i3 | December 20, 2022

Hunger Grows for Food Security Solutions

Gary Arlen

Industries prepare for agriculture’s digital transformation.

When a nearly two-story-tall combine harvester towered over the Deere & Co. exhibit at CES 2019, many attendees wondered why an agribusiness equipment manufacturer was exhibiting at a trade show known for consumer technology.

As a fast-evolving global food shortage approaches crisis level, agribusiness software and devices — such as those green-and-yellow John Deere products — join the ranks of technology-driven food security solutions the world literally hungers for.

“Technology is key to building … smart, evolving and more efficient farms,” says Joseph Liefer, senior product manager of autonomy at John Deere, who cites artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things as critical capabilities for solving “the challenges inherent in farming,” including the ability to process data from micro-environments such as individual plants, kernels, seeds and their conditions.

A Truly Global Challenge

In its 2022 report, State of Food Security and Nutrition, the World Health Organization emphasizes the need “to incentivize the sustainable production supply and consumption of nutritious foods.”

About 205 million people in 45 countries are or will soon be in “food crisis,” according to The World Bank’s 2022 Global Economic Prospects report.

The U.S. Agency for International Development will channel $2.9 billion to battle global food insecurity, President Joe Biden pledged in a presentation to the United Nations in September. The topic was a major issue at this year’s UN General Assembly. The UN Emergency Relief coordinator deemed it a “tsunami of hunger,” citing interlinked crises that include the COVID-19 pandemic (especially supply chain disruptions), climate change, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which affected that country’s agricultural output.

The World Food Program estimates there are now “more than 2.5 times the number of acutely food insecure people than before the pandemic began.”

As the global food crisis unfolds, industries and government agencies look to technology’s potential to solve age-old process challenges inherent to planting and harvesting. Their focus ranges from agronomy and soil mapping to pest/disease surveillance. A broad combination of applied data, automation and autonomy will likely be required to confront the hunger problem, according to a Forbes magazine assessment.

Innovation First

Agribusiness experts and political observers see robotic automation and smart sensors as central to global food security. Cropin, a Bangalore-based tech provider, uses AI and machine-learning to build global “Ag-intelligence” for farm monitoring and management. The 12-year-old company, backed in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, migrated its massive database of 10,000 crop varieties in 200 million acres of farmland in 56 countries to the cloud in September.

Cropin Founder/CEO Krishna Kumar characterizes today’s global agriculture ecosystem as “facing large disruptions triggered by climate change, geopolitical tensions, food supply chain challenges, and an ever-increasing global population.”

“Cropin Cloud leverages the advancements in cloud computing, earth observation, remote sensing, data and machine learning algorithms to help the agriculture sector,” Kumar says.

Deere Counting on AI

Deere’s AI resource allows farms to identify and implement “actions at a scope and speed beyond human capacity,” Liefer says.

With sensors, stereo cameras, GPS and other mobile tools, an autonomous tractor can navigate fields with precision, allowing farmers to “treat every plant individually — essentially micromanage at scale,” he says.

“Our See and Spray technology uses deep learning, cameras and robotics to see every plant in the field and differentiate weed from crop, spraying only the weeds with herbicides,” Liefer says. “This can reduce use of herbicides up to 80%.”

Fewer Farmers, Greater Demand

Despite the increasing global need for sustainable crops, farming continues to undergo monumental changes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that overall employment of agricultural workers will grow by barely 1% from 2019–2029, much slower than rates projected in other occupations.

“Farmers need a way to increase their output while using less resources and with less available labor,” Liefer says. “With technology, they can increase their precision and do more at once, effectively minimizing their input and maximizing their yields and profitability. Autonomy is essential to grow enough food for the world, despite limited time and resources.” 

Joseph Liefer 
Senior Product Manager of Autonomy, Deere & Co.

"Autonomy is essential to grow enough food for the world, despite limited time and resources."

One solution to the evolving agribusiness landscape is greater collaboration among technology providers, farmers and the agribusiness industry, which the growing suite of agriculture technology solutions has enhanced and enabled.

Deere worked closely with startups and other tech companies to develop the innovation vital to its success and efficiency, Liefer says. The company also looks to expand technology teams at locations in the U.S. and Europe. Advanced technology, including equipment and precision technology, will be essential to meeting the world’s “accelerating demand for food, fuel, fiber, and infrastructure,” Liefer says.

The need to accelerate efforts to ensure the world has enough to eat became especially clear in a “Roadmap for Global Food Security,” which the U.S. and other nations issued in spring 2022. Among U.S. commitments noted in the plan is a U.S. Department of Agriculture “Food Systems Transformation Framework,” which will support urban agriculture and other innovative production, much of it technology-based. 

Deere CEO Keynote at CES 2023

Deere & Co. Chairman/CEO John May will present a keynote at CES 2023 focusing on the ways purpose-driven sustainability and technology advancements address the challenges of feeding a growing global population. The event will mark May’s first CES keynote appearance. He previously served as Deere’s chief information officer and oversaw the company’s development of products such as the world’s first fully autonomous tractor and “See and Spray” technology, which won a CES Innovation Award.

The Consumer Technology Association has partnered with U.N.-affiliated World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) to boost awareness of the U.N.’s Human Securities for All (HS4A) initiative. The goal is to highlight tech’s essential role in supporting United Nations’ efforts to advance and secure basic human rights.

What Farmers Need

A wide array of technologies and capabilities, some controversial, affect the deployment of advanced agricultural projects. Among the necessary tools are micro-irrigations, water harvesting, bio seeds, nanotechnology and crop protection, according to an analysis from Transparency Market Research. For maximum value, the systems may include genetic engineering and features that deliver drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant crops.

A few of the more prominent global firms now investing in, and improving, infrastructure for new agri-tech products include Deere & Co., H.J. Heinz, Nestlé, Kraft Foods Inc., Bayer Crop Science AG, BASF, Cargill, Novozymes, DuPont Pioneer and Novozymes, according to the report.