Agriculture and food systems - time to get smart

How will we feed 8, 9, 10 billion people at the same time as protecting the environment? Who's going to do it? And what is the role for ISO standards? 

Few minutes to read
Barnaby  Lewis
By Barnaby Lewis
Published on

Smart farming is not a new concept. But like a seed, it's been waiting patiently for the right conditions. Advances in technology, combined with increasing pressure on land and a growing population, mean that the time has come. That's why ISO has brought together some of the world's leading minds in agriculture to make smart farming a reality.

We've already had an introduction to the work of ISO's “smart farming SAG” (Strategic Advisory Group). Early next year, their roadmap will give an overview of the current state of smart farming and the opportunities for standards. But anyone familiar with the terrain will already know that many of the major challenges of smart farming are related to interoperability, the capability of different systems from different manufacturers, like tractors, drones, and farm management software, to exchange data and work together. The bad news is that this is a very complex topic; the good news is that, from data-file formats to credit-card chips to controller-area-networks, interoperability is enabled by standardization.

There are further challenges, though: farming increasingly has multiple goals such as profitability, sustainability, and compliance with regulations. These goals are often at odds with each other and may mean different things to different growers, depending on their geography, the size of their operation, and so forth. Smart farming can benefit all kinds and sizes of growers, but smart farming solutions have to be affordable, easy to adopt and bring value to each user for there to be adoption by smallholders and family farms as well as commercial operations, plantations and ranches.

In a series of articles, we're going to meet with farmers around the world. We'll be asking them how they feel smart farming can help improve their livelihoods and increase the long-term sustainability of their farms. But we'll also be looking at the barriers to adoption and doubts that exist around the technology. Some are worried that it's too expensive, others fear it can’t scale or provide actionable insights. There are also concerns that it will rapidly transform traditional ways of working and techniques that, so far, have brought proven success.

In order to evaluate these very different perspectives and understand how they fit into an overall picture, we'll be examining their challenges and successes using Porter's “value chain” model, a simple and effective way to understand how businesses create value.

Understanding the different challenges and opportunities

We'll begin our journey by speaking with Rick Murdock, a commercial farmer in the United States who farms 600 hectares of maize, wheat and soybeans as well as 20 hectares of catfish ponds. Some of his challenges include optimizing crop inputs (especially fertilizer) to manage tight margins, and a lack of accurate yield-prediction methods that can support his sales and marketing. Smart standards are already addressing part of that and have the potential to do more, but according to Rick it's not plain sailing. There is a long way to go, but we're making progress.

Next, we'll be travelling to the Middle East where we'll link up with Alireza Atri, an agronomist who works with a number of family- and smallholder-farmers who produce saffron and other crops. They're dealing with a lack of market access, financing, and risk-management tools like crop insurance. These are very different problems to those faced by Rick — how can smart farming help these growers make the right decisions for their business?

Our final destination in this series is Germany, the world’s third largest exporter of agricultural products. We'll meet a husband and wife team who grow feed for animals at the same time as raising pigs. German farmers may have market access and good input logistics, but some are reluctant to use more technology. One concern is that the information may be used for purposes contrary to farmers’ interests, and ultimately drive them out of business. How can ISO standards address concerns like these?

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