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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

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Perspective: Tech revolutions - Precision Agriculture and the Internet of Food

last modified Aug 13, 2015 11:55 AM
Technology is ever advancing, and many of the brightest minds have started to apply many new techniques to every aspect of food security.

by Joanna Wolstenholme, Communications intern

This is an exciting time – we are on the cusp of a revolution in both agriculture and supply chains, and there are many ideas in the pipeline for revolutionising how we relate to food in the home. Drone technology has come of age, and start-ups are capitalising on the falling prices of drones in order to apply them to the emerging field of precision agriculture. At the same time, the ‘Internet of Food’ is becoming a buzzword, with many start-ups aiming to internet-enable, and therefore streamline, supply chains.


Precision agriculture is rapidly becoming realised. Ever-cheaper drone technology is being used to image fields, and these bird’s-eye images allow the health of every plant to be ascertained.

Where a farmer would have walked their field to check on the health of their crops, drone images can now be used to check all plants, even those deep in the centre of the field. Disease and pest infestations can be spotted early, and nipped in the bud before they cause major yield losses. The possibilities are endless with the application of drone technology; whilst imaging is currently the most common use, drones could also be used for the precise application of herbicides and pesticides to infected plants, or to guide the and target the application of fertiliser or water by tractor to the areas of the field where it is needed the most. All of this helps to reduce the cost to the farmer of inputs, as well as reducing the harm to the environment from runoff caused by excessive application of agrochemicals. If we are to feed the world without compromising biodiversity and ecosystem services, innovations such as these are vital.

In Western agriculture, where increasingly heavy machinery is being used on the land, soil compaction is becoming a serious threat to the long term heath of our limited croplands - and therefore yields. Unfortunately, it is hard to undo the damage from compaction once it has been caused, and so the focus must be on prevention. Drones could be used to detect soil water content across the field, so that farmers are able to avoid driving on the field at times when it is unsuitably saturated, and whereby reduce the chance of compaction occurring.

Tech is already infiltrating other areas of agriculture. For example, many dairies now may use of automated milking robots, which are activated by the cows themselves. The cows learn that if they go and stand in the machine, they will be milked – so they can take themselves to be milked whenever they want. This not only increases milk yields, and results in happier cows, who don’t have to suffer from uncomfortably full udders, but also saves dairy farmers from having to get up at the crack of dawn to start milking.  Additionally, the robots are able to monitor how much each cow has eaten, so feed quantities can be tailored, and – in an emerging theme - efficiencies made.


The Internet of Things has become somewhat of a buzzword recently – it encompasses an aim of those in the tech world, who envisage that one day most aspects of our lives, and the things around us, will be sensor enabled, and able to interact autonomously with each other. This might seem like an indulgent techie dream, but these ideas can also have very valuable implications for food security. The ‘Internet of Food’ is, like drone technology, on the cusp of becoming mainstream, with many big businesses and start-ups alike looking to invest in research in this area. It is envisaged that supply chains could be fully sensor enabled, allowing food’s freshness and origin to be tracked from the field to the plate, ultimately providing for greater efficiency, and less waste, and also more information to the consumer. 

It is hoped that these ideas can continue into the home, with sensors informing individuals of when food is or isn’t safe to eat. This has the potential to be far more accurate than the current, often rather overly cautious, system of use-by dates, whereby reducing food waste in the home.


With all these new ideas, and plenty of incentive from the cost savings associated with efficiencies in the food chain, these areas are growing fast, and are certainly worth keeping an eye on in the coming years. Both big players (such as collaboration between Tesco Labs and Cisco) and small start-ups are investing hugely, and the upcoming Seeds and Chips conference looks set to spark off a whole new wave of ideas. The future is here!