The analysis of large volumes of data collected from fields, warehouses, trucks – and even animals’ stomachs – may be key to preventing widespread hunger in the coming decades.
The world’s population is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations believes that food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 35 years to prevent widespread hunger.
But the increasing use of farmland for biofuel production means that there is less land available for food, and about half – or two billion tonnes – of the food that is produced is wasted, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Technology and data analysis could help improve the situation.
For example, innovations in the way data can be collected from cattle have the potential to transform dairy and beef production.
Vital Herd, a Texas-based start-up, has developed a device that can be swallowed by cows. The sensor, or e-Pill, sits in the cow’s rumen and uses sonar technology – originally developed for military purposes – to collect information about the animal, including heart rate, temperature, rumination time, rumen acidity and oestrogen levels. It will be available commercially later this year.
The information stored on each e-Pill will be transmitted wirelessly to receivers as cows pass by, and then through the internet to Vital Herd’s cloud-based herd management software. This will collate and interpret the data about each animal so it can be viewed by farm managers. The software will send out alerts by text message or email if it appears that individual animals have anything seriously wrong with them.
“Forty per cent of dairy cows get ill each year,” explains Brian Walsh, Vital Herd’s chief executive. “The cause can be early lactation, the type of feed they are receiving or one of a very large spectrum of health complications. Early warning or auto-detection can help minimise complications or avoid them altogether.”
The US Department of Agriculture says total economic loss from animal sickness and death is more than $5bn (£3bn) a year, with global losses amounting to 12 times this.
Mr Walsh believes that more productivity benefits will be realised by analysing historical data from a wide range of cattle. “If we can aggregate data from customers in different regions we could do industry benchmarking and studies to link productivity to vital sign data and genetics,” he says.
Big data analysis can also increase crop yields by helping famers make better decisions about when to plant, manage and harvest their crops.
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