How IoT will transform global food production

Connected sensors and big data will play a leading role in solving a global food crisis.
27 June 2019

IoT will enable economies of scale in food production. Source: Shutterstock

By 2050, the world’s population will likely have increased by 40 percent. According to the Food Aid Foundation, some 11 percent of the world lives in hunger— so how will we gear up to expand our reach to two billion more people than are here already?

To no small degree, the answer is the Internet of Things.

There are three areas in which IoT will help humankind to remain nourished: food production; food distribution; and nutrition tracking. IoT enabling economies of scale at a cost of fractions of a penny per meal.

IoT in food production

Food production already benefits from the application of real-time interaction between sensors, connected machinery, and data analytics— all enabled by the always-connected benefits of IoT.

Field sensors feed algorithm-driven systems alerting when the ground is dry, short of nitrogen, or under pest attack; GPS steers driverless machinery to till ground efficiently, taking advantage of natural topology and placing seeds at their optimal location. The data collected can be mined to discover new elements of the harvest. We can take advantage of new patterns and improved dead reckoning.

IoT in food distribution

According to Zest Labs, as much as 40 percent of food is wasted in the distribution process, providing a rich opportunity to unlock hidden nutritional value. The addition of RFID chips, and even GPS units, to shipping containers and vehicles, has already had an impact on general delivery efficiency.

With increasingly-affordable, more resource-capable, IoT devices, this capability can be profoundly improved, providing shippers and receivers with the ability to control what is in containers: adjusting refrigeration levels, for instance, as temperatures fluctuate; or adjusting de-humidification systems to protect against the damage done by excessive moisture when shipping fruit. 

In a few short years, huge swaths of that 40 percent of spoiled-in-transit food may be back in the nutritional supply chain.

IoT in nutrition tracking

Finally, nutrition tracking will allow organizations charged with getting food to the neediest, food-starved populations are grouped in the developing world – to ensure both that supplies are properly distributed, and that efforts to expand food availability are better targeted. Understanding a populations’ current, actual, health levels through wearables, and analyzing samples through AI-driven algorithms, will ensure that an accurate picture is available of the situation on the ground.

Meanwhile, by understanding areas that need not just food deliveries, but also regions that would benefit from the application of food production and distribution improvements, support organizations will be able to apply limited funds to staving off future hunger by broadening access to the appropriate technologies, closing the virtuous cycle of IoT improvements to the broader agricultural domain.

Challenges deploying IoT food technology

Supplying IoT solutions has plenty of challenges of course, from the provisioning of individual connected devices, to ensure access to reliable Internet connections that allow for effective and efficient bi-directional (and often multi-directional) communications.

While the barriers to many of these challenges are falling away— the cost of a wifi-enabled System-on-a-Chip, for instance, has plummeted to just pennies— ensuring that all these devices can connect to one another, deliver and receive data and instructions in realtime, and control the dataflow for efficiency, remains an unsolved task.

Fortunately, the technology to solve for constant, instant connections is available and enables vast networks of IoT devices to be meshed together to solve various issues. For instance, in response to a peak in reports of moisture from sensors in a geographical area, a network’s logic can instruct connected irrigation systems to shut off otherwise scheduled watering cycles, preserving precious water resources.

Feeding the world is an increasingly challenging affair— the human race took nearly twelve thousand years to reach a billion people yet will be bumping up against 10 billion only a couple of hundred years later. The intelligent application of real-time technologies to run IoT networks has the potential to make feeding that vast community, not just possible, but genuinely simpler than at any point in history. The technology is there; now is the time to deploy it.

The article was contributed by Stephen Blum, Co-Founder and CTO of PubNub.