The challenge of how we’ll feed the exploding world population in the future – in a sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way – is seeding an agricultural revolution. Welcome to farming of the future : a hi-tech, capital-intensive system of growing food sustainably and cleanly for the masses.

Here are the facts. Each second, the world’s population grows by nearly three more people, that is 240 000 people a day. By 2025, the global population will reach 8 billion people and 9.6 billion by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This means there will be an extra billion mouths to feed within the next decade. And in just one generation, there will be more people additionally on the planet than there were at the beginning of the 20th century. Sounds improbable? Well, guess again.

With many of the resources needed for sustainable food security already stretched, the challenges are huge. At the same time, climate change is already negatively impacting agricultural production globally and locally. Farms must increase production of food while preserving the environment, but they can’t do it alone and they can’t do it using today’s traditional farming practices.

Subsistence farming in poorer countries is still a labour-intensive, low-reward industry, at the mercy of unexpected environmental changes, economic downturns and many other risk factors. And while mechanized agriculture in the developed world has considerably increased output per unit of land, more is required to sustainably meet the food demands of tomorrow. Happily, though, the Internet of Things (IoT) – essentially the art of connecting and integrating objects, people, information and systems for intelligent production and services – is now set to push the future of farming to the next level.

ISOfocus asked industry experts for their perspectives on these issues and what needs to be done to meet the ever-growing food demands in a sustainable way – and how ISO standards can help.

Feeding the world

Tom Heilandt, Secretary of the CODEX ­Alimentarius Commission – responsible for setting international food safety and quality standards and one of two standards-setting bodies under the aegis of FAO – sums it up in a nutshell : “Agriculture exists first to feed people and has done so for thousands of years, and it will have to continue doing the same for hopefully many more.” Not surprisingly, he claims the biggest challenge is always going to be producing safe, good-­quality, nutritious and affordable food for a growing population.

Man in a high-tech tractor

The agriculture sector needs to be primed to feed the world, Heilandt says. “For me, the most striking and important crisis is the missing common understanding that the agricultural and food sector is not a business like any other and that we need a long-term vision for agriculture.”

While the industry is more pressed than ever to meet the increasing demand for food, environmental concerns now bring a whole new set of challenges that make the task even more daunting. Climate risks to cropping, livestock and fisheries are expected to soar in coming decades, particularly in low-income countries where adaptive capacity is weaker. A solution proposed by FAO is for the agriculture industry to become “climate smart”.

Climate-smart agriculture, as defined and presented by FAO at the Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change in 2010, is an approach to developing the technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agricultural development for food security under climate change.

Dawn of hi-tech farming

Of course, any conversation on smart farming has to include the manufacturers. And many companies around the world have stepped up their efforts to speed up IoT use in agriculture. AGCO, a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment and infrastructure, is one such company.

A few years ago, AGCO unveiled a new global strategy to deal with every aspect of precision farming technology, an approach to farm management that uses information technology (IT) to ensure the crops and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. The new agri-tech strategy, dubbed Fuse Technologies, integrates telematics, data management systems and auto-guidance solutions that, together, have the potential to make farming much more productive and profitable.

Precision farming technologies have a long history at AGCO, says Dr Bernhard Schmitz, Commercial Manager of Fuse Technologies for the company. He believes that farmers will need to turn to new technologies to meet the growing demand for food production in the world. “All our precision farming technologies help our customers to become more efficient and save resources,” he says.

A smart future

Producing good-quality, nutritious and affordable food in a world of 7.5 billion people is always going to be a huge challenge. And in a world of limited resources, a new hi-tech era will need to be ushered in where automation and data can help farmers address the many challenges of the future.

So what will farming look like in 40 years? Linking so many technologies means that waste will be limited, productivity will be maximized and the environment will be affected as little as possible. Yet one thing is clear, success will demand an enduring focus on driving standards development to ensure that the strides we are making with technology will continue to deliver the productivity and environmental benefits we would like to see over the next couple of decades.

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