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The Role of IoT in Food Production Systems

by Oyewole Okewole
Internet of Things (IoT) illustration

Internet of things (IoT) is one of the technologies deployed to provide the much-needed support to enhance food production. According to Wikipedia, the Internet of things describes devices with sensors, processing ability, software and other technologies that are interconnected while exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet or other communications networks.

Providing adequate food for the sustenance of the global population is one of the major challenges facing the current food production system. In addition to this, there are other imminent difficulties that mitigate against sustainable food production for the growing population. The effects of climate change, soil degradation, food loss and wastes, conflicts and wars, insecurity, and many other specific issues limit the food production index. Simultaneously, the increasing need for agricultural produce to cater for animal feeds, bio-fuel demands, raw materials for both inorganic and organic industries and many other applications further puts more pressure on the food production system and the associated resources.

In the light of this, it becomes imperative to produce food by preserving the very essence of life without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and demands. To achieve these, technology has been singled out over the years to proffer strategic solutions to ameliorate these negative impacts on food production sustainability. Furthermore, technology has also played crucial roles in increasing and optimising food production while creating an efficient, effective, resilient, and sustainable food production system.

IoT is a field that has evolved with many other information technology solutions and applications like the embedded systems, machine learning, wireless sensor networks, automation, control systems and many other applications. IoT therefore embodies a combination of many solutions applied to solve a particular problem. It connects machines and sensors to the internet while in the process allowing data collected to be analysed by application software to make decisions or as inputs for other machinery functions. IoT has been utilised in other industries like the consumer markets including home appliances, phones, etc., health care systems especially in remote patient monitoring and other applications. It is further utilised in supply chain management, energy industry, enterprise solutions, retail, hospitality, and most importantly agriculture.

IoT’s ROLE IN FOOD PRODUCTION SYSTEMS

IoT has played significant roles in agriculture and specifically in the food production systems in recent years while its utilisation is being further explored. It provides visibility into on-field activities, greenhouses, and on-farm processes. IoT creates the possibilities of using remote operations to control, measure, monitor and manage food production operations. It enables farmers to gather real-time data on weather conditions, soil conditions, temperature, relative humidity, wind direction, weeds, pests and disease management and other metrics that can enhance optimum farming operations, increase yield and profitability. The utilisation of IoT encourages farmers to produce more while taking informed decisions about planting, weeding, irrigation, harvesting and other farming operations. It generally makes farming ‘smart’. The application makes farmers aware of some challenges before it occurs and takes proactive actions against its occurrence. For example, an informed farmer on data on his nutrient levels and distribution on-farm will make the solution more precise with reduced input and consequently cost reduction.

IoT therefore plays significant roles in the under-listed areas of applications:

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1. Precision Farming

IoT enables precision farming in applications of water, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and other applications on-farm. For example, IoT sensors measure soil moisture levels to optimise irrigation/water applications to prevent over-watering or under-watering.  IoT weather sensors provide real-time data on temperature, wind speed, precipitation, and humidity, and other agri-climatic conditions that will help producers develop proactive and well-informed decisions about planting, spraying, weeding, harvesting, etc. In addition, IoT devices track crop and livestock growth, health, production periods and also help to manage outbreaks of disease timely and efficiently.

2. Crop Monitoring

The use of drones plays significant roles in capturing the required data from the production area on-field These data are being used as information to monitor the crops. Drones equipped with IoT sensors and cameras are being used to survey the farmland, crops health, diseases, nutrients, and water management. It helps to easily detect problems most times before they are physically obvious.

3. Livestock Monitoring and Management

IoT enabled devices are used for general management procedures for livestock production and monitoring of their growth. They are used to track and monitor the health of livestock. They can achieve these through IoT-enabled tracking devices. Sometimes attached to parts of their body to detect real-time behavioural changes. On the other hand, virtual boundaries can be created especially for grazing livestock to keep them within the geographical area for grazing using attached tracking IoT devices. Furthermore, monitoring the health and wellness of livestock with collar and ear tags and internal boluses can optimise (meat and milk) production in livestock.  IoT systems are also used to automate the feeding process. This process ensures the right quantity, right nutritional requirements, and right timing for feeding the livestock.

