The agriculture industry is one of the most important and impactful industries in the world: it employs 30% of workers globally, drives $4.8 trillion in global revenue, and contributes between 10-30% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). At the same time, agriculture consumes 70% of our global water resources and produces 24% of global greenhouse emissions. Advanced technologies such as precision agriculture and edge intelligence are needed.
These global trends and challenges are cause for both hope and concern, according to a 2017 United Nations report that explores the key trends and challenges that must be tackled to address hunger, fight poverty, and preserve the earth. While the report reveals major concerns as some 795 million people still suffer from hunger, and more than two billion from micronutrient deficiencies or forms of over-nourishment, it also offers hope.
Making our planet a better place
Microsoft is uniquely positioned to help our customers and communities drive productivity gains and technology advancements, such as precision agriculture and edge intelligence solutions, to contribute to more efficient resource use along with improved food security and safety. For example, our deep commitment to sustainability is evident in our policies and low-carbon business practices. By operating as carbon neutral since 2012, we have reduced our waste each year and diverted at least 90% of operational waste from landfills to drive a circular economy.
Our green commitment also extends to collaborating with our customers and partners to solve world challenges in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way. Microsoft’s new AI for Earth program is providing researchers and organizations with artificial intelligence tools to drive new data insights that will help solve important global issues related to water, agriculture, biodiversity and climate change.
One exciting is example is the work Microsoft is doing with Esri leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning to meet critical environmental issues. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Scientist, shared how we joined forces with ESRI and Chesapeake to work on protecting and restoring the local watershed by enabling precision conservation. By using the original Chesapeake landcover map as training data, we were able to create a single landcover classification algorithm, which has the potential to work across the United States to help with sustainable land management.
We are also working to bring technology to markets where it will do the most good through our Affordable Access Initiative. This program partners with innovators who are developing solutions that enable Internet connectivity and drive services and business models through affordable access in underserved communities.
Fueling efficiency with precision agriculture
Several studies have demonstrated the need to significantly increase the world’s food production by 2050. To help farmers address this need, we have top researchers working on market-leading technology that use advanced technology and remote sensing data, coupled with the farmer’s knowledge, to help increase farm productivity and crop yields, while reducing costs and chemical reliance. However, getting data from the farm is extremely difficult since there is often no power in the field, or Internet in the farms. As part of our Microsoft Research project FarmBeats, led by Ranveer Chandra, we are building several unique solutions to solve these problems using low-cost sensors, drones, and vision and machine learning algorithms.
Tackling water scarcities with IoT
Another challenge we are tackling with our partners is water scarcity. Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s available fresh water, a shrinking supply with a growing demand expected to increase by 55% in the next three decades.
Farmer Craig Blackburn is addressing water conservation at his 990-acre farm in New Zealand by using SCADAfarm, an industrial Internet of Things (IoT) solution, to monitor and manage his farm’s irrigation system from his mobile phone. Developed with Schneider Electric on Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform by WaterForce, SCADAfarm offers remote controls and advanced analytics to help Blackburn save time, use less water and electricity, reduce costs and increase yields.
Optimizing the food logistics chain
While precision agriculture and water conservation helps early stages of the value chain, the later stages must also be transformed as the FAO estimates that transport and distribution may account for between 5% and 20% of food loss, depending on the specific world region.
Maersk, the world’s largest transport and logistics company, has partnered with the UN’s SAVE FOOD Initiative since 2013 to help make international food logistics more efficient. Maersk furthered its commitment to revolutionizing supply-chain management by selecting Microsoft as its preferred cloud partner. Microsoft Azure now serves as the cornerstone of Maersk’s digital transformation strategy, delivering a common platform shared by its transport and logistics businesses and supporting its high-value assets such as carrier performance, equipment utilization and supplier performance.
Estimating that the power of data will help save tens of millions of dollars annually, Maersk is using Azure to create a marketplace of apps and digital products. By combining big data from internal and external sources, the apps enable exception management and predictive analytics for smart forecasting, planning and delivery tracking. With greater visibility to supply chain disruptions, Maersk’s customers can better anticipate problems, make timely decisions and take swift actions—all critical for reducing waste in the food logistics chain.
New tech era: Edge intelligence
We’re even seeing digital transformation take place in the Redmond, Washington garden of Ofer Dekel, a Microsoft expert in machine learning. Dekel applied world-changing technology to keep his garden blooming, while also leading a Microsoft team developing a new class of machine-learning software and tools that embed AI onto bread-crumb size computer processors. Their work is an exciting representation of a new era in technology: intelligent cloud and intelligent edge, where compute capabilities extend the power of the cloud to mobile and IoT devices.
Imagine a world populated with tiny intelligent devices—embedded in our clothes, scattered around our homes and work, and deployed to perform tasks such as anomaly detection and predictive maintenance. These intelligent devices are part of the IoT, and intended to be smart, even without an Internet connection. Pushing machine learning to edge devices reduces bandwidth constraints and eliminates concerns about network latency. Microsoft researchers expect edge intelligence to transform a range of devices, including smart soil-moisture sensors deployed for irrigation on remote farms.
Hope for the future
The conclusion of the FAO’s 2017 report on the future of food and agriculture cautions that “business-as-usual” is not an option. As these examples of precision agriculture and sustainable agriculture, optimized food logistics, and edge intelligence demonstrate, Microsoft and our partners are moving full speed ahead.
We see so much hope in the industry and are poised to help our customers and communities achieve more as we work to solve some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time, improve human well-being, and make the world a better place.