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The Internet of Grapes: How IoT and weather come together to support the global food system

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Have you ever thought about the ordeal a bunch of grapes goes through before it lands in your basket? Irrespective of the crop, growers across the world have struggled to manage the consumption of inputs such as water and unpredictability of weather, making agriculture a high-risk business. Increasing threats about food security due to increasing population are pushing those in this business to think of innovative ways to deal with this challenge.

“The world needs agriculture to be climate-smart and also nutrition-smart. We need to meet the needs of communities and nations in these shifting climates and must work to create agriculture and food production systems that are diverse, efficient and resilient.” President Kufuor, Co-Chair of the Global Panel and former President of Ghana [1]

Public investment in agricultural productivity is an essential part of a country’s food and nutrition security. Robust local production of a diversified set of nutritious foods can buffer consumers against unforeseen changes in global commodity markets. Greater support is needed for domestic agricultural research initiatives focused on: making higher quality seeds and breeds more widely available to smallholder farmers (including greater support for indigenous foods and bio fortified crops where appropriate); enhancing access to credit; and promoting local and regional market development. [2]

The Internet of Things is emerging as the saviour that promises to bring data from on-field sensors, aerial drones and weather data together to generate actionable insights for the agri-business leading to improved yield quality, quantity and resource utilization. To understand some of the opportunities and challenges in the agribusiness area, and how IoT solutions can help, we sat down with Manisha Sharma Kohli, a member of the IBM Watson IoT Worldwide Offering team.

Manisha is on a mission to develop a strong ecosystem of solution partners to leverage Watson IoT capabilities, while helping to discover and create industry solutions for customers. One aspect of Manisha’s role is to evaluate untapped industry segments to build new offerings with our system integrators and device ecosystem partners. As part of this charter, Manisha has been exploring the agribusiness sector as that directly relates to world food security issues and demonstrates IBM’s commitment and dedication to make this world a better place for all.

Question: Can you describe some of the challenges going on in the agricultural, supply chain and food sector today?

It’s a well-known fact that FAO United Nations has established now, that there will be over 9.6B people on earth by 2050. This means we will need 70% more food than what we are producing now to feed those mouths. If you look at the statistics today, we already have about 795 million people globally who do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. [3]

As the world’s population increases in the next 20 years, the situation will worsen, leaving half the world’s population malnourished. With another 2 billion mouths to feed in Asia and Africa by 2050, the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition claims that climate change will also lead to more than half a million additional deaths, most in low and middle income countries. As worldwide studies show crop yields to be negatively affected by climate change in the tropical areas where hunger is most widespread, the Global Panel acknowledges that yields could increase elsewhere. One factor highlighted in the panel’s research suggests that by 2050, the estimated impact of elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on the zinc content of grains, tubers and legumes could place 138 million more people at new risk of zinc deficiency. [4]

While there are varying factors driving food shortages and malnutrition issues – some related to distribution- not enough food in some places, and too much in other, other factors related to the severity and magnitude of climate change caused in part by urbanization, greenhouse emissions and industrialization, a diminishing availability of arable land caused by over-use of chemical fertilization, changes in weather patterns, and replacement of smaller homesteads by large industrial farming projects – the agricultural and food supply sector is facing big changes ahead. But despite the threat of food security and malnutrition looming large on local and global organizations’ agendas, agriculture in emerging countries continues to experience slower growth when compared to other sector areas.

As a sector, farming and agriculture is prone to risks on multiple fronts- supply chain issues, political unrest, unsettling climate and weather conditions are only a few of the inherent variables which can reap havoc on investment and growth prospects. For example, at a micro level, many growers are afraid to get into horticulture crops due to a shorter shelf life and perishable nature. As farmers continue to grow staple crops such as wheat, rice and maize, they face shrinking yields and lower returns per hectare of land, while the world’s population continues to struggle with the knock on health related issues of malnutrition, obesity and diabetes caused by malnutrition and disease. Many of these challenges will demand a more holistic solution that spans the entire Agribusiness value chain, and not just involvement of a singular stakeholder. Whether it’s improvement in ‘Farming operations’ for plants or animals to maximize productivity; sustainable and efficient use of inputs like water, fertilizer, mechanization; credit/risk management for the growers, financiers, and insurers; or, food supply chain optimization that ensures food safety, quality and provenance, when these approaches are implemented – either incrementally or as a complete overhaul – their benefit and impact could be greater with automation and technological intervention as enablers.

Figure 1: Agricultural value chain [5]

Figure 1: Agricultural value chain [5]

Question: Can you elaborate on how technology and the IoT together can help to alleviate some of the challenges the agricultural, supply chain, food industry are facing?

