COP21: Sustainable Agriculture & IoT

#IoT for Good, Thought Leaders

Part One of the COP21 Series.  Read Part Two here.

The 2010 BP Oil Disaster was the worst in human history, dumping 210 million gallons of petroleum into the ocean.  Every year, 70 times that amount of petroleum is used to produce food that is either wasted or lost in the US.  That’s 14.7 billion gallons.  Every year.

The amount of water used in producing food that goes unused (lost or wasted) amounts to 250 cubic kilometres.  If that’s a hard number to conceptualise, it equals the annual flow of Europe’s longest river, the Volga: 66 trillion gallons.  It’s enough water to fulfil the needs of every household on earth.

The land used to grow wasted or lost food is larger than Canada at over 3.5 billion acres.  And the value of the wasted or lost food is over one trillion dollars.

(Sources for these facts can be found at the end of the article.)

This is not a discussion about whether agriculture contributes to pollution, reduction in potable water, loss of animal habitat, and the spreading of disease.  This is a discussion about how we can change agriculture for the better.  Thus, I begin with statistics to cement the fact that agriculture needs to move toward a more sustainable model.  In doing so, agriculture and agribusiness should harness the power of technology to provide the driving force for environmental change.

The ‘Internet of Things’ (or IoT) is an umbrella term that describes electronic interaction and data-transfer between two previously ‘un-connected’ objects.  The most well-known examples are ‘wearables,’ clothing that transmits physical information to a person’s phone.  Technically, anything that is an object that transmits data to an app on your phone falls under ‘Internet of Things.’

Most people aren’t familiar with the term IoT yet – and those that are usually think of its association with cool gadgets and Smart Homes.  But it’s also used on an industrial scale, connecting machines to machines and transferring data at colossal levels.  So how can it be applied to agriculture to help curb the Brobdingnagian amounts of waste that we currently create?

Photo: Courtesy of USDA.

Photo: Courtesy of USDA.

First, we need to understand how food goes unused.  There are two categories that unused food falls into: waste and loss.  Food is wasted by retail stores and consumers because of such things as unattractiveness, expiration dates, and over-ordering.  If a carrot has two heads, it’s typically thrown out.  Expiration dates are notoriously incorrect and many times the ‘Best By’ date is actually the date of peak freshness, not the date after which the food is rotten.  And finally, larger portions simply mean people don’t finish their meals and restaurants throw out the food (which they also do with uneaten – and untouched – buffet food).  Food is also lost during the planting, harvest, and processing phases.  If soil is lacking in nutrients or a storm or drought hits, the food is lost.  Additionally, if storage or expedient transportation is lacking, food is lost.  Naturally, one can understand that food loss is more prevalent in developing countries and food waste is more prevalent in industrialised countries.

Second, we have to figure out where improvements can be made.

The Union of Concerned Scientists describes a healthy farm as having four components:

  • Multifunctionality – which recognizes “that productivity, while indispensable, is not the farm’s sole objective. As well as providing food, the farm also performs important social, economic and environmental functions.”
  • Regenerativeness – which uses “methods that constantly improve the fertility of the soil, foster biodiversity both within and beyond the farm’s boundaries, and recycle essential nutrients.”
  • Biodiversity – to incorporate “a wide variety of crops, land use choices, and options for raising livestock and poultry.”
  • Interconnectedness – which sees “the farm as an integral part of the landscape that surrounds it, not an isolated production facility.”

IoT devices can add value to all four of these elements.  And when IoT is added to farming, the term ‘Precision Agriculture’ or ‘Precision Farming’ is typically used (though ‘Smart Farming’ is gaining terminological ground).  Before getting to the future of IoT in agriculture, we’ll start with some examples of IoT devices that already exist.

The Climate Corporation’s Fieldview Pro combines weather reports, nitrogen-levels in soil, historical planting data, real-time field data and visualisations to help farms maximise crop yield and minimise food loss.  John Deere’s FarmSight equips tractors with GPS monitoring as well as software to track fuel and machine usage.  The goal is to keep farm machines operating at their maximum potential while being as efficient as possible.  Finally, there are numerous companies that use wearables on livestock, but there is also VitalHerd, which is developing a smart pill for beef and dairy cows to ingest.  It will transmit vital signs, blood and ph levels, estrus (heat) timing, and more.  It aims to keep cows healthier while keeping costs down.  The commonality in all these technologies is, as Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) writes, for “farmers and soils [to] work better, not harder.”

The previous technologies all deal with food waste, which is primarily a ‘First-World Problem.’  Food loss, experienced much more in underdeveloped countries, can also be helped by IoT.  But, because food loss doesn’t effect the more technologically-advanced countries, it hasn’t received commensurate investment, either financially or technologically, as food waste.

