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Farming Fit, Farming Smart

ISO has put together a group of world experts to apply smart tech to the challenges of sustainably feeding a growing planet.

Most of us agree that humankind is facing serious problems. And while the increasing pace of life may have contributed to those problems, technology is also providing us new ways to fix them. Like capturing the power of connectivity to feed a growing population on a planet whose resources are shrinking.

Clear Instructions for Complex Problems

If you are a cautious sort of person, or have ever found yourself with time to kill, you’ve probably read emergency evacuation instructions. Only, the instructions on what we need to do to avoid the impending global disaster aren’t framed in a highly visible place. But they are there. They’re called International Standards.

The conundrum for many, even those who are already aware of standards, is where to start. You could view this emergency through many different lenses, but some of the biggest issues have been coherently grouped together under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). That’s one reason why the UN SDGs and the associated 2030 agenda form the backbone to ISO’s 2030 strategy.

There are 17 colour-coded SDGs, and there is one important thing to know about them. They can’t really be separated from each other. A bit like trying to complete one face of a Rubik’s cube before moving on to the next colour.

The challenges pointed to by the UN SDGs must be tackled almost simultaneously due to their interdependencies. International Women’s Day campaigns at #IWD22 highlight the inextricable links between climate action and gender equality, whilst the impact of clean water and sanitation on good health and well-being is even more apparent.

Fundamentally, none of us is going to achieve a single one of the goals until we’ve fixed zero hunger. You just can’t fight for peace, justice and strong institutions or take care of life below water on an empty stomach.

Agriculture touches multiple SDGs, directly addressing zero hunger and contributing to no poverty. But like most human activity, it also uses resources and carries negative impacts. The role for standards is to help farms of all sizes become more productive at the same time as reducing the impacts of farming on SDGs such as clean water and sanitation, climate action, or life on land. ISO standards can help all farmers with these goals, from smallholders farming to feed their families to highly mechanized operations on tens of thousands of hectares.

ISO Standards – The Ingredient Holding It All Together

When it comes to fixing joined-up problems, you need joined-up solutions. That’s exactly the kind of approach that is enabled by ISO standards. You can see the enabling role of standards in many situations, like the way we’re helping to advance the development of smart cities. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, we’re focusing on fields and food.

The artificially fast, hyperconnected, always-on digitized world, colliding with the slow swelling of leaves, shoots, grains and tubers. Surely, these are two things that are not supposed to go together?

The fact is that farming has become very data-oriented. As both resources and margins are squeezed and climate change makes the weather less predictable, commercial farmers must collect, interpret and exchange increasing amounts of information to stay in business. But too often the various machines, sensors and software that they use don’t talk to each other very well. Addressing this interoperability challenge is just one area where ISO can help.

Known to ISO insiders as a “strategic advisory group”, the smart farming SAG is a model for how to bring together the different pieces and enable truly smart farming.

One of the group’s priorities is to develop synergies by ensuring that relevant experts from across different sectors are working together.

That means getting agricultural engineers and agronomists around the table with those who may never have set foot on a farm. But if cultivation in an artificially controlled environment is being addressed, then it makes sense that the experts on lighting can share their bright ideas. Likewise, we need the experts on robotics to provide input into the ways in which drones can perform the most repetitive or hazardous jobs on the farm. You get the idea. That’s why more than 30 ISO technical committees (and their highly specialized subcommittees) form the core of the group.

Relevant experts from across different sectors are working together.

The ISO smart farming SAG is convened by the ISO members for the USA and Germany, two of the world’s leaders in industrialized farming. The core of the new group brings together 21 ISO member countries, representing the full range of farming contexts and challenges that can be imagined.

That includes giants like China and India (both of which blend family subsistence farming with industrial-scale exports of commodities) to countries like Singapore and the Netherlands (both of which address high-density populations living on high-value land through high-intensity, high-technology production).

The COVID pandemic ushered in 7 to 10 years of digital growth in as many months

It’s Now Or Never for Networked Food Production

After a drawn out (and still ongoing) health crisis, you might expect the global economy to be in worse shape than it currently is. Some of that may be down to our resilience, adapting to new ways of behaving and rapidly developing vaccines. But a large part of it is the rate of digitalization, which took on a massive gut-wrenching burst of acceleration, enabling both business continuity and the development of new services. Even back in 2020, when many companies and institutions were still in fire-fighting mode, consulting gurus were telling us that COVID has pushed us over a technology tipping point and ushered in seven to ten years of digital growth in as many months.

With connectivity at an all-time high, there has never been a better time to develop smart farming technology, which is essentially the “networking of food production”.

The main opportunities identified by the SAG are in the standardization of interfaces, and the ways in which data will be collected, formatted, stored and exchanged across the entire food supply chain, as well as the optimization of production methods that build on precision agriculture and new techniques in cultivation.

