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The Theme - the EITA-New Agriculture Workshop

(Basel, Switzerland - Alvin Wei-Cheng Wong)


 "The Future of Agriculture (Agriculture 4.0): Challenges, Opportunities, and Future Directions"





"By 2050 the earth's population will likely reach 9.5 billion people, requiring an 80% increase in agricultural production. Achieving this will require innovative technologies to make agriculture more efficient and optimize existing inputs." -- (MIT) Along with an increasing population, the world faces climate change, rising fossil fuel prices, ecosystem degradation, and water and land scarcity -- all of which are making today's food production methods increasingly unsustainable. Agriculture will soon need to become more manufacturing-like in order to feed the world’s growing population. Crops will soon need to become more drought resistant in order to effectively grow in uncertain climates. Farms will soon need to learn how to harvest more with less water. If farms are to continue to feed the world’s population they will have to do so in manners both independent of, and accommodating to, the planet’s changing and highly variable climes. That necessitates the smart application of both proven and cutting-edge technology. Advances in technology are key to the future of agriculture as farmers strive to feed the world with limited natural resources.

Agriculture 4.0: The Future of Farming Technology

Technology is changing the world, and farming is catching up. The introduction of everything from automated farm equipment to a wide array of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that measure soil moisture and drones that keep track of crops have changed the business of agriculture. Some experts even call this movement Agriculture 4.0.

Agriculture 4.0, securing agriculture’s digital future through inter-operable solutions and digital technologies, is a farming management model based upon observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. The goals of agriculture 4.0 are mainly increasing the productivity of the crops while ensuring a higher environmental sustainability. In plain words: to produce more and better with less. And for that there are several tools, techniques and technologies.

Agricultural Biotechnology

A bio-based revolution is underway worldwide, and it is fundamentally changing how the world produces and consumes food, feed, fiber, materials, chemicals, fuel, and energy. Food may benefit directly from genetic tailoring and potentially from producing meat directly in a lab (or In vitro meat). Biotechnology is already part of the agriculture industry's efforts to improve crop yields. Genetic modification has led to crops varieties that better (potential benefits) tolerate drought, pests, and herbicides, and are fast growing, increased supply with reduced cost and longer shelf life, among others. Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (genes from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes. Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or bacteria and other microorganisms. It allows scientists to speed this process up by moving desired genes from one plant into another, or even from an animal to a plant or vice versa. Today, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, and soybeans have been genetically altered through biotechnology. Many more foods contain engineered ingredients and more are being developed. 

According to NIH, we have been genetically engineering plants since the 1990s. Potential risks of genetically engineered foods include: modified plants or animals may have genetic changes that are unexpected and harmful. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) may interbreed with natural organisms. This could lead to the extinction of the original organism or to other unpredictable environmental effects. Genetically Modified (or GM) plants may be less resistant to some pests and more susceptible to others. 

Synthetic biology (or “synbio"), the next stage of genetic engineering, which allows efficiently reprogramming unicellular life to make fuels, byproducts accessible from organic chemistry and smart devices, is an extreme form of genetic engineering. It is an emerging technology that is developing rapidly and entering the marketplace. In essence, synthetic biology is about designing and building workhorse organisms that can make things more efficiently than nature (or make things we might need that nature doesn't make at all). Generally, genetically engineered foods take desired genes from one organism and cut and paste them into another organism. Synthetic biology instead treats genes like computer code, remixing DNA sequences to create foods (and medicines and biofuels and lots of other things) that are not seen in nature. There’s lots of contention around GMOs, and similar issues surround synbio. The products of synthetic biology are virtually unregulated, have not been assessed adequately for impacts on our health or environment, and are not required to be labeled. Synthetic biology could have serious impacts on the health of people and ecosystems, on our planet's biodiversity.

