A Basic Need Meets High-Tech Solutions

The principles of circularity—designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems—are most often thought of in terms of manufacturing. But the area that might be the most impactful from a circular standpoint comes from applying those principles to agriculture.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) takes an integrated approach to managing resources such as cropland and livestock to address the twin challenges of food insecurity and accelerated climate change. By combining CSA technologies with other advances that focus on improvements to what happens after the food is grown, circularity in agriculture can be promoted from field to fridge to fork. Together, the impact holds amazing potential for protecting global resources of all kinds.

Preventing Food Waste

According to the World Food Program USA, approximately one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted every year, an amount that could have fed two billion people. That wasted food also impacts the environment in a huge way—if wasted food were a country, it would only rank behind the US and China in the production of carbon dioxide.

The ability to save produced food begins the minute it leaves the field or farm. Technologies such as blockchain and food-safe bar codes stamped right onto produce can track food and ensure it’s being treated properly from transport through production. This means that goods aren’t bruised or damaged when they reach supermarket shelves. Other technology enables grocers to carefully track the sell-by date on their stock for better management.

Preventing food waste will also require taking a harder look at the logistics of where food is grown versus where it is sold. For example, Ireland and Japan are both large beef producers, yet they export to each other—across 5,934 miles. In addition to increasing carbon emissions, long transportation distances reduce the shelf life of food at its final destination.

Finally, technology solutions in the storage of food can be leveraged to reduce waste. Warehouse or grocery store refrigerators can utilise preventative and predictive analysis to forecast equipment failure. Right now, the minute the fridge fails the products inside are lost. But if a company knows that a unit is going to fail in a matter of hours, they have time to move perishables out before failure happens. On the consumer side, the introduction of smart appliances has opened the door to food-saving features such as a refrigerator that reminds you a piece of cheese will expire in two days. The same systems can also enable “just in time” food re-ordering, so waste of staple items is minimised without the risk of running out.

Saving Human Resources

Dell Technologies has designated the advance of sustainability as one of its four social impact goals— and one of the most valuable resources our world has is the humans that populate it. Agricultural output is predicted to decline by up to 30% in the coming years, yet the demand for food is expected to increase by a possible 98% by 2050. Technology is powering a number of solutions to help both increase the production of food as well as protect those consuming it around the world.

In India, farmers at the Chitale Dairy often feed their entire family from the milk of one or two cows. A program to improve the quality and amount of milk production by analysing milk samples is also improving their quality of life. Using basic SMS technology, the farmers are notified that, based on the analysis, their cow needs more protein or a certain medication to improve the amount and quality of the milk being produced.

IoT solutions can be used help monitor the quality of foodstuffs—strawberry supplier Driscoll Berries ensures that its fruit stays within certain temperature parameters to protect quality, while AI technology can help detect spoilage. In addition, blockchain enables precise tracking that can help quickly identify the source and location of contaminated food, allowing for faster, more accurate recalls.

The benefits of these advances include not only less waste, but also improved food access, quality, and safety. Better nutrition and avoiding consumption of spoiled goods can prevent sickness, which in turn increases productivity and reduces the demand on healthcare systems.

Protecting the Planet

The world has begun bumping up against our planetary boundaries. In response, we must find ways to produce more food with less land and water, while protecting the environment by reducing pesticide usage as well as farming or transportation emissions.

Agro drones and AI algorithms are being used to identify areas of potential infestation, be it of blight or of pests, and then spot spray rather than having to spray thousands of hundreds of acres of fields. This microanalysis not only reduces the use of pesticides but helps stops the area of disease in a very targeted way. Pesticide usage is also being reduced by using AI engines to better understand botany and apply techniques such as planting marigolds underneath tomato plants to redirect harmful bugs.

I look at this from a Big Data perspective. What data sets are out there? How can we look at them? How can we identify challenges? Are there better ways of doing things?”

  • Jeff McCann, Director & CSC Global Lead, Edge & Telco Solutions, Dell Technologies

Smart farming techniques powered by IoT sensors and data analysis can have a multi-layer impact. For example, pioneering greens grower Aerofarms produces more food while using 95 per cent less water, zero pesticides, and less than one per cent of the land required by traditional farming. Logistics also has a role to play because better logistics equals less transportation emissions. And speaking of emissions, improved farming techniques enabled by technology can also reduce the emissions produced by heavy farm equipment.

Priority Number One

While every advance that contributes to circularity is valuable, CSA technologies that support the maintenance and protection of the land we grow food from are foundational. Due to climate change, there are already places in the world that used to grow food but cannot produce anymore. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well we improve food’s transport or how well we improve wastage in the fridge if we can’t grow it in the first place. Whether that’s due to desertification, flooding, or similar factors, the end result won’t be the current one billion hungry people—it will be an entire planet of 12 billion.

About the Author: John Pflueger

John Pflueger, Ph.D., is Dell’s Principal Environmental Strategist. In this role, John is responsible for driving Dell’s strategy on issues around Environmental Sustainability – including Energy, GHG Emissions, Materials of Concern, Material Use/Recovery/Reuse, and Water. Prior to this role, John was Dell’s subject matter expert on data centre energy efficiency and managed initiatives to help customers improve the productivity of their computer systems and facilities. Since graduating from MIT in 1991 with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, John has spent nineteen years in manufacturing engineering, product development, product marketing and product management roles in the high-tech industry. John currently serves as a director for The Green Grid and as a participant in The Green Grid’s Technical Committee.