By 2050, the world population will grow from 7 billion today to 10 billion and most of the population will be living in mega cities. This is triggering the interest in smart cities around the globe to ensure that these cities are healthy, safe and sustainable. While a lot of technology and innovation is focused on urban transportation, energy, healthcare, waste management, and carbon emissions, Hitachi is also focused on agriculture and the ability to feed these billions of people. By 2050 we will need to double food production while arable land is shrinking, and farm workers are migrating to the cities.
I was raised on a farm where we started with less than 5 acres of strawberries and everything was done by hand labor. As the farm grew and we were able to acquire more land and farm machinery, we grew lettuce, tomatoes and green beans. When we planted lettuce, we mounted a seed hopper on the tractor, which dropped seeds at a rate that was regulated by a mechanical cog, followed by a small plow that threw soil on top of the seed. Since we did not know how successfully the seeds would geminate we planted redundant seeds (sound familiar?). After the seeds sprouted we went back with a hand hoe and thinned out the spouts to give room for the best sprouts to develop into mature heads of lettuce. For every 5 seeds we planted we destroyed 4 seeds in the thinning process. Today modern planting machines plant individual seeds based on GPS and computers that ensure each seed is planted at the optimal depth and spacing with the right moisture content to ensure germination. However, planting is only the first step in a very complicated process of bringing food to our table. Hitachi is utilizing the Internet of things that matter to increase food production.
As part of Hitachi’s Social Innovation strategy they have a business unit that is focused on agriculture. Agriculture like everything else is based on data. Hitachi has developed an agriculture Information management system that they call GeoMation Farm that is based on various inputs, including satellite data. This not only helps farmers with the use of water, weather, and chemicals to optimize production but is also used to minimize environmental impacts like carbon emissions, soil erosion, nitrate leaching, the loss of biodiversity, and the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In Japan, farming is also an art. Rice must be harvested with the just the right amount of moisture, not too wet and not too dry. Japan is the only place I know where you have to pay $100 for the perfect melon with the right curl in the stem! While the farms in Japan are usually smaller than my father’s original 5 acres, Hitachi is also working with larger farms in Australia where they are developing precision farming based on satellite signals to robotic tractors.
After the growing of food, that food needs to be distributed. A few years ago, I was in Brazil, visiting the University of San Paolo, where they are working on Smart City projects. One of the problems they are trying to solve is the distribution of food. In Brazil, which is one of the richest agricultural countries in the world, 40% of the fresh foods spoil before it reaches the table of residents in San Paulo due to distribution problems. This is an infrastructure problem not an agriculture problem. This is part of the reason that futurists say that we need to double food production while population grows by 50% in 2050. Smart agriculture must be integrated into smart city infrastructure to ensure that people in these mega cities have access to fresh foods.
A recent IEEE Spectrum article claims that even after the food is distributed, in the United States, we waste 40% of that food while many people are starving. Doubling food production will not solve this problem. In the US we need to be more conscious of the portions we serve. My wife and I often share meals when we go out to restaurants because the portions are just too large. How many people can really eat a 16 ounce steak? The point here is that we can solve many problems with innovative technology, but we also need to take individual responsibility to build a sustainable society.