Digitization for the Future of Agroecology and Smart Agriculture

Digital technologies, from GPS-based and sensor-driven work machines, drone applications to robotics, agriculture is becoming a digital industry. Digital technologies can support farmers in providing safe, sustainable and quality food. Not only do they help farmers “produce more with less”, but they can also contribute to fighting climate change. Existing and new technologies such as the Internet of things (IoT), blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, cloud, and big data can contribute to making processes more efficient and can lead to the creation of new products and services. Digitization can also play a role in creating a better life in rural areas. 

Crops experience some environmental stresses which include drought, water logging, salinity, extremes of temperature, insects, birds, other pests, weeds, pathogens (viruses and other microbes), etc.. The ability to tolerate these stresses is a very multifaceted phenomenon. In addition, the inability to do so which renders the crops susceptible is again the result of various exogenous and endogenous interactions in the ecosystem. 

Modern agriculture, food production and distribution are major contributors of greenhouse gases. Agroecology is the study of ecological processes that operate in agricultural systems that are productive but also resource conserving. It links ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities. For example, fertilizers such as nitrogen often end up in water sources, and contribute to the acidification of soil. They also cause global warming, causing soil microbes to emit unexpectedly high levels of nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with 300 times as much heat-trapping power as carbon dioxide. In today's changing society and globalized world, public awareness about ensuring safety and security in the food systems, global climate change and environmental sustainability, and the fiscal and ecological costs of our growing material and energy needs have increased dramatically. 

Solar radiation, temperature, and precipitation are the main drivers of crop growth; therefore agriculture has always been highly dependent on climate patterns and variations. USDA’s framework for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, to help farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners in their response to climate change, spans a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage, and generate clean renewable energy. As a matter of fact, renewable energy and farming are a winning combination. Wind, solar, and biomass energy can be harvested forever, providing farmers with a long-term source of income. Renewable energy can be used on the farm to replace other fuels or sold as a "cash crop."

Modern agriculture aims for the production of high quality food and animal feed as well as raw materials in sufficient quantity for a wide variety of industrial applications. Further objectives consist of preservation of resources and protection of the environment. In order to successfully meet these challenges scientists have to understand the various aspects of environmental stresses in view of the current development from molecules to ecosystems (contemporary crop stress research). Emerging agriculture technologies that give farmers ways to make precise, targeted responses to crop stresses are expected to figure prominently in the efforts to make farming more efficient, sustainable and of high quality.

Shaping the Future of Food Security and Agriculture

Urbanization will continue at an accelerated pace. By 2050, it is expected that approximately 70% of the world's population will be living in urban areas.. Income levels will be many multiples of what they are now. To keep up with rising populations and income growth, global food production must increase by 70 percent in order to be able to feed the world. At the same time, water supplies will come under increasing pressure as the population rises. The answer to that daunting challenge lies in the use of robotic machines (Autonomous Farming), UAVs, geomatics or 3S (Remote Sensing/RS, Geographic Information System/GIS, and Global Positioning System/GPS) services (Satellite-guided Farming), the Internet of Things, sensors technology and big data analytics, wireless sensor network (WSN), RFID, cloud computing, etc. to conserve water and improve crop yields. More specifically, the means to achieve these goals are to use Precision Agriculture (or Smart Farming), an application of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Agriculture (or e-Agriculture), to collect and act on copious amounts of real-time data (Big Data) on weather, soil and air quality, crop maturity and even equipment and labor costs and availability. 

For example, Instead of prescribing field fertilization before application, high-resolution crop sensors inform application equipment of correct amounts needed. Optical sensors or UAVs are able to identify crop health across the field (for example, by using infra-red light). Predictive analytics (machine learning) can be used to make smarter decisions, to maximize food production, minimize environmental impact and reduce cost. Livestock biometrics, collars with GPS and RFID, can automatically identify and relay vital information about the livestock in real time. Equipment telematics allows mechanical devices such as tractors to warn mechanics that a failure is likely to occur soon. Intra-tractor communication can be used as a rudimentary "farm swarm" platform.