Surprisingly, agriculture is doing more with IoT and digital innovation than most other industries. According to a recent report by McKinsey, the AgTech market is pegged at $10-15B for data and services. There is huge amount of investment happening both from the corporate and private equity players in this space. According to AgFunder, in 2015 alone, AgTech surpassed $4.6B in terms of deal flow numbers. [6]

The agricultural sector is really embracing technology as a transformative instrument. Through the adoption and use of technological innovations such as IoT, accessible weather data, and the application of cognitive capabilities, the agricultural sector is breaking established perceptions that it is an anachronistic, slow moving industry. The use of solutions like Precision Farming, Autonomous Equipment, Improved Cold Chain Management and Index-based /Data-driven Financing and Insurance are starting to show impressive results.

It’s really exciting to see the impact data driven IoT solutions are having on the sector. For example, we can already see improved predictability of yields attributed to real-time visibility into soil conditions, crop health and weather. [7] When these capabilities are used in combination, they help to lower risks to producers, insurers and the financers. In addition, these solutions can generate cross-sell/up-sell opportunities for crop protection and farm equipment companies which also base their product roadmaps on real world operational data, and the actual needs of the growers. As supply and demand of produce becomes more stable, the overall price volatility within the industry lessens, further reducing potential risk for traders, government organizations and entities. [8]

Question: You mention technology and automation as enablers. What role does Watson IoT Platform play in potential solutions that address the agricultural and food supply chain?

IBM Watson IoT Platform is the enabler of the innovative solutions, facilitating the ingestion, aggregation and deep analytics on data flowing in from a number of sources- local sensing (field based sensors), aerial sources such as drones/digital cameras, the environmental data such as Weather, as well as remote sensing data coming from various satellites and publicly available geological and climatic forecast sources. These capabilities can also be combined with other services and technologies in which IBM is investing heavily, for example blockchain which, when combined with weather data, can really transform the global food supply chain and traceability.

Similarly, IBM is committed to developing frameworks on top of the Watson IoT Platform which will help the growers and agribusiness companies. Enabling ‘Smart Farming’ through the use of emerging technologies like Watson and Internet of Things is can help to contribute to the farmers’ prosperity. For example, IBM is leveraging the deep domain expertise and research effort IBM has put in the last several years to solve big data and analytics problems in the field of agriculture. The precision crop farming solution from IBM is based on Watson IoT Platform and brings in the best in class capabilities for device management, data storage, security and deep analytics on the data ingested from on-field sensors, aerial imagery and remote sensing techniques. We generate actionable insights out of these data for the growers as well as the agro-scientists on a mobile-based interface to enable better decision making and in-turn leading to improved productivity.

Figure 2: Diagram depicts the solution architecture at a high level

Figure 2: Diagram depicts the solution architecture at a high level

The biggest advantage of the Watson IoT Platform is its global scale. With its cloud infrastructure being available in 45 data centres around the world, Watson IoT Platform gives customers a real competitive advantage – access to a scalable solution, decomposable, easy to use APIs and services, as well as an open, collaborative, and growing community- gives an organization a leg up. Secondly, Watson IoT Platform is the only platform which brings all the critical components like local sensor data, weather and cognitive capabilities together, and it’s robust enough to support analytics on top of it. Thirdly, the analytic models are well tested and validated with existing clients such as E&J Gallo Winery. The fact that all these services and offerings are available on a consumption based model, make them very affordable for everyone – be it a developer or a large enterprise. We make these offerings available on public, dedicated and even on local platform based systems to meet the unique data privacy needs of different customers. The pricing is also flexible – according to these deployment options– with both pay-go and subscription based models.

Question: Can you tell us specifically about how Precision Farming can be used to solve real world issues?

IoT enables Precision Farming to generate better visibility into crop growth cycles; but more than this, it can be extended to other agribusiness areas such as livestock monitoring. Imagine a rancher who can now gather data regarding the health, well-being, and location of the cattle based on data coming from animal tags.

There are many farm equipment companies today that are looking to move beyond their devices/equipment business to provide their assets as-a-service. Precision farming in this case becomes a huge value add to their services as that helps them gather real-time data on their asset operations and in turn, offers better visibility to their user, the grower. As a result, that aggregated data is assessed, turned into knowledge, and then that knowledge can be shared easily in the form of farming best practices.

Furthermore, precision farming is now being leveraged by agri insurance/re-insurance companies and banks (who provide credits to the growers) to predict and manage their risks better, by doing what they call ‘Index based Insurance’. In the same process, the farmers benefit by being able to prove their credit worthiness using the data collected on their farms over previous crop cycles. If a grower or farmer is able to prove credit-worthiness based on indisputable data, their chances of securing finance from credible sources can improve. [9]

In countries like the Netherlands, which has one of the largest greenhouse emissions reduction targets, IoT-ization can lead to optimal utilization of resources and improved operations leading to multiple benefits which include reducing greenhouse emissions. Aquaponics is another farming methodology which is gaining popularity across the world. Better quality management (PH value, oxygen levels) of the water being used in aquaponics can tremendously improve efficiency of these growing method.

