The Internet of Things Food For Thought

Jacob loved to spoil himself every Friday with a visit to the local steakhouse. After a hard weeks work what could really be better? He would order the fillet mignion with a side of mushrooms and wait for the steak to arrive, his mouth watering at the thought of cutting into the thick juicy slab of burnt meat and tasting the juices come out as he chewed each mouthful. The aroma and flavors assaulting his senses would send him into a reverie. But today was a little different, as he was toying with his salad it suddenly dawned on him that he never really thought about how all this food really reached him here at his favorite restaurant. Where did it come from? How was it grown? What really went behind the scenes to get him his wonderful steak?

Most of us really do not give a second thought to the way we consume our food. Yet with the world population set to hit 9.6 billion by 2050 governments and farmer are hard pressed to get productivity up and costs down to ensure that the next 2 billion people are fed. Already climate change and the environmental impact of current farming practices are creating stresses that seem increasingly insurmountable given that lack of agricultural land has already pushed farming to the very fringes of what we would consider cultivatable land. Compound that with water crisis’ affecting more regions of the world than ever before and burgeoning urban population demanding more and varied food, we have the makings of a perfect manmade disaster unfolding on a global scale. Leaving us to ponder whether our children and grandchildren will have access to a nutritious diet.

What can be done? 

The key to increasing productivity in agriculture lies in our ability to reduce waste and increase efficiencies of all inputs while at the same time scaling these up in food supply chain as well. How? Technology using the Internet of Things (IoT).

Imagine a Smart Farm completely IoT enabled with sensors built in all the equipment. Fields with an array of sensors connected to the cloud and software to help make sense of all the data. Now Farmers will have the knowledge to control the amount water or fertilizer to use when to use it , to see pest infestations before they become problematic, to sense stress in their crop days before it becomes visually evident, and to know exactly the best time to harvest their crops. Farmers could benefit from knowing what crops to plant by using plans based on predictive algorithms showing tentative weather conditions and market situations.  Similarly grain storage silo management can become more efficient at monitoring the right temperatures warning of impending equipment failure keeping food at the optimal quality. Just in time (JIT) deliveries of food could become very efficient keeping it fresh lowering the need for extensive refrigeration and chemical preservatives. Food processing companies could now directly look into their supplier’s quality using software that tracks food quality even as the food is grown in the fields’ right up to the supplier’s storage and shipping points. 

What is happening?

Already we find drone software being designed to analyze geospatial and image data for farmers. Small sensor have been designed to read the water content and solar output that crops are receiving. Heavy farming equipment is not far behind, with sensor being built in to harvesters that can track ripest fruit to be picked and so much more!

Companies and governments have taken notice and are gearing up to meet the challenges of an agricultural revolution that the IoT may enable. Already US$ 471 million has been invested in the first quarter of 2014 for IoT enabled devices for farming. Smart farming will allow farmers and other stakeholders to understand the diverse conditions that create variables over a period of time. Embedding intelligence into the design of equipment will allow farmers to combine all the data from different sensors into useful information that can be acted on. Even though a farmers relationships with the ecosystem of suppliers and stakeholders can potentially be very complex ranging from machine manufacturers of farming equipment and heavy farming vehicles, suppliers of the machine to machine technology and the software developers creating IT based decision support systems, over time the value of these will create synergy for all the participants allowing for more efficient and effective designs to be incorporated using the Internet of Things.

Overtime as the cost of IoT enabled farming devices declines and more knowledge is gleaned from initial experiences we’ll eventually see these small devices being employed by poor farmers in developing countries where they will make the biggest differences to the vast deprived rural populations who live with limited access to farming knowledge and technology.  

Coming back to Jacob who has just now had his fillet mignion delivered to his table by the waiter. He looks at the gorgeously seared, medium rare piece of meat on his plate; gently cuts into it and lifts a piece into his mouth enjoying the burst of flavor with the knowledge that world of the Internet of Things just may let him enjoy his hard earned weekly steak a bit longer.