Almost no one is surprised since, when we go to the supermarket, we find eggs of various categories: from organic eggs, with label 0, to eggs from hens raised in cages, with category 3. Perhaps it is surprising that there are people who prefer eggs with label 0, despite having a higher price.
This example shows some interesting connections:
The consumer is willing to pay more for a sustainable product.
Large supermarkets start up machinery to satisfy the consumer (through labels and the controls derived from them).
Producers are forced to adapt their processes so that their products enter the market.
Will this happen with other products, such as fruits and vegetables? Can we buy, for example, strawberries that have consumed a certain amount of water?
The need for irrigation and its associated problems
Agriculture is the great consumer of fresh water. This sector, on which the entire population depends on food, takes more than 60% of the water.
The excessive and uncontrolled use of water in irrigation can cause a decrease in the water table in aquifers that, in turn, can cause undesirable consequences in sectors that depend on these water sources. This is the case, for example, of aquifer 27 that feeds Doñana, as the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled.
In addition, a careless fertigation favors the contamination of groundwater, dragging nitrates and phosphates. This can accelerate processes such as eutrophication, with consequences for other living organisms, such as those we have seen recently in the Mar Menor.
How to monitor and monitor agricultural practices
Either due to administrative impositions or consumer preferences, it seems that we are heading towards greater control of agricultural activity. However, nowadays it is not easy for a farmer to be able to certify his production, even if that is his wish.
Perhaps a farmer can know, through meters, the water that he is consuming from wells or that his community of irrigators is supplying him. But could you ensure that all the irrigation sectors of your farm have received this or that amount of water? Could you ensure that you do not waste water or that you provide the crop with what it needs? Even more difficult, how could you tell if more or less nitrates are being dumped into the aquifer?
It is not a technology problem: there is instrumentation to measure these variables (at least discontinuously). The great challenge posed by agriculture, which does not exist in other industries, is that of space-time variability.
When making a decision (harvest time, amount of irrigation, etc.), the farmer cannot trust that the information provided by an instrument includes all the variability of his farm. And the problem extends to verifying that a production meets a certain quality standard.
New digital tools
To solve this difficulty, many companies and researchers are turning to different solutions that digitization offers to agriculture.
On the one hand, the use of technologies that are included under the label of the so-called Internet of things is proposed. Under this paradigm, the sensors are interconnected in a network and the information they generate is immediately available from our phone or in the cloud.
In addition, LPWAN (Low-Power Wide Area Network) communication protocols are being used, very suitable for this sector, which does not require high data traffic, but does require high battery life.
It should also be noted that many companies are developing decision support tools based on artificial intelligence. All these data generated can be analyzed to offer recommendations on the need or timing of different tasks in the field.
The end goal: automation
The final objective in this digitization process would be to automate certain activities, similar to how it can be done in other types of industries. If the problem of capturing the spatio-temporal variability can be solved, control systems could be designed that generate slogans that act directly on the farm.
The technology that allows to act, such as remote controlled servo valves for watering, exists or is being developed. And the automatic is sufficiently developed to face the control problem that is proposed: maintain variables in certain bands, to meet quality standards, optimizing other variables, such as production, water or energy consumption, fertilizer expenditure, etc.
The outlook for the next few years is exciting, with enormous challenges and technology still in development. For sure, we are going to witness a digital revolution in agriculture, which in the literature is known under certain similar terms, such as agriculture 4.0, smart agriculture or precision agriculture.
Not too long ago we will see category A strawberries on the supermarket shelf, that is, strawberries that have required a specific amount of water per hectare. And if we don’t see them, we will sue them.