Planting Seeds of Awareness

Published online: Jan 16, 2021 Articles Greg Killian
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This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

In April 2019, Cornell and Purdue University announced a partnership establishing the first Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety, with a goal to raise awareness of and solve some of the world’s greatest challenges in food insecurity and agriculture. One year later, the shock of empty grocery store shelves made most Americans acutely aware of the importance of food security—and gave many a newfound appreciation for ranchers, farmers and truck drivers, among others, who struggled to keep the supply chain from breaking during an unprecedented pandemic. In other parts of the world, food insecurity has been a continuous battle, one which the United Nations (UN) has sought to address with its Sustainable Development Goals. Revealed five years ago, included among the 17 goals is ending hunger by 2030. 

According to the UN, this ambitious goal now seems an impossibility, even if a profound change occurs in agricultural productivity and sustainable food production, given that 820 million people experienced food scarcity in 2019. Contrary to what many believe, food scarcity is not the result of a lack of food being produced; rather, it is a combination of challenges including but not limited to inadequate transportation, food contamination, spoilage and waste, which on average amounts to roughly 1.3 billion tons annually at a cost of $1 trillion. With global food demand projected to double in 30 years due to rising populations, farmers and agricultural suppliers will increasingly be expected to do more with less by improving productivity from limited resources and inputs. 

To bolster the global agricultural industry’s sustainable growth, a number of farms have been utilizing tools such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to increase crop yields. This approach, referred to as precision farming, uses technology to help farmers more accurately predict natural conditions and react to them in the quickest way possible, as well as to choose the best crops for specific growing areas via the use of data analytics. While the concept dates back to the 1980s, it was’'t as reliable as it is today. That’s thanks to recent advancements in mobile technology, high-speed internet, drones, GPS mapping tools and satellites—specifically the launch of the Sentinel-2 satellite in 2015. 

Operating under the European Union’s Earth Observation program, the Sentinel-2 satellite Copernicus monitors Earth’s surface and every five days provides high-resolution, multispectral images with an incredible spatial resolution of 10 meters. A breakthrough in satellite technology, it delivers near-real-time data on a global level, and the images are free for public use. Research institutions and businesses of all kinds receive a rich source of information, but in order to leverage and gain valuable insights from this data, intelligent and cognitive computing technologies like machine learning and AI are necessary to analyze this information. Machine learning enables farmers to analyze decades of weather and crop records, for example, and look for patterns in the data to predict crop yields. Additionally, with the ability to monitor water and air conditions, farmers are better equipped to predict problems in specific regions. By understanding the scale of global catastrophes like wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes, resources can be managed accordingly.

At the core of data analysis, farmers rely on field and crop mapping on a global scale. OneSoil, the first to approach this complicated task, created the interactive OneSoil Map to provide information on fields and crops in Europe and in the U.S., which can be used to explore national and regional trends, as well as check the development of a specific field. The interactive map runs on machine learning algorithms and satellite imagery, which help monitor fields remotely via changes in various vegetation indices. Combining space and ground truth data, a farmer can calculate and apply the right dosage of fertilizers and chemicals for each part of the field, referred to as the variable rate application, thereby reducing groundwater pollution. 

The interactive OneSoil Map utilizes machine learning algorithms and satellite imagery to provide information on fields and crops in Europe and in the U.S.

It’s important to note that, with a wide range of tools and technology now available, farm operators must carefully consider each precision technology based on ease of use, functionality and return on investment. GPS guidance systems, for example, offer high functionality, ease of use and a high potential for ROI. According to the results of a study conducted by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and a team of researchers, tractor guidance in particular improves farming efficiency. Researchers suggest that these systems have the potential to improve environmental sustainability by reducing the over-application of herbicides and fertilizers as well as seeds—improving efficiency gains by 20 percent. 

“In the U.S., larger farms are increasing their use of precision agriculture and overcoming technology barriers to implement practices,” says Philip Owens, one of the study’s lead researchers. “But very few small farms in the U.S., which make up greater than 85 percent of U.S. farm totals, have adopted precision agriculture.”

As more industries realize the benefits of connected technologies, the adoption of precision farming is predicted to increase. MarketsAndResearch reports that the market, valued at $993.24 million in 2019, is expected to experience an annual growth rate of 16.7 percent over the next five years. Awareness is key in increasing adoption, however. Especially with the growing demand for food in a world where populations are rising, research suggests precision agriculture tools will be essential for farmers in maximizing yield and minimizing losses.


Greg Killian is vice president and business unit head for life sciences at EPAM Systems, Inc., a company that specializes in product development, digital platform engineering, and digital and product design. In his role, Killian is responsible for P&L and business management in the sector as well as market strategy and execution.

Learn more at www.epam.com.