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Precision cultivation for sustainable food production

As the global population grows, so too does the need for food. With the aid of modern technology, food production can be streamlined without increasing its environmental impact. RISE is working on precision cultivation to sustainably intensify food production; something that, together with other measures, has proven capable of increasing yields by as much as 20% while simultaneously reducing the amounts of diesel, fertiliser and seed used and allowing them to be distributed where they provide the greatest benefits.

The United Nations is predicting that the world population will reach between 9 and 10 billion by 2050 – an increase of approximately 2 billion compared with today. Meanwhile, there is no significant increase in the amount of land under cultivation that must feed this larger population. This places demands on increased productivity in food production. There is a also a challenge in that food production is currently responsible for 30% of emissions of greenhouse gases and 70% of water consumption.

“The required increase in productivity must not be achieved at the expense of the environment,” says Mikael Gilbertsson, who researches sustainable food production at RISE. “We must work towards a sustainable intensification of production.”

Adaption through precision cultivation

Together with a group of five colleagues, Mikael Gilbertsson studies a field known as precision cultivation, which does exactly what it says on the tin – targeting measures to increase agricultural yields without increasing climate impact. Precision cultivation is a very broad field; however, its general focus is on adapting cultivation to conditions in the field. To this end, a large amount of work within precision cultivation deals with using sensors to map conditions on the ground.

“We are able to measure in many different ways; from using satellites and autonomous drones to taking soil samples, analysing and GPS tagging them. It is all about obtaining the highest resolution and most detailed measurements possible,” says Mikael Gilbertsson. “The more samples we take and the closer to the soil we get, the better.”

Steering pesticide use or assessing quality

Sensors can also be used to collect data on crops in the field. Researchers measure levels of chlorophyll, or how green the crop is, using hyperspectral cameras, either mounted on tractors or drones or handheld. These results are translated into nitrogen content and can be used to steer pesticide use or to assess the quality of the crop.

“The greener the crop, the stronger it is,” explains Mikael Gilbertsson. “And the stronger it is, the more we can treat it against threats such as fungus.”

Machine learning for analysis and decision support

The data collected can also be used to predict the size of harvests. Using drones, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the size of a harvest of, for example, cabbages can be calculated, meaning that the producer can obtain a more exact forecast and avoid overproduction and ensure that they deliver the promised quantity.

“Among other things, we are already using machine learning to support decisions in apple orchards and vineyards,” says Mikael Gilbertsson. “However, the major effects of this technology will probably not be felt for another decade or two. Right now, we are in need of large databases for training algorithms and increasing their accuracy.”

Robotisation lends a hand

Another aspect of precision cultivation is the robotisation of farming. Among other things, autonomous machines can assist in sowing, harvesting, ploughing and weeding. A Swedish project named Ekobot is developing a robot that can weed among rows of onions, carrots and sugar beets. The robot will begin field tests during 2019.

Mikael Gilbertsson believes that the major benefits of robotisation will primarily be felt in somewhat smaller or medium-sized farms, especially in specialised cultivation:

“The large farms that grow cereals are already incredibly efficient as things stand. Procurement costs for machinery are so much greater than labour costs that it would have very little impact to introduce efficiencies here as well.”

Enormous opportunities

The opportunities offered by precision cultivation are enormous, both in terms of reducing environmental impact and increasing yields from existing arable land.

“We have calculated that it should be possible to increase yields from existing arable land by between 10 and 20% by combining precision cultivation with other measures,” says Mikael Gilbertsson.

Published: 2019-06-19