The long-term viability of our current food production system is in jeopardy. According to the United States Secretary of Agriculture, it will take as much innovation in agriculture in the next 40 years as in the preceding 10,000 years to be able to feed our growing population. That is why sustainable agriculture is so important to the future of our world today.
Being able to produce food sustainably without damaging the environment or threatening human health is driving a revolution in the agricultural industry today. Passionate people who care about our environment, who are taking action against hunger, who are promoting food security, and who are driving sustainable development practices are unlocking agriculture’s potential.
I recently saw first-hand the amazing work these tremendously passionate people are doing at the May 15-16 United Nations Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum).
In my discussions with participants at the conference, I shared how technology is supporting the UN SDGs with examples in smart agriculture and sustainable water treatment that demonstrated real impact such as higher yields and reduced water consumption.
Booming AgTech industry
It’s clear that the momentum in this industry is growing. Every day I hear stories of farmers generating better quality foods, producing higher yields and realising increased profits.
What’s driving all this activity? Enhanced crop management is crucial, especially as food production consumes a large amount of resources and faces constant threats. An estimated 70% of the world’s fresh water is used for growing crops, while up to 40% of crops are destroyed by weeds, diseases and insects. Imagine how much more effective farmers could be if they were able to optimise irrigation, monitor their production fields, control rodents’ activities and save crops from insects and diseases.
Thanks to exciting developments in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, Internet of Things (IoT), big data and advanced analytics, and expanding social engagements, Microsoft and our partners are making the dream of AgTech innovation a reality for companies of all sizes.
Assisting farmers impacted by climate change
The passion to solve food challenges motivates Microsoft employees worldwide. I see many examples of employees who embody Microsoft’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and are tackling environmental challenges through the use of technology and innovation.
Prashant Gupta is a Microsoft Cloud + Enterprise Principal Director whose passion for making a difference in the country where he was born prompted Microsoft to partner with a United Nations agency, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and the Andhra Pradesh government in India to help ground nut farmers cope with the drought.
Gupta and his team developed a solution using advanced analytics and machine learning, along with advances in Microsoft’s computing technologies, to launch a pilot programme aimed at assisting farmers impacted by climate change. The programme includes a Sowing App that advises farmers on the best time to sow, based on weather conditions, soil and other indicators.
In June 2016, data from the Sowing App suggested that farmers should delay planting by two weeks. Farmers who followed that advice saw a 30% higher average yield per hectare than the farmers who decided to stick with their traditional planting schedule. Farmers can get information and updates about sowing through text messages sent to the mobile phones provided to them. For more on this exciting partnership and inspiring success story, watch this video.
Lowering food waste
Dirk de Jong, Microsoft Service Delivery Manager in the Netherlands, was looking for a great way to show how the power of advanced analytics could make an ecological impact. He came up with the idea of helping to reduce food waste in the Microsoft cafeteria, as wastage is a major concern for restaurant owners, caterers and environmentalists. Beyond saving significant costs and resources, lowering the amount of food that gets wasted each day also enables companies to minimise their ecological footprints.
Dirk partnered with Microsoft Data Platform Consultant Dennis Eikelenboom to develop an application for Hutten Catering that is turning data into actionable insights about their daily operations. Rather than relying on guesswork, Hutten is using a Microsoft Power BI dashboard to discover patterns and facts about food consumption, such as sales and menu preferences based on the day of the week, along with the predicted number of visitors and the weather, for a more efficient procurement process and tailored daily menu.
Delivering real-time assistance in the field
DunavNET, a Microsoft Internet of Things (IoT) partner, is delivering a range of benefits for farmers with their smart agricultural solutions called agroNET. Built on Microsoft Azure IoT, agroNET is a set of modular components and ready-to-use cloud services designed to provide extensive agricultural expertise in an easily accessible and usable format. Powered by Azure SQL Database, the digital agricultural toolset combines years of agricultural knowledge about soil and plants, with sensors and gateways that can accurately record and analyse precise data in real time. The solution presents the data to farmers as useful feedback, such as when to irrigate their crops, how to control diseases and where to fight pests.
One inspiring success story is how a sugar factory in Serbia is using the agroNET suite to improve how they grow sugar beets. Sensors measuring water content in the soil, combined with local weather forecasts and crop models, are helping ensure that their farmers water crops at just the right times and amounts. The results? The system helped them increase the yield by 30% and reduce water use by 20%. Read the full case study here for more on DunavNET’s smart agriculture solutions.
Innovating crops with genomics
Another story of innovation highlights the work being done by researcher Nicola Bonzanni. Nicola is pursuing his childhood passions of nature and technology by applying advances in computer science and engineering to solve biological problems. His inspiring story begins with his work studying cancer and then transitions to applying similar techniques to all living things, using research-as-a-service. His web-based tool, ConBind.org, leverages the on-demand scalability of the Microsoft Azure Batch service, making it easy and fast for users to run complex bioinformatic queries.
Nicola is partnering with KeyGene, one of the world’s leading AGBioTech companies with a passion for crop innovation. They are applying genomics to identify key traits – disease resistance or shelf life, for example – that are of interest to the plant breeder. The partners plan to apply the ConBind tool to plant genomics and help farmers achieve benefits such as creating drought-resistant plants, increasing crop yields and improving the nutritional value of their crops.
Beyond his work with KeyGene, Nicola’s new project is a startup called ENPICOM, supported by the Microsoft BizSpark programme, with the goal of combining software engineering and life sciences to build “Internet of Living Things” offerings. Take a look at this two-minute video of Nicola’s work.
With more than one thousand scientists and engineers collaborating in labs globally, Microsoft Research has been working in genomics for more than a decade. It’s exciting to see that breakthroughs in Microsoft computing methods – essentially using Azure cloud computing to make key aspects of genomic sequencing seven times faster so that doctors can diagnose rare and dangerous conditions in four hours instead of 28 – could also hasten important breakthroughs for Nicola and his partners at KeyGene as they strive for healthier and more efficient food production.
Creating new economy for co-op farmers
You can find stories everywhere of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the agriculture industry working tirelessly to better our world. At our Microsoft Build 2017 event on 10th–12th May, Judson Althoff, Microsoft’s executive vice president, worldwide commercial business, spoke about how we helped Land O’ Lakes digitally transform into a $13 billion precision agriculture business. The company has gone from producing about 130 bushels of corn per acre to now producing 500 bushels of corn per acre – all in the most sustainable way possible. This kind of innovation is advancing agriculture for a new generation.
As Judson shared: “You talk to farmers who have worked on farms for generations and they say, ‘My grandfather worked this farm. If you told me that a computer or artificial intelligence could get more yield from this piece of dirt that I have been working with my bare hands my whole life, along with my father before me, and my grandfather before him, I would have never believed you.’ Yet, that’s the reality today. If we can digitally transform butter, we can digitally transform your business.”
Sustainable agriculture is an area that will only continue to grow in importance. I hope you find these success stories and the passionate people behind them as inspirational as I do. As digital technology continues to transform our businesses, industries and communities, Microsoft is committed to empowering the people behind these innovations to achieve more as they work to solve environmental challenges, improve human well-being and make the world a better place.