There are few industries where scale is more important than in agriculture.
Farms that stretch for as far as the eye can see might contain millions of individual plants. We might lovingly tend each potato plant in our allotment, but on an industrial scale, it is impossible to understand what is happening on a micro scale.
That is until Big Data made its mark in the agricultural industry.
There are so many challenges that might be better solved with a closer understanding of the underlying situation. Over a third of food produced is lost or wasted each year. Globally, that amounts to $940bn in lost revenue. Crops are planted inefficiently, harvested haphazardly and watered ineffectively. Unexpected weather events can wreak havoc, and the consumer is often a fickle beast. There is before we get to the more involved issues of genetics and nutrition.
Big Data is hitting the fields.
Sensors can provide data on soil conditions, irrigation, and fertilizer requirements while keeping an eye on the weather. GPS trackers and drones can direct the farmers to use their resources in the optimal fashion and track the growth of their crops. All the while, the data can be crunched to allow farmers to optimise their output in the most sustainable and profitable way. Machines within machines will allow the product to be suitably sorted at harvest, and although the farmers will have the time to move their activities to a more strategic level.
The software market is growing by 15-20% by 2022 in the U.S. and we could be at the start of witnessing the biggest productivity gains for the agricultural industry since mechanization. Farms will be able to get bigger, yet at the same time, they will be more diverse. In one field, wheat might flourish, but on the neighbouring field, potatoes could be more suited. Big data will understand this, suggest solutions and manage the process. One farmer would never think of doing something on such a granular level, but the machines will be able to take the strain.
On the consumer side, big data can potentially prove even more useful. I feel terrible when I throw away food that has gone past its use by date but imagine how much food is unnecessarily wasted by supermarkets across the world, concerned that they might sell unworthy produce to their precious consumers? Packaging sensors will be able to detect the gas (for example) as individual items of fruit start to spoil, so rather than a best before date, there might be a green or orange indicator strip.
The world population is growing rapidly (hurtling towards reaching 9 billion by 2050) and these advances in agricultural big data could end up saving our planet (until we move to Mars, that is). In a world where supermarkets are forever squeezing the farmers’ profits, it might also be a way to keep them in business.
Big data will feed our world for the next century and beyond.
Matt Reaney, Founder