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Big Data Analytics in Agriculture

There’s nothing more important than our food supply. We strive to build a world which is starvation free. We do not want to see anybody dying  because of food in any part of the world. But every year there is a huge loss in agriculture sector. Inefficiencies in planting, harvesting, water use and trucking, as well as uncertainty about weather, pests, consumer demand and other intangibles contribute to the loss. On the consumer end, inadequate packaging and labelling can lead to waste and potentially life-threatening illness due to food-borne pathogens.

These are problems desperately in need of solutions and many of those solutions can be found in emerging technologies.

Big data is moving into agriculture in a big way. Sensors on fields and crops are starting to provide literally granular data points on soil conditions, as well as detailed info on wind, fertilizer requirements, water availability and pest infestations. GPS units on tractors, combines and trucks can help determine optimal usage of heavy equipment. Data analytics can help prevent spoilage by moving products faster and more efficiently. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can patrol fields and alert farmers to crop ripeness or potential problems. RFID-based traceability systems can provide a constant data stream on farm products as they move through the supply chain, from the farm to the compost or recycle bin. Individual plants can be monitored for nutrients and growth rates. Analytics looking forward and back assist in determining the best crops to plant, considering both sustainability and profitability. Agricultural technology can also help farmers hedge against losses and even out cash flow.

 

The software market for these sorts of precision farming tools (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% by 2022 in the United States alone. Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of these technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization.

For consumers, packaging sensors detect gases emitted as food starts to spoil and verify packaging integrity and freshness. Algorithms can even help create a recipe out of whatever you have in the pantry. Several startups are building finger-sized scanners that tell the composition of food on your plate, from ingredients to nutrient content, by sending data to an app on your smartphone. These applications help not only health-conscience consumers but also those with chemical sensitivities or food allergies. Some projections say it could help reduce overall health care costs, too, as consumers are increasingly empowered to customize their nutrition and avoid potentially spoiled or contaminated foods.

All these data points provide an unprecedented amount of information about the food we grow, process, eat and discard. They even enable farmers to customize individual fields to meet the demands of a specific region or consumer group. Buyers might be able to track their future loaf of bread from seed to flour.

Big data also holds enormous promise for urban farmers — people who are turning rooftops and abandoned lots into small farms. Lloyd Marino of Avetta Global, a big-data expert who has written about seed preservation, points out that, “Big data in conjunction with the Internet of Things can revolutionize farming, reduce scarcity and increase our nation’s food supply in a dramatic fashion; we just have to institute policies that support farming modernization.”

What’s important now is to ensure that both the technology and data it generates are available to everyone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should step up its support for the use of drones and other data systems for precision farming. Congress should get into the act and add a title to the Farm Bill that is due for reauthorization in 2018 that explicitly supports the widespread implementation of data and emerging tech to maximize efficient farming, save precious water, reduce unnecessary chemicals and decrease food waste and contamination.

Access to data for farmers, food handlers, grocers and the public shouldn’t be cost prohibitive. Consumers and farmers both must trust the data, so how and why it’s being collected should be transparent (and of course protected). We need smart industry standards and best practices for ag tech, new infrastructure such as smart roads to ensure we get the most from the technology, as well as an overhaul of communications infrastructure that wasn’t designed for near-constant wireless input. Finally, research into farming robotics should be beefed up to develop robots that could respond to data for better, faster and more efficient production.

So, to clear things up a little, here’s a list of four ways big data technology is disrupting the agriculture industry.

1. Accurate crop predictions

Waiting to see how the crops turn out has been driving men to drink since… well, since we’ve had alcohol to drink. We’ve tried everything from the rain dance to solemn prayer, but crop predictions throughout the years have been anything but accurate, until now.

Precision agriculture is one of the term coined to this end. Now that even tractors, crushers, harvesters and other agriculture equipment are sensor and GPS enabled, it can potentially accurately measure the area of land it has ploughed, amount of fertilizers and seed that has been put into the field.

By using sophisticated computer algorithms to analyze decades and sometime centuries of weather and crop data, today’s farmers can predict crop yields with shocking accuracy, before planting a single seed. The insight provided by data analytics allows farmers to start and harvest their crops at the optimum time, which maximizes crop yields and minimizes stress.

2. Stronger seeds and less hunger

UN announced that we’re facing the greatest humanitarian threat since the Nazi’s, and no, it’s not ISIS. An increasing global population combined with rising temperatures has led to a massive famine in Africa which has left 20 million people at risk of starvation. Humanitarian groups across the globe have geared up to aid however they can, but the solution may lie in big data.

Chemists and agricultural scientists have been analyzing plant data for years in the hopes of developing crops that can grow in any environment. We can grow plants faster, taller, and heartier than ever before - and apparently on Mars as well. Genetically modified seeds designed using big data may sound like a bad thing on the surface and the news usually portrays it that way. However, seeds created using data analytics could put an end to world hunger.

3. Automated agriculture

Automated farming or precision agriculture is nothing new. For decades, we’ve been using different systems to automate and keep track of as many agricultural processes as possible. In many ways, data analytics was what separated commercial farmers from the pack long before big data was even a term.

Now, thanks to recent advances in drone technology, the internet, and data analytics, that automation has reached staggering new heights. Farmers are using drones with advanced sensors to survey their crops, update their data, and notify them of areas that need improvement. As the technology continues to progress you can expect drones to move from surveying to planting and harvesting themselves.

Data analytics is all about finding the minute flaws in a system and correcting them, unfortunately, the human element is all too often that tiny flaw. Big data has us well on our way to farmerless farms.    

4. Environmental awareness

Like I mentioned earlier, we may not acknowledge it often, but big data is the reason we can say with certainty that humans have had a negative impact on the environment, and it’s the tool we’re using to fix it.

Saving the environment sounds great from a human perspective, but the agriculture industry is just that, an industry, a business, and all business decisions live and die by the bottom line. Big data is showing companies in the agriculture industry that not only can you protect the environment without increasing costs, you can reduce them. It’s not just the manufacturing industry that’s making changes to reduce their environmental impact, farmers and agriculture companies have been leading the way.

5. Animal husbandry and dairy Farming

This is another big area for big data analytics. With IOT enabled sensors, animal health can be measured and better yield on dairy products can be achieved. The IOT enabled devices keeps a tab on animal health, farm yield, food and habitat quality of animals for better yield, reproductive health and environmental hygiene. These kind of monitoring is possible only though the big data analytics.  

Finally as a passing comment, If the agriculture industry continues to improve the way it interacts with big data, the result will be an end to world hunger and a cleaner, safer planet.  GODAN, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition is one such initiative to get the world out of the grips of hunger.

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