That being said, some packaging has been developed – termed Active (or Smart) Packaging – that “performs some role other than providing an inert barrier to the external environment.  [It is] a system in which the product, package, and the environment interact in a positive way to extend the shelf life or… to improve safety or sensory properties.” according to the Journal of Food Science and Technology.  As an example, Fresh & Easy has created a label printed in temperature-sensitive ink for its fish products.  That way, if the fish ever hits temperatures that make it unsuitable for food, the label lets the consumer know.  However, these kinds of solutions are not as widespread as one would hope.  The goal is, as sensor and related technologies become cheaper, to expand this kind of packaging throughout the US and internationally.

This last point illustrates IoT can help agricultural sustainability improve worldwide.  Right now, there is too great a cost barrier for farmers in developing countries to utilise agricultural IoT technologies.  But as sensors become smarter, more abundant, and most importantly, cheaper, their expansion to agricultural areas outside of the US and Europe will increase.

NASA cites studies that have shown that wavelength readings from the visible, infrared, and microwave spectrums can promote crop health and sustainability.  The great part is that this will not sound like science fiction much longer.  The startup FarmDrones, whom we interviewed recently, is taking this technology and trying to make it accessible to the average, local farmer.  Using drones (now as cheap as 30 dollars) to capture wavelength readings, the company will be able to suggest best practices for farmers in real time.  Combine that information with soil analysis from smart sensors in the ground and there isn’t much more information a farmer can possibly want.

sustainability 1

Now, according to a Dec 1 press release from COP21, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) plan going forward is to concentrate global efforts on “soils in agriculture, the livestock sector, food losses and waste, and sustainable production methods and resilience of farmers.”  The IoT technologies I’ve mentioned previously affect all four areas.

To promote sustainable agriculture, especially as bolstered by technology, the UNFCCC at COP21 has introduced six initiatives that focus on sustainable, smart agriculture:

  • 4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate

This initiative focuses on restoring four grams of CO2 per kilo of soil every year.  The added storage of carbon in the soil helps to combat rising global temperatures.

  • Live Beef Carbon

This initiative aims to reduce the carbon footprint of beef by 15% over ten years in four countries.  (The beef industry has recently been reported to emit more GHG emissions than the automotive industry.)

  • Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP)

This initiative commits the investment of 56 countries in ‘climate finance.’  It was launched by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and focuses on providing funding “to smallholder farmers so they can access the information tools and technologies that help build their resilience to climate change.”

  • 15 West-African Countries Transitioning to Agro-ecology

This initiative has the least catchy title, but is one of the most important initiatives.  It consists of financial support for households transitioning to an agro-ecology, but more importantly, it focuses on knowledge-sharing between towns, communities, and states to promote a viable future of sustainable agriculture on a family-level.

  • The Blue Growth Initiative (BGI)

BGI aims to reduce carbon emissions in fisheries by 10% in 5 years and 25% in ten years in 10 countries.  It also aims to reduce overfishing by 20% and 50% in the same timespan.

  • The SAVE FOOD Initiative – (the Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction)

According to the UNFCCC, this initiative simply “aims to drive innovation.”  Additionally, the SAVE FOOD Initiative has recently released a study stating that the “targeted use of technology as well as an increase in training opportunities for growers, the establishment of local warehouses and distribution centres, and raising awareness regarding efficiency and sustainability improvements in general [provide possible solutions to food losses.]”

  • The Consumer Goods Forum

This initiative focuses both on stopping deforestation and stopping food waste at the same time.  They encourage companies to commit to the process and aim at a circular economy of food production.

On top of these six initiatives, the UNFCCC started the Green Climate Fund in 2010.  With corporate, governmental, and local participation in as many initiatives as possible, they hope to succeed where past initiatives haven’t.

The main thread between all the initiatives is that of sustainability.  I would also argue that the most potent driver of agricultural sustainability is Internet of Things – or technology – or M2M – or whatever you’d like to call it.  IoT doesn’t just improve crop yields and make tractors more efficient, it also promotes knowledge sharing in a faster way over greater distances than ever before.  Lessons learned in Senegal can help farmers in Laos.  Data collected in Bangladesh can be used in Nicaragua.

Though it is my personal opinion that change happens much faster when encouraged by financial gains, humanity is hitting a point where we must encourage eco-amiability before we cross the event horizon.  Luckily, the speed of evolution for sensor technology, drones, GIS and GPS, and related IoT devices, means that technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible, all while promoting greater yield (and greater profit) from farming.

The agricultural landscape must change.  For it to do so most efficiently, both technology and knowledge-sharing are necessary.  The Internet of Things will provide a key role in both parts, helping precision agriculture – or smart farming – become a global phenomenon in the next 25 years.


BP Oil Disaster & Petroleum Usage in Food Production – Source: Jonathan Bloom, American Wasteland

Water Usage in Food Production – Source: UN Environment Programme

Land Usage in Food Production – Source: National Geographic

Cost of Food Waste – Source: FAO

For further reading, check out Bill Hinchberger’s “7 Ways to Make Climate-Smart Agriculture Central to COP21 and Beyond.

Part One of the COP21 Series.  Read Part Two here.