By 2050, the world population will grow from 7 billion today to 10 billion, and most of the population will be living in mega cities. This is triggering interest in smart cities around the globe to ensure that these cities are healthy, safe, and sustainable.
While a lot of technology and innovation is focused on urban transportation, energy, healthcare, waste management, and carbon emissions; some companies are also focused on agriculture and the ability to feed these billions of people. By 2050, we will need to double food production while arable land is shrinking, and farm workers are migrating to the cities.
How farming has changed
I was raised on a farm, where we started with less than 5 acres of strawberries and everything was done by hand labor. As the farm grew and we were able to acquire more land and farm machinery, we grew lettuce, tomatoes, and green beans. When we planted lettuce, we mounted a seed hopper on the tractor, which dropped seeds at a rate that was regulated by a mechanical cog, followed by a small plow that threw soil on top of the seed. Since we did not know how successfully the seeds would germinate, we planted redundant seeds (sound familiar?). After the seeds sprouted, we went back with a hand hoe and thinned out the spouts to give room for the best sprouts to develop into mature heads of lettuce. For every 5 seeds we planted, we destroyed 4 seeds in the thinning process.
Today, modern planting machines plant individual seeds based on GPS and computers that ensure each seed is planted at the optimal depth and spacing with the right moisture content to ensure germination. However, planting is only the first step in a very complicated process of bringing food to our table.
Utilizing the Internet of Things that matter to increase food production
Agriculture, like everything else, is based on data. Hitachi, for example, has developed an agriculture information management system called GeoMation Farm that is based on various inputs, including satellite data. This not only helps farmers with the use of water, weather, and chemicals to optimize production, but it is also used to minimize environmental impacts like carbon emissions, soil erosion, nitrate leaching, the loss of biodiversity, and the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Agriculture: A science and an art
In Japan, farming is also an art. Rice must be harvested with the just the right amount of moisture—not too wet and not too dry. Japan is the only place I know where you have to pay $100 for the perfect melon with the right curl in the stem! While the farms in Japan are usually smaller than my father’s original 5 acres, some larger farms in Australia are developing precision farming based on satellite signals to robotic tractors.
The sustainable business of farming
After growing food, that food needs to be distributed. A few years ago I was visiting the University of San Paolo in Brazil, where they are working on Smart City projects. One of the problems they are trying to solve is the distribution of food. In Brazil, which is one of the richest agricultural countries in the world, 40% of the fresh food spoils before it reaches the table of residents in San Paulo due to distribution problems. This is an infrastructure problem, not an agriculture problem. This is part of the reason that futurists say that we need to double food production while the population grows by 50% in 2050. Smart agriculture must be integrated into smart city infrastructure to ensure that people in these mega cities have access to fresh foods.
A recent IEEE Spectrum article claims that even after the food is distributed, in the United States, we waste 40% of that food while many people are starving. Doubling food production will not solve this problem. In the U.S., we need to be more conscious of the portions we serve. My wife and I often share meals when we go out to restaurants because the portions are just too large. How many people can really eat a 16-ounce steak?
The point is that we can solve many problems with innovative technology, but we also need to take individual responsibility to build a sustainable society.
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