As our metropolitan areas start to sprawl out into the countryside the sustainability of traditional farming methods is seriously coming into question. It is estimated that the US loses at least 1.5 million acres of productive farmland to urbanization every year. But what kind of alternatives are being produced to satisfy our rapidly increasing demand for sustenance? Increasing urbanization and the high environmental and monetary costs of delivering power, water, and food to cities, suggest that a low impact form of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is becoming more and more widespread in urban settings. Farming has migrated from the fields to the cities and moved into the developed environment. CEA involves a combination of engineering, plant science and computer-managed facility control technologies used to optimize plant growing systems, plant quality and production efficiency while optimizing resources including water, energy, space, capital and labor. Environmental impacts of urban CEA can be aggressively reduced through carbon neutral energy supply, water recapture and recycling, and siting on pre-existing or underutilized structures. 

Vertical Farming (Urban Agriculture)

Vertical Farming is a revolutionary approach to producing high quantities of nutritious and quality fresh food all year round, without relying on skilled labour, favourable weather, high soil fertility or high water usage. It is fully enclosed and climate controlled, completely removing external environment factors such as disease, pest or predator attacks.

With state-of-the-art, clean technology (Photonics in agriculture) utilizing specialized Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and a totally controlled growing environment without sun or soil (i.e., sensor-controlled hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture systems.), vertical (and rooftop) farming or urban agriculture would cultivate plant or animal life within dedicated or mixed-use skyscrapers in urban settings. Instead of having a single layer of crops over a large land area, vertical farming have stacks of crops going upwards in existing underutilized warehouses or multi-story buildings. 

Next-generation LED grow lights provide artificial light used for plant growth. They offer low power, high-efficiency, uniform light pattern, homogenous light distribution at precisely the right wavelengths and color ratios needed for superior photosynthetic response. Plant light has photons from the blue to red (400–700 nm) part of the spectrum. This is called growth light. Plant growth is a function of photosynthesis. One simple example is in horticulture where synthetic blue and red light from low-cost light emitting diodes (LEDs) are programmed for efficiently controlling the growth rate and color of vegetables, flowers, ornamental plants, and fruits. 

Profitability in commercial horticulture requires the ability to cost-effectively and consistently provide plants with optimum growing conditions from germination through to harvest. Today's vertical farming monitors and controls the levels of air, water and nutrition to provide optimum growing requirements with a fully integrated intelligent computer management system.

The advantages of vertical farms are numerous, including year-round crop production, faster harvest cycles, predictable results, protection from weather, use much less water than traditional farming, superior food safety and less environmental impact, support urban food autonomy and reduced transport costs. Vertical farms are a new, environmentally friendly way to provide the huge amounts of fruits and vegetables demanded by cities across the globe.

(Jungfrau, Switzerland - Alvin Wei-Cheng Wong)

Powering the IoT Ecosystem

The main phases of the agriculture industry include crop cultivation, water management, fertilizer application, fertigation, pest management, harvesting, post-harvest handling, transport of food products, packaging, food preservation, food processing/value addition, quality management, food safety, food storage, food traceability (from farm to smartphone to table), and food marketing. All stakeholders of agriculture industry need information and knowledge about these phases to manage them efficiently. 

E-Agriculture, an emerging field focusing on the enhancement of agricultural and rural development through improved ICT processes, involves the conceptualization, design, development, evaluation and application of innovative ways to use ICT in the rural domain, with a primary focus on connected agriculture. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a worldwide network of intercommunicating devices. It integrates the ubiquitous communications, pervasive computing, and ambient intelligence. IoT may have a bigger impact on farming than perhaps any other industry. IoT sensors allow farmers to track crop yields, soil nutrition. rainfall, etc. with a previously unheard of level of precision. The Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming the agriculture industry and enabling farmers to contend with the enormous challenges they face. The agriculture industry must overcome increasing water shortages, limited availability of lands, difficult to manage costs, while meeting the increasing consumption needs of a global population. It is forecasted that by the year 2050, the Agricultural Internet of Things will increase food production by 70% and be feeding up to 9.6 billion people. 

