The global food market is … well … just there. It isn’t really something that we talk about most of the time, even though it is perhaps the most important sector of all in our lives. In the absence of direct threats to our next meal, we simply ignore problems and investment in the sector and leave it to get on. Even during a crisis, history shows us that discussions tend to be sporadic and fizzle out once the crisis passes.
This current pandemic could prove to be different. It has affected both agriculture and human relations. Food and livelihoods are at risk. We have seen shortages of particular foods, and farmers have raised concerns about the problems that will be associated with a lack of movement of labor, including the inability to harvest fruit and vegetables. As the disease spreads, this has become a global issue rather than a regional one and requires a more coordinated response.
A warning from nature?
There are some who have taken the pandemic as some kind of warning from nature. They suggest that it shows a dangerous imbalance between humans and the rest of the world, and cite other "warning signs," such as global warming and climate change. I am not sure that nature is quite as organized as that, but there is no question that our relationship with our planet could be improved.
With all this planning, it seems reasonable to suggest that there should no longer be any food shortages. However, we know that this is not the case. As recently as 2007-2008, there was a global food crisis following a period of excessive stockpiles of food in 2004-2006. Planning errors still occur – but there are ways that we can do better. New analytical methods offer hope for much better forecasting and predictions, and to waving goodbye to global food shortages forever.
For as long as humans have existed, they have spent time forecasting what might happen and trying to take action to address it. From long-range weather forecasts, farmers and agriculturalists have always tried to predict what will happen. They have laid up stocks against famine and flood and planned their next season’s planting to fit predictions. As technology has improved, so has both the forecasting and the ability to preserve and store food for the future.
Making it real
It may, however, be challenging to make analytical agriculture a reality. The use of technology in agriculture – so-called industrial agriculture – gets deservedly bad press. For years, farmers have been paid and encouraged to misuse land and water, and often to disregard biodiversity and natural life in favour of increased short-term productivity. A more organic approach has only really taken hold in the last 20 years and has been slow to spread because of its higher cost. Farmers are often forced to balance efficiency with ecosystems, and it is hard. However, eco-friendly and efficient agriculture may finally be possible with the use of analytics and technology.
Today, the biggest companies use data analytics in their different industries. Bayer Crop Science uses analytics especially to develop seeds. But the sector has specific requirements. Michelle Lacy, data strategy lead for R&D in the Plant Biotechnology Division at Bayer Crop Science, notes that the company is working really closely with farmers to understand their land, their acreage, the type of soil they have, the water flow, and then work with them. (Source: cio.com and agriculture.com.)
SAS has also worked with Kencana Agri Limited to develop best practices for palm oil production analytics. These include running analytics on data from multiple soil sensors, GSM probes and mineral sensors. The company uses the resulting insights to improve plant health, optimise factories and improve the yield of end products. Kencana has reduced costs and increased production and shown that analytics can support agricultural soil and fertilisation optimisation. (Source: PalmOil Opt.)
Today, the biggest companies use data analytics in their different industries. Bayer Crop Science uses analytics especially to develop seeds.
This could not have come at a better time. COVID-19 has heightened awareness around the world of global supply chains and the potential problems of their disruption. Global leaders are increasingly talking about trying to achieve at least some elements of national self-sufficiency in food production. Awareness of "food miles," and their effect on the climate, is also growing.
This is a good moment to suggest new ways of thinking about farming. Analytics can help to surface broad macro-scale issues about productivity, demand and ideal methods of cultivation. On a more micro scale, it can also answer questions about how much seed should be sown in particular fields, and when and how much to irrigate or fertilise. It is time to embrace these technologies and set them to work.