How many mouths will the world be feeding by 2050? It is an estimated 9.2 billion, up from 7 billion today. To keep pace with this growing population, global food production will need to increase by 70 percent.
That means getting a lot smarter about how we raise crops. With 38 percent of the world's land already dedicated to agricultural production, our existing infrastructure has the potential to meet these demands. But farmers and manufacturers will need to rethink some of their existing practices so they can make better decisions about how and when they plant, grow, irrigate, harvest and transport crops.
Consider "precision agriculture" by using smarter analysis of big data to make more precise and predictive farming decisions. Such systems can have a big role to play in changing the future of farming.
Traditionally, set schedules determine when to plant, irrigate or harvest. These schedules may not reflect the dynamics of current environmental conditions and how they can vary over a farm. But by collecting data about weather, soil, crop maturity, and even equipment and labor costs, analytics can be used to make more timely and informed decisions.
Here's how precision agriculture can play out. Measurements of the weather and the soil, including data from sensors dotting a farm, multi-spectral images of fields taken from spacecraft or airplanes, characteristics of irrigation systems, requirements for fertilizer and pesticide coupled with precise weather predictions, all can enable optimization of a farmer's decisions. IBM's Deep Thunder can help enable such capabilities. Deep Thunder can forecast future conditions based upon the physics of how the atmosphere interacts with the soil, which is needed to understand the impact of weather on farming operations.
Precision agriculture systems can help predict exactly how and when different fields need to be watered, fertilized, or harvested and what the weather and other conditions are forecasted to be for undertaking each of those different tasks.
It's these kinds of jobs that Deep Thunder was designed to address, although it is not limited to agriculture. It incorporates a weather model that utilizes data from many public and private sources. It also provides hyper-local forecasts of weather and weather impacts up to three days ahead with great precision and accuracy.
Consider some of the key instances where precision agriculture can make a real difference for a farmer armed with such detailed weather forecasting information:
- 90 percent of all crop loss is caused by the weather. Using predictive weather modeling, this weather-related crop damage can be slashed by up to 25 percent. In fact, a new report by the National Climatic Data Center found that May was the 339th consecutive month, which adds up to more than 28 years, with a global temperature above the 20th century average.
- 70 percent of the world's fresh water is used for irrigation. If a farmer can predict more accurately if, and exactly where, it will rain within the next 48 hours, he won't waste water irrigating a field that won't need it, helping conserve an increasingly precious resource. And he can delay fertilization of an area of the farm if expecting heavy rains.
- Sending labor into the field is time consuming and costly. Through the understanding of different variables, such as humidity, frost and rain forecasts, better decisions can be made in advance about where field workers should work.
- Most food waste happens while food is being shipped from the farm. By knowing what weather is anticipated, companies can make better decisions on which routes will be the fastest to transport their food. In Brazil, for example, many of the roads are dirt and heavy rain can cause trucks to get stuck in mud.
The island nation of Brunei is turning to precision agriculture to bolster its food security by improving its local agriculture and increasing rice production to account for 60 percent of the rice used in the country by 2015, up from 3 percent now. In partnership with the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, we are using Deep Thunder to develop precision weather forecast models to help Brunei achieve this goal.
Coupled forecast models, which is meteorology driving hydrology, will help farmers know not just when it will rain, but how much, for how long, and where the runoff in the hilly countryside of the island will go. Depending on the forecast, adjustments can be made to affected parts of fields, including changes to irrigation systems to drain off excess water, or decisions such as holding off on applying fertilizer or pesticides.
Using technology and science to meet -- along with smart, long-term use of resources -- the challenges of our ever more crowded planet is becoming more crucial than ever. We have only one Earth. But there are going to be a lot more humans on it. We need to become smarter and more responsible about how we go about increasing food production and minimize the impact on the environment.