will help the organization make better uses of resources, extend the lifecycle of equipment and boost the yield of crops and livestock. These data insights can be used to make well-informed, strategic decisions about future activities and investments. These will all lead to improvements in performance, yield and profitability. Perhaps most importantly, the entire food and beverage ecosystem will be able to feed the growing world population.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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