The human population is growing at an incredible rate. The United Nations projects there will be nearly 10 billion people by 2050, which is an increase of about 2 billion from where the headcount stood in 2022. With so many mouths to feed, the future of our food supply is a top priority, whether you’re involved in agriculture or you’re a consumer.
However, up to 40% of food goes to waste worldwide, and this waste causes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Since it’s impossible to control people’s food consumption habits, it’s essential for agriculture to improve efficiency and production. By improving efficiency and production, farmers can:
- Lessen the agricultural output of greenhouse gasses on their end.
- Grow more food to feed more people.
- Outpace the competition in an industry increasingly dominated by technology.
While using fuel efficient engines like the DD15 is one way of reducing greenhouse gasses, one of the best ways farmers can optimize production is to use smart technology — automated equipment connected to the internet and, as the technology evolves, increasingly empowered by artificial intelligence.
What Smart Technology Means for Farmers
Far from taking farmers’ jobs, smart tech makes it easier to do the work you already have on your plate. Think of autonomous tractors that drive themselves, sensors that collect data to optimize seed distribution, or a robot that eliminates weeds for you. It’s similar to the way that a horsepower modification on your farm truck won’t replace you as the driver — it’ll just make it faster to get from point A to point B.
For example, a smart tractor or truck could come equipped with sensors that monitor the engine’s performance. As these sensors send data back to the manufacturer, the manufacturer’s software analyzes whether the machine is meeting efficiency standards. If it’s not, you get a notification that identifies the issue and makes a recommendation for improvements, such as a new engine or even a used engine that could save you some money.
Smart tech does not mean you need brand-new equipment, either. Old rigs can be retrofitted, which is exactly what Smart Ag (now Raven) is doing. The autonomous farming company created a retrofit system for the John Deere 8R Series tractor, a system that allowed farmers to link their fleet of tractors and pull grain carts autonomously, without drivers. This type of smart technology should address driver shortages in the future, enabling farmers to meet increasing production demands despite a lack of personnel.
Challenges for the Future of Our Food Supply
There are multiple demands stressing the global food supply as humankind moves further into the 21st century. From food inequality to climate change, smart farm technology can help the world address these challenges.
Food inequality is the state of affairs in which some communities have access to plenty of food while others don’t. When a child or any vulnerable person anywhere in the world goes hungry, it shines a glaring light on the issue of food inequality. This isn’t a distant problem, and the numbers are staggering — in 2021, some 702 to 828 million people were affected by hunger, which amounts to about 10% of the world’s population.
With numbers like that, it’s clear that agriculture could stand to increase production through the use of smart technology.
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions
Agriculture is responsible for over 18% of global GHGs, and in general, food production creates a whopping 26% of the world’s total emissions. Improvements to efficiency could help cut down on these emissions, especially the greenhouse gases farmers create when they use energy to water crops, power equipment, as well as transport and feed livestock.
Reducing emissions through smart technology has the added benefit of helping farmers save money as they ramp up production to meet increased demands for food.
Humanity is approaching a freshwater crisis that is already playing out in California, for example, where low reservoirs have forced the state to adopt broad water conservation efforts. These conservation efforts affect a variety of populations, but agriculture in particular is heavily impacted as it accounts for 69% of global water usage. Meanwhile, 40% of the population could see water shortages in the coming years. If farms can find more efficient, smarter ways to use water, it will help limit the extent of the crisis.
As the Earth heats up and the climate changes, agricultural food supply sits in the crosshairs. Farms will need to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people, yet climate change is hurting crop yields. Additionally, livestock is becoming less productive and cereals are becoming less nutritious due to heat stress. To avert the coming crisis, agriculture must reduce emissions even while it increases production.
Technology Solutions for the Future of Agriculture
Although the challenges to the world’s future food supply are major, there are many types of tech that could help solve agriculture’s problems. The effectiveness of these solutions will of course depend on how widely they’re adopted. Still, you can’t help but be encouraged by these innovations in farming technology.
Precision agriculture is exactly what it sounds like: farming strategies and methods targeted to yield the best results with minimal usage of resources. For example, fields can be leveled with lasers and sensors can enable farmers to know where they should apply more water — and where they shouldn’t. Connect these sensors to an automated drip irrigation system with AI software at the helm, and you have a smart watering setup that saves water and grows healthier crops.
The benefits extend further. A smart irrigation system would create less runoff, meaning effluent — liquid waste — from fields would not drain into waterways and pollute them.
Precise farming encompasses a variety of technologies that are already in the works or available today. These include autonomous tractors, robotic planters, and unmanned aerial vehicles. But ultimately, precision farming is about the internet of things — a web of sensors that transmit data. Through data analysis, farmers can implement techniques to expend energy and resources only where they’re needed.
Driverless tractors help farmers get more work done by combining GPS technology, sensors, and software. If your farm has a labor shortage, a fleet of autonomous tractors can fill that gap. Additionally, Sustainable America points out that GPS, in combination with software, positions these machines to plant crops in more efficient patterns, without needing breaks, overall saving time and fuel.
John Deere introduced a self-driving tractor in 2022. "It's just going to make my life a lot easier," said Doug Nimz, the first farmer to test out the machine. And, as we mentioned previously, you can retrofit autonomous tractor tech to the machines you own now. The John Deere system runs on its popular line of 8R 410 tractors.
Even Cummins, which makes one of the most reliable engines on the market, is getting in on the driverless market. The GUSS autonomous sprayer contains a Cummins QSB6.7 engine and features sensors and software that allow a single operator to monitor 10 machines simultaneously as they spray orchards.
Like an autonomous tractor, a robotic planter uses automation to optimize a repetitive process that takes human farmers a lot of time and hard work to complete. A prime example is the Fendt Xaver autonomous field robot.
With a tablet, farmers can monitor a swarm of seed planting robots, plan tasks, and check out seed data. A logistic unit towed by a truck takes care of seed supply, transport, and battery charging. The swarm of robots links to the cloud via satellite, which provides geo-referencing as well as remote control, and an algorithm optimizes and supervises the seed planting operation.
Best of all, the farmer is in complete control, with a birds-eye view of exactly what’s happening at all times. Since the robots are precise and don’t get tired, you can get a whole lot more planting done in less time than with a human crew.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
UAVs, otherwise known as drones, are another type of autonomous farm tech. For example, Agri Spray Drones developed a drone that can autonomously spray 30 acres per hour. All you have to do is import field boundaries and parameters, and the drone takes off and does the entire job on its own. It returns when the battery and spray tank need refills.
UAVs have many agriculture applications, including pest control, crop irrigation, crop health monitoring, animal mustering, and geo-fencing. These flying farmers are part of the internet of things, which is set to revolutionize agriculture and provide a way forward at a time when resources and staff are scarce.
Internet of Things (IoT)
It’s hard to overemphasize what the IoT means to agriculture. Farmers can use IoT sensors and devices to:
- Monitor and control greenhouse conditions;
- Get real-time climate information and adjust accordingly;
- Monitor and manage crops and cattle;
- Determine exactly how much fertilizer, water, and pesticides they should apply, and when.
What’s more, the IoT may be able to help solve some of the issues we talked about earlier. It lessens farmers’ production risks, which could easily translate into higher crop yields and healthier livestock.
In developing countries and those going through tough economic times, higher yields could lessen food inequality. Worldwide, the IoT’s ability to improve efficiency can lower agriculture emissions. Sensors and soil data will allow for precision watering and water conservation.
Take all these improvements together, and you have a picture of smart technology that can help farmers weather climate change and produce more food for a hungry population.