Mapping the Era of Sustainable Sustenance


Precision Agriculture's Next Chapter

Precision agriculture technology is redefining the science of feeding the planet. We're seeing new levels of efficiency, societal responsibility, and nutrition through the application of location intelligence and the emergence of a deep geospatial information consciousness.

 

Aerial map of a farm overlaid with data on crop health

 

This comes not a moment too soon. Not only do we face the prospect of feeding 9.5 billion people by 2050, but the world has awakened to the unforeseen impacts—on our environment and our health—of previous revolutions in agriculture, including factory farms, deforestation, methane emissions from livestock, ocean pollution, and overfishing. Furthermore, there are concerns about the genetic modification of both crops and animals.

Fortunately, we now have promising solutions to meet these and other agricultural and agribusiness challenges of the 21st century. These solutions are playing out in three key dimensions: microlocation, smart supply chains, and environmental stewardship.

Welcome to the era of sustainable sustenance.

 

Tractor pulling watering equipment through a field

 

Microlocation, the nanogeography of precision agriculture technology—On a precision agriculture farm, advanced technology is everywhere, and it's location intelligent: mobile devices combined with smart maps, sensors embedded in both equipment and fields, and pickers equipped with trackable smart devices so that the farm operations manager can see where they were and when they picked that produce. That can help farm management isolate contamination issues so that food isn't unnecessarily destroyed, and it can help farmers identify their best produce so that they can repeat that success.

Soon artificial intelligence (AI)-based robots that are spatially aware will navigate a field to pick produce. Already, insurance companies are flying drones over fields after floods, fires, and tornados in order to do rapid damage assessment, promptly cut a check, and get farmers back on their feet. Some companies fly their fields toward the end of the growing season to analyse the vegetative index and get an indication of what the yield will be. That allows them to tell grain elevator workers to anticipate 5,000 bushels of corn, for example, letting them plan how many combines and tractor trailers they'll need to process it all.

The new ag supply-and-demand chain: from farm to fork—Modern agriculture is highly complex. On any given day, farmers are commodity brokers, bankers, chemists, agronomists, pickers, procurement managers, warehousers, machinists, meteorologists, and long-term gamblers. All farmers must now be technologists too. And despite the romantic trope of the solitary farmer in the field, all 21st-century farmers are inherent members of multipart, global supply chains.

Mapping the business ecosystem and the natural ecosystem is also important to the banks that provide farmers with the capital they need to run their business. Lenders need a system of record so that they know what's in their portfolio, which clients have what assets and liabilities, and which geographic areas are doing better—creating an automated valuation model to assess agriculture real estate values and determine which farmers are the best risks. And in low- and middle-income countries, location intelligence-based precision agriculture technology and data analytics offer billions of people the opportunity to leapfrog over millennia of learning for the improvement of productivity, nutrition, and sustainability.

 

A satellite photo of sprawling green and yellow croplands with a heat map overlay with crop health data in shades of yellow and red

 

Sustainable sustenance—We have learned that soil and the nutrients and biological ecosystems it supports are a finite resource. Once that soil is gone, there's no more farming. So applying precision ag helps farmers understand what amounts and kinds of nutrients to put into the soil; how much water is required to maximise a crop; and how much fertiliser and seed are needed and how much tillage is going on at an exact location—and all of that will help us understand how to protect our land for future generations. 

The rise of organic and sustainable agriculture and farming technologies over the past two decades has spawned many new businesses, ranging from Whole Foods to Indigo. Agricultural companies like Jackson Family Wines are working on practices such as planting a cover crop, a hedgerow, or riparian plants along a waterway for carbon sequestration. And traditional retailers like Walmart—along with many other Fortune 500 companies—are committing to a green future. In addition to its own decarbonisation goals, Walmart has established sustainability requirements for its suppliers.

"As a research scientist, my goal is to make sure that that margin of error is as thin as possible," says Dr. Angela Bowman, research scientist at John Deere. "I want to make sure that the data is exactly where it's supposed to be in space and time. Given some of the inherent errors within satellite data, for example, that's going to continually evolve. There are other margins of error that occur within data in the field. And I would argue that margins of error should be within a foot of accuracy."

Now, that's precise.

By Charlie Magruder and Matthew Harman, Thought Leaders in the Agriculture Industry for Esri