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Back in the late 1700s, English economist Thomas Malthus predicted that the world would run out of resources, especially food, if population growth continued the way he estimated it would. On the one hand, he was right: the global population would soon cross the 1 billion mark. But he was also wrong: we didn't run out of food.
That is thanks in part to American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who developed new, disease-resistant, high-yield crops that enabled farmers worldwide to grow more plants on the same piece of land and be more successful at it. Borlaug is credited for saving billions of lives. But that race is not over. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by 2050, the global population will reach 9.7 billion, and we’ll need 70% more yield from farms to meet that demand. How will we get there? The answers are in the exciting combination of digital technology and farming known as agriculture technology, or agtech.
Today's farms can use moisture sensors, drones, smart irrigation and more to produce more food sustainably. Let’s look at some examples of how this is happening right now:
Checking the amount of sunlight
If you've ever grown a plant, you know they can be very picky about sunlight – not just enough sunlight, but the right kind of light. Some plants like morning sun and others prefer afternoon light. Certain plants want the full force of the sun, while many want indirect light. Trying to figure out the right conditions for a pot plant is hard enough, so imagine doing so for crops. Not only does this mean the difference between living and dead plants, but how well the plants grow and the quality of their yields. Enter multispectral analysis, which literally analyses how much and what kind of sunlight plants receive. Local companies such as Aerobotics use drones to fly over fields and do this job.
Keeping crops watered
Plants also need water. But again, they’re notoriously fussy about absorbing the correct amount, which is why farmers typically use more than they need to. While many known irrigation techniques exist to water plants accurately, these are often complicated and expensive. Smart technologies are turning that around – water management is arguably the earliest appearance of agtech and one of its widest uses. Companies such as Irritech have built systems that cover everything from accurately watering crops to checking for leaks in water systems. Such systems are often automated to monitor the plants and soil through sensors, and then apply just the right amount of water at the right time.
Making sure the cows are happy
One reason dairy and cattle farmers have to get up early is that their cows do. If you want healthy animals, you have to be on top of their wellbeing. While agtech isn’t helping farmers sleep in (if you like hitting the snooze button, then maybe farming isn’t for you!), it is helping them know what's happening in their herds. Numerous technologies let farmers track their animals – telling them where they are, and if they’re healthy. In this Microsoft project, the system even tells farmers when their cows are in heat, an important window for breeders that can sometimes only last a few hours. Now, they get an email or SMS the second the cow is ready for insemination.
Knowing if a plant will grow up strong
An experienced farmer learns to know when a plant is weak or strong. This helps reduce the risk of waiting an entire season only to have a dud crop. But even the most skilled eye will occasionally miss weak plants, and this is a big problem for new and inexperienced farmers, or farms that run large crops. Luckily, there’s a growing world of DNA sequencing to analyse plants and see their future potential. Companies such as Dupont have been developing DNA sequencing, and this technology is becoming more affordable and available to farmers everywhere.
Getting crops ready for market
Growing crops is not the only challenge for farmers. They have to predict how much the crops will grow, and that information needs to be shared and compared to get the best market rate. Fortunately, every farmer has access to the most powerful farming tool since the tractor: the smartphone. A smartphone connected to an agriculture platform, such as Vodacom's Connected Farmer, puts every farm on the digital map. It informs farmers about pricing trends and puts agribusinesses in frequent contact with the farmer. While other farming innovations are sometimes quite elaborate and sophisticated, a service such as Connected Farmer is perfect for everyone, including smallholding farmers. It helps them compete with large operations.