4. Smart Greenhouses

Greenhouses are increasingly automated using IoT sensors. Most activities in the greenhouses like fertigation, weeding, harvesting, etc. can be automated using IoT devices. Furthermore, conditions like temperature, humidity, and lighting, are monitored and managed by these sensors and actuators. IoT basically helps to maintain the programmed ideal conditions for plant’s optimal growth and development. Their applications however help to aid careful cultivation, speeds up plant growth, and boosts the overall productivity of the greenhouse. The technology generally enables automation and control of the plants’ growing conditions. These control procedures can be achieved remotely with the aid of communications with the IoT sensors and devices.

5. Waste Management

IoT has been increasingly used to monitor waste identification, disposal, and recycling of wastes on-farm. Wastes from excessive use of chemicals, water, crop residues, organic materials, deteriorated agricultural produce by monitoring, managing, and evaluating them. IoT solutions and applications can identify soil’s moisture levels and input requirements while informing the farmers on the right quantities of application to avoid excessive use and wastage. For example, nutrients in the soil can be monitored using IoT sensors and only apply fertiliser when needed in the right quantity and deficient element. This reduces waste and improves the health of the crops.

6. Equipment Monitoring

Farm equipment can be monitored through IoT applications using sensors to monitor their performance, fuel consumption, capacity, maintenance, etc. The data is usually transmitted to a central location via mobile connectivity to give farmers real-time data about the general operations of the equipment. In addition, IoT devices attached to the equipment can also help to track the location and usage of their equipment especially if it was rented out or leased to avoid theft and other challenges with logistics.

IoT Applications in Agriculture
Agritech Digest Article
IoT Applications in Agriculture

Source: MDPI

According to Biz4intellia, IoT applications in Agriculture like precision farming, smart livestock management and milking processes; greenhouses, remote crop and livestock monitoring, pests and diseases management, smart irrigation operations, predictive analytics constitute an ever-growing market in the agriculture sector with a CAGR of 14.1% from 2019 till 2027. It is expected to reach approx. $34.9 billion by the end of 2027 and precision farming has accounted for the largest share of overall IoT applications in the agricultural market.

BENEFITS OF IoT IN FOOD PRODUCTION SYSTEMS

IoT provides some benefits in agriculture which has increasingly enhanced its adoption, acceptance, and utilisation globally. According to Appinventiv, some of the benefits include:

1. Cost Savings

IoT provides the required platforms for precision farming used in smart agriculture. It maximises the utilisation of resources and use resources specific to the required need. For example, smart monitoring of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, water, and energy results in cost-effective farming practices, thus reducing overall operational expenditure.

2. Decreased Environmental Impact

The utilisation of IoT reduces agriculture’s environmental impact by enabling precise and focused application of inputs. This involves less but required chemical input applications and fewer machine fuel combustion emissions due to streamlined operations rather than generic and overall operations and applications.

3. Predictive Maintenance

IoT sensors on agricultural machinery, tools and equipment reduce downtime and prevent malfunctions. It ensures maintenance activities are carried out pro-actively and further reducing This increases the equipment’s lifespan and reduces the need for expensive emergency repairs.

4. Increased Productivity

Real-time data analytics from IoT devices can help farmers make proactive, well-informed decisions, which help produce the required insights into the health of their crops or livestock. Real time data also helps produce increase, higher yields, and productivity. In most cases, this translates into higher profitability and improved socio-economic status of the farmers.

5. Resource Optimization

Resources are optimised and not used indiscriminately. Inputs like water, fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides are some of the resources that IoT helps to precisely manage. This promotes environmentally friendly and sustainable farming practices by preventing misuse and reducing wastes.

Advantages of IoT in Agriculture
Agritech Digest Article
Advantages of IoT in Agriculture

INNOVATIONS AND SOLUTIONS THAT IoT CAN PROVIDE FOR THE FUTURE OF FOOD PRODUCTION

IoT interventions in the food production system will entail more integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) for farming operations in the future. These applications will not only provide the needed data and information but will be able to provide enough intelligence to act on behalf of the farmers or producers.

Essentially, IoT will fine-tune the current applications and utilisations to accommodate and improve on current inefficiencies in the system while providing more accurate predictive analytics, precision farming, and smarter decision-making.  Robots and drones using IoT will take in more complex roles to address complicated applications and labour-intensive tasks. Satellite technologies in operation with IoT will enhance data collection and provide a more effective monitoring system.

 IoT will play decisive roles in shaping the future of farming. With advancements like AI, block chain, and autonomous machinery, IoT will transform agriculture and food production as the demands for a more efficient and sustainable future stares us in the face.

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