The IoT applications in agriculture (the Agricultural Internet of Things) include water supply management, integrated pest management or control (IPM/C), food production and safety, livestock management, soil and plant monitoring, precision agriculture, greenhouse environment monitoring and control systems, monitoring of food supply chain, etc. With the Internet of Things (IoT), farmers may be able to deliver the crops directly to the consumers not only in a small region like in direct marketing or shops but in a wider area. This will change the whole supply chain which is mainly in the hand of large companies, now, but can change to a more direct, shorter chain between producers and consumers. 

IoT devices can sense vital information to ensure food is delivered efficiently and safely. Cloud computing would enable corporate sector to provide all the necessary services at affordable cost to farmers in rural areas. Through e-Agriculture, farmers stand to benefit from more efficient farm management, fewer inputs, reduced leaching and, therefore, less damage to the environment. Farmers have adopted the smartphone, which has proven invaluable in enabling them to access market information and deal with everyday problems that threaten their crops and livestock. Wireless payment software enables farmers to electronically process sales at the market, while also catering to online buyers in the restaurant or grocery sector.

Farm Management Systems for Precision Farming

Precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. The farmer’s and/or researcher’s ability to locate a precise position in a field lets him create maps of the spatial variability of as many variables as can be measured (e.g. crop yield, soil pH, soil moisture, soil depth, soil type, soil texture, terrain features/topography, pest populations, nutrient levels, organic matter content, etc. ). These variables are at the heart of precision agriculture and are key to defining amendment strategies, or ‘recipe maps.’ The reason precision agriculture can be an effective practice is it defines more accurately the needs of specific locations of individual fields. To implement precision agriculture for efficient crop management, farmers need to know the status of crop and soil throughout the crop production periods from planting to harvesting. Once the crop status is known, farmers can make correct management decisions, so that they can save time, labor, and money and thereby increase yield and profit. Precision farming has become possible due to the convergence of three groups of modern technologies: information and (wireless) communication technologies, monitoring and measuring technologies (including remote sensing and GIS, yield monitoring and GPS), and automated process control technology.

Precision agriculture technologies and autonomous farming offer many exciting opportunities for more profitable and environmentally compatible farming. Once adapted to farm conditions, these technologies (wireless, cloud-connected systems) will provide a completely new level of accuracy in measuring plant growth, in monitoring on farm growing conditions and in operating farm equipment (sensory-enabled farming). Sensors help agriculture by enabling real-time traceability and diagnosis of crop, livestock and farm machine states. Automated processes (agricultural robots) will replace routine, labour-intensive agricultural work, such as harvesting, fruit picking, ploughing, soil maintenance, weeding, planting, irrigation, etc.. Irrigation on a farm land, for example, will involve linking sprinkler systems to plant sensors, soil sensors and nearby weather stations. The technology will ensure that exactly the right amount of water reaches the growing plants as and when needed. 

Big Data, Cloud, and the Future Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Agriculture

The global population is expected to reach 9.5 billion people by 2050, which means double agricultural production in order to meet food demands. Factors such as climate change, population growth and food security concerns have propelled the agricultural industry into seeking more innovative approaches to protecting and improving crop yield. Farm enterprises require new and innovative technologies to face and overcome these challenges. As a result, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is steadily emerging as part of the industry’s technological evolution. 

The agricultural community wants to use big data to help farmers make decisions that will increase yields and deliver safe, nutritious food to communities around the world. Researchers and farmers use predictive modeling to identify best management practices for getting the best crop and livestock performance under various environmental conditions. To make the most accurate predictions, models based on even the most advanced machine learning algorithms must be rooted in comprehensive datasets. Such datasets often include numerous weather and soil measurements as well as corresponding plant or animal performance assessments under multiple management regimes over multiple years.

