Tracking Farm Info is Key to Feeding the World

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In December 2012, IRIN (a UN humanitarian affairs service) interviewed a 35-year-old Kenyan woman. Her description of her occupation: breadcrumb seller. She gathers unwanted and leftover bread from industrial bakers, then sells that product at half the fresh market price to people living in the slums of Nairobi who would otherwise not be able to afford a whole loaf of bread. Her venture spotlights several truths: (1) the ever-present difficulties of large populations to afford staple foods, (2) the rampant waste in the global food chain, and (3) the grassroots ingenuity and market-based solutions that promise to help surmount these very important problems.

– JP Morgan Global Commodities Research, February 2013
Nine Billion Bellies: Managing food, water, land, and air to 2050

Innovation in agriculture is both a dilemma and a crisis. Despite leaps in agricultural productivity in the past century, the United Nations predicts that by 2050 there will not be enough food to feed 60 percent of the world.

This is the stark reality. However, there is hope — and it is revealed in the ingenuity of the breadcrumb seller, who has come up with an innovative way to leverage every ounce of sustenance from Nairobi’s bread supply. Her tenacity can serve to inspire the entire global agriculture industry, as it faces one of its greatest challenges of all time.

On-farm data will transform both our understanding and approach to global food challenges

Currently, half of the planet’s population of nearly 7 billion people live in poverty, with a purchasing power of less than US$2 per day. Around 840 million are undernourished with close to 2 billion suffering from serious deficiencies in basic vitamins and minerals such as iron, iodine or vitamin A. While mechanical and biological innovations in agricultural production have been closing the gap, they are losing ground to a growing population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

Parallel advances in both biological and mechanical innovation have powered decades of agricultural progress. The transformation of agricultural practices by machines in the last 100 years has been a testament to the power of this innovation. As reported in a 2005 United States Department of Agriculture bulletin, at the start of the 20th century about 41 percent of the workforce — including 22 million work animals and a few newly invented gasoline-powered tractors — were involved in agriculture. During this time, pioneering farm families often sent their men off to earn cash building railroads, essential building blocks of an efficient distribution system, while wives and mothers broke ground and planted new farmland with hand tools and horses. By the start of the 21st century, slightly less than 2 percent of the workforce, which now included 5 million tractors and a few work animals, were active in agriculture. During this 100-year transformation, the number of farms decreased by 63 percent, while the average farm size increased by 67 percent.

Also within the past century, improvements in yields from advances in biotechnology began to have an impact with the advent of high-yield crop varieties, herbicides, pesticides and fertilization, creating an increase in production of 200 percent from 1950 to 1984. From 1961 to 1981, global yields of corn, rice, soybeans and wheat grew 3 percent per year, while population growth was 2 percent.

Overall, these advances increased the productivity of a farmer from the 1950s, in which one producer could feed approximately 15.5 people, to the productivity of a farmer today where one can feed 155 people. This is a tenfold jump.

It will not be enough. Estimates increasingly warn that population growth continues to pressure production capacity and by 2020, one farmer will need to feed more than 200 people. Some predict that beyond 2020, in order to meet the demands of population growth and dietary shifts, farmers will need to produce more food than they have in the past 10,000 years combined — all while dealing with limited resources. There are two ways in which production capacity can continue this breakneck growth and keep up with global demand: More farmland can be found, or the farmland currently available can be made even more productive. By some estimates, future demand requires 163 million acres of farmland. But with a future total of only 119 million viable acres available, a production gap of 44 million acres would still exist. Clearly, increasing available farmland will not work to close this gap. Ways of making available farmland more productive must be explored.

In addition to increasing productivity, the distribution and consumption of food must be more efficient so that it reaches the intended markets and is consumed with less waste, thus feeding more people. A staggering finding by the Food and Agriculture Division of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that North America and Europe waste a staggering 12 percent of their annual food use at the consumer level (throwing away food they have paid for), while less than 2 percent of food produced in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is lost this way. This is where technology must come in. In the race to feed the world, it offers the greatest opportunity for helping the industry close the agricultural productivity gap. Advanced technology can now capture, aggregate and transform vast quantities of agronomic, market and logistics data and — with the proper analysis — transform it into actionable insight, thus optimizing agricultural production. This could be the most revolutionary innovation in agriculture since the invention of the steel plough in 1837.

Forward-thinking farmers, agronomists, equipment dealers, software engineers, input providers and financial analysts are rallying around a goal: To estimate the source and volume of information required by North American farmers to make the decisions necessary to prepare for the next crop year — an age-old issue farmers have faced for generations, but typically with rudimentary tools and very little hard data. These industry front-runners understand that as our world becomes more digitized and connected, more and more data is generated from our workforce, customers, suppliers, and machines. And while our tractors and other crop production equipment have been talking to us for some time, we are only just beginning to understand them.

The information — on-farm data — being generated is fertile ground for transforming both our understanding and approach to global challenges such as the food production gap. But with so much information now available, it becomes critical to know what data is valuable and what is not. Sorting out the signal from the noise can enable us to make better decisions because we are able to ask and answer more precise questions, creating efficiencies never before possible.

The challenge to all industry participants who recognize the need to increase agricultural productivity is to get engaged in this crucial task of sorting through the noise in order to harness the signal that will enable the agriculture industry to be more predictable, secure better outcomes and overcome the productivity gap. This is a task that all of us in the crop production industry must roll up our sleeves and attend to if we are to continue in our mission to feed the world.


About the Author
Darwin Melnyk

Iron Solutions

President and Chief Executive Officer

Darwin has been building services with large data sets and cloud infrastructure for 20 years. He was an early Internet innovator, who in 1996 founded the application service provider Consonus, providing services to Intel, H-P, Ziff Davis and Kodak among others. Having grown up on a farm in Western Canada, Darwin is a thought leader on using information to create efficiencies in crop production through precision farming technology, machine data aggregation and information analytics. He lives in Franklin TN, with his wife Adrienne.

Iron Solutions, Inc. – Nashville, TN

Iron Solutions creates intelligence and delivers insight that improves business performance throughout the agricultural and construction equipment markets. 

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