Technological innovation will help to feed our planet in future


December 7, 2018 8:00 am

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

CAPE TOWN – 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. 

Agriculture revolutionised

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.

Drones become popular

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 vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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