• Will Sarni

From Dirt to Data

The Second Green Revolution and the Internet of Things

The first “green revolution” — a series of rapid technological and agronomic advances that took place after World War II — transformed agriculture, saving over a billion people from starvation and setting the stage for the world’s population to increase from 3 billion in the late 1960s to an estimated 7.3 billion today. Despite this phenomenal growth, however, there are significant challenges to the continued expansion of this first green revolution, and in some ways it has been the victim of its own success.

Increased water use for irrigation, soil degradation, and chemical runoff are just some of the unintended consequences impacting the landscape. Meanwhile, the need to produce more food remains urgent. The world population is expected to reach nearly 11 billion by 2050, representing an increase in agricultural demand of approximately 70 percent — a figure that can only be met with a new revolution in agriculture.

Fortunately, we are on the cusp of another full-scale green revolution, one with the potential to address some of the unintended consequences of its predecessor — including those related to both resource use and the economic and social well-being of farmers in emerging economies.

In one sense, the first green revolution’s unintended consequences were due to new methods of farming: new seeds, new fertilizers, new techniques. To avoid the same kinds of unintended consequences as we search for new increases in production, the second revolution will likely be driven not by new techniques but rather by technology — by giving farmers the data to help make better decisions. In short, this second green revolution will likely be catalyzed by the set of connected technologies collectively called the Internet of Things (IoT).

This second green revolution will likely make use of very different tools and techniques than the first. It will be grounded in the use of data to inform more efficient and effective farming practices and drive associated environmental and social benefits.

Technologies such as advanced sensors and monitoring equipment can now allow farmers to monitor crops more precisely and continuously than in the past. The data collected by these technologies can enable farmers to make more effective and strategic decisions that increase productivity with reduced impacts on the environment.

The IoT’s ability to collect and correlate resource data means that the agricultural sector can develop solutions to do more with less. In other words, the IoT’s ability to make visible detailed resource data enables farmers to increase the efficiency with which they apply scarce and costly inputs. In addition, IoT-enabled farmers can also reap benefits in improved environmental and social performance in areas such as sustainable agriculture, fair wages, and humane labor practices, which are increasingly important to food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

To do so, it is crucial to collect new data on a real-time basis and make these data readily available for analysis and action to stakeholders along the food value chain. One of the more powerful developments in this regard is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission.

GRACE, launched in 2002, uses two spacecraft to map variations in the Earth’s gravity field. The gravitational research is, in part, collecting relevant agricultural data on factors such as groundwater availability and stress as they relate to global agricultural production areas.

Maps developed using the GRACE data are able to identify the difference between climate-related drought conditions and depletion of aquifers through groundwater extraction that exceeds recharge. However, currently, this information is typically only available in specialized scientific journals. By making this information more available to farmers, the IoT, drawing on GRACE as a sensor, could help farmers make more efficient and effective use of water resources.

With the IoT fueling a second green revolution, there is real and increasing hope that the world’s farms will be able to feed 11 billion people by 2050 — not just providing food, but doing so in a way that improves environmental performance and delivers social benefits.

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