Last, but not the least, a lot of farmers around the world stick to low value crops as they can’t manage the risk of growing perishable horticulture crops. The primary reason is the inefficient supply chain and lack of proper market linkage. In many instances, the carriers used to transport produce from one place to another are not able to maintain the right temperatures. Carriers can be affected by unexpected weather events, heavy rainfall or poor conditions which require vehicles and shipments to be rerouted. Delays, unpredictable temperatures add to their problems, and increase the cost of operation manifolds, while contributing to lost goods. The ability to have proper visibility into the real-time refrigerator temperatures throughout fleet transport while also applying weather predictions can result in a reduction in food spoilage and costs.

From a technology standpoint, the combination of IoT (local on-farm sensing such as soil temperature, humidity, luminosity, moisture levels), Weather data and cognitive capabilities such as calculation of NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) based on remotely sensed imagery (even under monsoon condition) and providing physical and statistical analytics which has shown great improvements in the yield quality and quantity for one of the world’s largest wineries. In the instance of E & J Gallo, the world’s largest winery, scientists have collaborated to implement a Cognitive IoT solution to monitor irrigation and water use within fields, the organization experienced a 26% improvement in yield quantity, 50% in uniformity, and 25% reduction in water required. [10]

From a social perspective, the use of IoT makes the grower’s life better as they have better control over their produce. In countries like India, where a farmer dies every 30 min because he doesn’t have any predictability of the yield, IoT solutions can have a significant impact on the quality of life, as well as longevity. [11]

Question: What are some of the tools that developers can use to build IoT apps quickly?

Since our offerings are based on IBM Bluemix, which is IBM’s PaaS offering, all foundational capabilities such as device integration, data storage, security and analytics are available as decomposable services, which can be quickly orchestrated to solve a real business problem. We have client libraries freely available on GitHub for most of the IoT device vendors today, which can help them jumpstart their IoT application development. Our online developer community has some of the richest and largest number of recipes (tutorials) covering step-wise procedure to build a quick business logic, which can is help rapid prototyping which can assist developers and technical managers bring fresh ideas to market faster.

Watson IoT Platform on IBM Bluemix offers Device Connect, Real-time analytics, Database services, Weather data and Cognitive services such as natural language processing, text/image analytics, machine learning, all as decomposable services. IBM supports Node-RED, which is a visual tool used for wiring together the Internet of Things in new and interesting ways, including hardware devices, APIs, and online services. Using Node-RED allows developers to orchestrate an IoT application easily.

Question: Is there anything being done to help developers build industry-based solutions more quickly?

IBM is building industry specific accelerators and frameworks on top of the Watson IoT Platform, which takes a developer that much closer to creating new solutions that can tackle industry-based issues. While IBM offers individual services for the ‘developers’, we also understand our ‘enterprise’ customers and partners are looking for far richer and more powerful solutions which solve real-world business problems. This is where we are bringing together the deep domain expertise and rich experience of IBM around automotive, industrial products, insurance, retail and agribusiness. To learn more about sector specialty areas, I would encourage readers to explore the solutions and industry sections of the IBM IoT website.

Additional information on food security and IoT

End notes:

[1] Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, http://glopan.org/climate-change

[2] Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, Policy Brief No. Four: MANAGING FOOD PRICE VOLATILITY: Policy Options to Support Healthy Diets and Nutrition in the Context of Uncertainty, http://glopan.org/sites/default/files/Global%20Panel%20Price%20Volatility%20Brief.pdf

[3] Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, http://glopan.org/climate-change

[4] World Food Programme, Hunger Statistics, https://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

[5] http://nextgenafricanfarmers.com/2013/06/16/value-chain-in-agriculture

[6] Beecham Research, Towards Smart Farming, Executive Summary, https://www.beechamresearch.com/files/BRL%20Smart%20Farming%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

[7] The costs of malnutrition-brief, Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, August 2016, http://glopan.org/sites/default/files/Costs-of-malnutrition-brief.pdf

[8] According to AgFunder, in 2015 alone, AgTech surpassed both FinTech and CleanTech in terms of deal flow numbers.

[9] Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Africa Agriculture Status Report: Focus on Staple Crops. 2013. Nairobi, Kenya.

[10] How IBM is Bringing Watson to Wine, Fortune, January 9, 2016, http://fortune.com/2016/01/09/ibm-bringing-watson-wine/

[11] CNN, Why are India’s farmers killing themselves, Aug 22, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/21/opinions/cnnphotos-sutter-india-drought/index.html

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