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Agriculture 2.0: how the Internet of Things can revolutionize the farming sector

Hyea Won Lee's picture
Nguyen Van Khuyen (right) and To Hoai Thuong (left). Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Last year, we showcased how Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are adapting to climate change. You met two shrimp farmers: Nguyen Van Khuyen, who lost his shrimp production due to an exceptionally dry season that made his pond too salty for raising shrimp, and To Hoai Thuong, who managed to maintain normal production levels by diluting his shrimp pond with fresh water. Now, let’s suppose Nguyen diluted his shrimp pond this year, another year with an extremely dry season. That would be a good start, but there would be other issues to contend with related to practical application. For example, when should he release fresh water and how much? How often should he check the water salinity? And what if he’s out of town?
 
Nguyen’s story illustrates some of the problems global agriculture faces, and how they unfold for farmers on the ground. Rapid population growth, dietary shifts, resource constraints, and climate change are confronting farmers who need to produce more with less. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to rise by 70% to meet the projected demand by 2050. Efficient management and optimized use of farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer will be essential. However, managing these inputs efficiently is difficult without consistent and precise monitoring. For smallholder farmers, who account for 4/5 of global agricultural production from developing regions, getting the right information would help increase production gains. Unfortunately, many of them still rely on guess work, rather than data, for their farming decisions.
 
This is where agriculture can get a little help from the Internet of Things (IoT)—or internet-enabled communications between everyday objects. Through the IoT, sensors can be deployed wherever you want–on the ground, in water, or in vehicles–to collect data on target inputs such as soil moisture and crop health. The collected data are stored on a server or cloud system wirelessly, and can be easily accessed by farmers via the Internet with tablets and mobile phones. Depending on the context, farmers can choose to manually control connected devices or fully automate processes for any required actions. For example, to water crops, a farmer can deploy soil moisture sensors to automatically kickstart irrigation when the water-stress level reaches a given threshold.

A real-time food security information system is a Big Data reality

John Corbett's picture
Today, all the necessary information assets are available to provide actionable insight to farmers: models, real-time local weather, crop and agronomic insight and calendars. What is also emerging is the technology to deliver actionable insights directly into the hands of farmers: information and communication technologies (ICTs) including cell phones, tablets and other personal communication tools.   

​With a cell phone in hand, a farmer becomes connected to a network of invaluable – and timely – information. There is greater demand for information as extreme weather variability necessitates new farming practices. Local and timely insights help inform farmer decisions. Big Data methods and practices, meanwhile, ensure that this multi-directional information contributes across the agricultural value chain as input providers and produce buyers are also informed.

The warming of the atmosphere is leading to a tremendous increase in weather variability. This variability affects agriculture in a multitude of ways and most insidiously for farmers, in the uncertainty that impacts each step in their production and livelihoods. 

The most common human reaction to uncertain times is to become more risk averse.  For our planet’s 570+ million small-holder farmers, this means lower productivity. With the impeding population surge, particularly in Africa, and diet changes requiring “70 percent more food production,” change must come now.