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Future proofing agriculture with technology

Future proofing agriculture with technology

March 30 2016

By Nominet Trust

The UN estimates that the world population is set to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, which is putting immense strain on our agriculture. With so many mouths to feed, we’re going to have to be more efficient with the land and livestock we have, and help farmers get the most out of their resources. Thankfully, many of the technological advances available to us can increase agricultural productivity, and we were able to highlight many of them in the 2015 NT100, from state-of-the art mechanised farms in the West to smallholdings in Africa.

Esoko is one great example. While the technology used is simple, its application is ground-breaking. Esoko is an information platform for African farmers, with weather updates, market prices, daily tips, crop calendars and a forum for farmers to share local knowledge. Using SMS with no need for internet access, Esoko allows farmers to get live market and weather information, which then helps them make informed decisions when managing their holdings, and crucially, give them negotiating power when selling their products to market buyers. By improving their profit margins, farmers can grow their individual businesses sustainably, and help provide more food for local populations. What struck us was the ingenuity of applying something as simple as SMS technology to bring the enormous levelling power of knowledge to so many people, so easily.


Image courtesy of Esoko

Similarly, Digital Green has developed a video platform to enhance knowledge sharing between rural communities across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The organisation engages with locals in villages, training them so they can record 8-10 minute videos to share tips, experiences and advice with other rural farmers. The videos are then showcased on a social network called FarmerBook. Almost 4,000 videos have been produced, reaching over 660,000 individuals, and almost half of the viewers have adopted a practice they have that they learned about through the videos.


Image courtesy of Digital Green

At the other end of the technology spectrum, cattle farms in the UK are using wearable devices to monitor the health of their livestock. Silent Herdsman is a collar that measures the position of the cow’s head in three dimensions - much like a Nintendo Wii remote does - and takes into account subtle changes in movement to understand the animal’s behaviour. It also takes temperature readings, and if a cow is displaying any signs of ill-health the farm is notified. Decisions about removing sick animals from the herd for treatment can be made very quickly and with minimal fuss, reducing the risk of diseases spreading. Using technology to keep checks on livestock means that farmers no longer have to perform visual inspections, which are time-consuming and leave space for human error. Farms that use the technology have seen significant increases in milk yields while reducing risk of disease and infection.

Vital Herd has also developed a health-monitoring device for dairy and beef cows - but this one is not wearable, it’s swallow-able! The e-pill sits in the cow’s stomach and uses sonar technology to monitor the animal’s health from the inside, keeping tabs on core body temperature, heart rate, respiration, contraction rate of the cow’s rumen, PH, fatty acid, oestrogen and lactic acid levels. Data is collected and sent wirelessly to Vital Herd’s cloud-based management software, where it is analysed ready for viewing by the farm manager. If there are any signs of illness, the farmer is sent a warning email or text message. The e-pill can also help farmers monitor feeding plans and see if certain foods increase milk yields, meaning they can tailor diets for optimum production.

Looking at the consumption side of agriculture, we discovered Food Assembly. Part of the farm-to-fork movement, the company, originating from the French collective La Ruche qui dit Oui, supports small-scale producers by connecting them with local consumers through an online platform. Customers can become hosts and organise small scale markets where fresh, local produce is exchanged between farmers and buyers without the need for large-scale storage, and long-distance transport required by supermarket chains.