An Unlikely Pair:
Farmers and Big Data Team Up to Address Food Security

The United States agriculture industry faces a changing climate, diminishing water supply, and a rapidly growing population. To address these issues, farmers are having to move into the 21st century, one tech advancement at a time.

"We live in a complicated world and there's been a lot of talks these days about getting to 2050 and feeding over 9 billion people," said A.G. Kawamura, the former California Secretary of Agriculture, co-chair of Solutions from the Land, and a third-generation farmer. "We have the capacity but we don't have the will to do it. Logistics haven't been put into place."

The 2015 Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week focused on the impact of cloud technology on the food and agriculture industry, specifically the effect on food security. Experts discussed how food security, though currently pressing, is considered by many as far off as 2050. Technology may be the driving force to change the way farmers, consumers, and the entire food supply chain, think about food production.

The unpredictability of weather, land, and regulatory systems make it tough for small producers to build a solid business. Solutions for large- and small-scale farms will differ, but to increase production and revenue, farmers of all types need better, more specific tech solutions to manage unpredictability.

"People have to eat, so how we move forward with this system of food and creating food security and consistency is really the greatest dialogue we should be having right now," said Kawamura.

Currently, the United Nations has a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which focuses on moving all the agriculture systems on the planet toward 21st century sustainable solutions.

Developing “climate smart” agriculture means adopting precision agriculture techniques; using satellites to guide fertilization or crop management to control soil and pests, drone systems to identify and spot-treat dry or blighted fields, and smarter irrigation to increase productivity and crop yield. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International calculates that drones could reduce fertilizer usage by 40 percent and increase crop yields by 15 percent.

Some of the greatest opportunities for investors and technologists, Kawamura said, begin with water, whether it involves cleaning it, delivering it, harvesting it from the air or ocean, reclaiming water at home, or repurposing properties for food production, like abandoned lots or warehouses in urban areas, possibilities are endless.

Hydroponics is also an emerging field. Instead of looking for square feet of land to grow crops, farmers look for cubic feet, to grow vertically. Startups such as Zero Carbon Food, which grows food beneath the streets of London, and Chicago company Green Sense Farms are demonstrating the viability of indoor agriculture.

Today, about 40 percent of vine-ripe tomatoes in the grocery store are sourced from closed system greenhouses and hothouses. Those systems will become more common for growing greens and other vegetables.

"[We want to] eliminate unpredictability with all [these] new ways of how to feed a world and do it sustainably and consistently without interruption," Kawamura said. "We see it advancing now because mature technologies [are] arriving at just the right time."


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