Precision agriculture is probably the most widely understood of the ways in which smart farming will take shape. It’s existed for decades in one form or another, such as auto-steer capabilities that enable making much better use of time and labour in the field. But it’s only now, thanks to technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), that we have the ability to capture, process and interpret data with sufficient speed to give farmers valuable insights and consistently help them grow crops profitably, sustainably and in compliance with regulations.

Precision agriculture includes applying inputs in the most efficient way possible, taking account of tiny variations in the rate of growth, or soil conditions, or levels of pests and disease within a single crop. In this way, fertilisers, for example, are only applied where they’re needed. Bearing in mind that it takes a huge amount of energy to make synthetic fertilisers, their efficient use is essential to reducing the carbon footprint of the food that ends up on our plates. The same can be said of any technique that reduces waste, such as mechanical weeding robots that use AI to recognize and single out unwanted plants, before blasting them with lasers.

Farm management information systems (FMIS) provide an overview of all operations that take place across the farm, or even multiple farms. Again, the concept isn’t new, but the degree of connectivity and the capacity to safely store and access information about operations has opened the way for new levels of management, supported by external consultants like agronomists who can develop insights and strategies without spending so much time travelling between sites.

By comparing levels of stock and looking at historical consumption and current levels of production, suppliers can work with farmers to produce more accurate forecasts. That means the sowing and harvesting, especially of quick-growing crops (such as salads and herbs), can be carried out in response to demand, dramatically reducing waste and post-harvest losses. To make that a reality, remote farms will require reliable high-speed connectivity as well as a standardized way of safely exchanging, storing, processing and interpreting information from the field.

Robotics and automation go hand in hand with precision agriculture. Not only are machines more accurate in applying variable rates of inputs in the pursuit of precision, but they can make a real contribution to the working conditions of farmers and farm workers. Because agriculture is a tough business, often requiring long days and hard work. That work can also be hazardous. And while precautions can be taken to minimize the greatest risks (working at height, or with substantial loads, or using chemical products), my experience on farms shows me that these are too often ignored, particularly when operations need to be carried out in a limited time frame to coincide with weather, market demands or crop maturity.

We need to find farmland with the equivalent combined area of Italy, Japan, New Zealand, France, South Korea and Germany.

Smallholder farmers also stand to benefit from data standards enabled by the SAG’s work. As smartphones become increasingly affordable, it’s getting easier for these most vulnerable of farmers to access better risk management tools such as crop insurance, to use AI-driven diagnostic tools that can help them take better care of their crops in the absence of trained agronomists, and even to access market data and get the best price for their crops. Beyond these examples, there are hundreds of ways that specific technologies will be further developed by the ISO smart farming SAG.

In 2020, at team of international researchers published a thorough overview of the state of smart farming in the journal Agronomy. In addition to providing detailed insights into the current state and future possibilities of smart farming, the article provides a map of the types of smart farming technologies that will address challenges in open-field farming. It points to a clear role for standards in enabling interoperability and compliance with evolving legislation.

Protecting Our Planet and Meeting Our Needs

A 2021 article in Nature Sustainability explores some of the problems of farming and their potential solutions. It sets the scene in the following way: “If current agricultural trends continue, pressures on biodiversity will increase substantially; projections based on population growth and dietary transitions estimate the need for two to ten million square kilometres of new agricultural land, largely cleared at the expense of natural habitats.”

Let’s just get that into perspective. Taking the lower figure, we’d potentially need to find farmland with the equivalent combined area of Italy, Japan, New Zealand, France, South Korea and Germany. The upper figure exceeds the size of Canada or China.

The only way to create such farmland would be to clear all the other stuff away from existing terrain. Things like wetlands, forests, parks and wilderness, together with the plants, fungi, bugs, birds, people and other animals that live there.

Whilst the UN Climate Change Conference, and every generation of its offspring up to COP26, has seen “commitments” from governments and “engagements” by corporate actors, we’re still setting new records in global deforestation. We’re destroying unique ecosystems that help regulate the planet’s climate. That makes it even more likely that rising sea levels will submerge low-lying areas and actually reduce the habitable surface of the planet, forcing populations to move and putting additional pressure on the areas where we can grow food.

In 2022, our species urgently requires solutions that adequately address our most fundamental need: growing enough food for everyone to eat. Recognizing the vital importance of farming to our future, ISO is bringing the world’s experts in agriculture, and many other sectors, together in the new smart farming SAG.

For ISO, smart farming isn’t just mixing tech and tillage for the sake of it. It’s about addressing a pressing sustainability problem. Namely, world population and demand for food are going to rise (a lot) before flattening out and becoming manageable. That means finding new ways to define and manage our priorities and our resources, especially when it comes to land and water use..

Disclaimer: PECB has obtained permission to publish the articles written by ISO.

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