The rise of digital agriculture and its related technologies has opened a wealth of new data opportunities. Remote sensors, satellites, and drones can gather information 24 hours per day over an entire field. These can monitor plant health, soil condition, temperature, humidity, etc. The amount of data these sensors can generate is overwhelming, and the significance of the numbers is hidden in the avalanche of that data. Companies are leveraging computer vision and deep-learning algorithms to process data captured by drones and/or software-based technology to monitor crop and soil health. Machine learning models are being developed to track and predict various environmental impacts on crop yield such as weather changes.

Robotics, Drones, and the Future Of Precision Agriculture

Artificial intelligence robotics is one of new and innovative technologies that promises to provide a solution for the future of farming. An increasing number of farmbots are being developed that are capable of complex tasks that have not been possible with the large-scale agricultural machinery in the past. 

Automation will help agriculture via large-scale robotic and microrobots to check and maintain crops at the plant level. Robotic farm swarms, the hypothetical combination of dozens or hundreds of agricultural robots (small, autonomous robots) with thousands of microscopic sensors, which together would monitor, predict, cultivate and extract crops from the land with practically no human intervention. Farmers could control everything remotely from a tablet. Drones are transforming agriculture - giving farmers new tools to supervise crops and check on fields from the air. The drone flies a path preset by the farmer and captures images of the ground. Users then upload the images to the cloud where a software tool creates a map revealing areas of crop distress and variability. This enables farmers to quickly identify problems and take action fairly inexpensively. You literally push a couple of buttons, the drones flies the field like a lawnmower, collects the data, and processes the data. By making agriculture more data-driven, farms should see greater productivity and yields.

With drones, robots and intelligent monitoring systems now successfully being used in research and field trials, artificial intelligence, or machine learning, is set to revolutionize the future of farming as the next phase of ‘ultra-precision’ agriculture is on the horizon. Artificial intelligence (AI) advances to make farming smarter. AI is driving efficiency in our current farming methods to increase production and reduce wastage without adversely affecting the environment. As sensors proliferate on farms and drones capture real-time images of the condition of vast amounts of farmland, AI machines will be able to help farmers foresee what their crops and farms are going to need potentially over a year in advance, giving them more time to react to adverse conditions.

Precision Agriculture therefore can help bring in the next green revolution and can produce tremendous wealth in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way (Biomimicry).

5G Mobile Wireless and the Future of Farming

The term "5G" refers to the fifth-generation wireless broadband technology that will transcend  smartphones and connect anything from cars, machines and home appliances at speeds 50-to-100 times faster than 4G, with low-latency wireless up to 1GB/s. The 5G wireless technology could bring reliable, high bandwidth speeds to areas that typically lack coverage, and in turn, enable new precision agriculture capabilities on farm equipment leveraging real-time connectivity. The idea is to have farm equipment that's able to communicate with other machines on the field by streaming data from vehicle to cloud and back down to machine operators in the shortest time possible. 

The 5G wireless technology will pave the way for a new generation of robots, some free to roam controlled via wireless rather than wired communications links and exploiting the vast computing and data storage resources of the cloud. Armed with these capabilities, robots can be precisely controlled dynamically in near real time, and be connected to people and machines locally and globally. In short, 5G will fully enable applications such as the "factory of the future" and many, many others that were previously beyond the capabilities of both cellular and robotics technologies. 

Rural agricultural communities are demanding high-capacity, low-latency network services to support bandwidth-intensive applications used in various operations, including water supply management, precision agriculture and food production.  However, 5G wireless will likely struggle in rural areas, particularly ones with lots of trees and foliage, and could encounter other issues due to low population density. We see two possible solutions for this issue. First, network service providers can deploy fiber in strategic positions closer to rural areas, delivering the necessary backhaul connectivity for 5G technology enablement and small cell deployment throughout agricultural communities. The second solution is to deploy fixed wireless combined with 5G. Either solution will pave the way and enable rural areas to get the data speeds they need, even where communities are small. We're still years from realizing the true potential of rural 5G.



<updated by hhw: 11/23/18>



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