In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Agriculture and Information Technology
September 15, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 3

Agriculture and Information Technology

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Author: Andrew Alleyne

The topics addressed in this issue of The Bridge respond to two major trends that affect our planet: population growth and urbanization. The predicted population growth for the first half of this century is daunting. Depending on the estimate, there will be 9 to 10 billion people by mid-century. The current population is just under 7 billion, meaning that there will be about a 50 percent increase from the beginning to the middle of this century. One may debate the relative accuracy of particular models, but they all agree that there will be many, many more mouths to feed in the coming decades.

In addition to the change in sheer numbers, there will also be a change in demographics by mid-century—a global trend toward urbanization—a shift from an agrarian lifestyle to a city-based lifestyle for the majority of people in the world. For the first time in human history, more people today live in cities than in rural areas. It should be obvious to everyone that population growth coupled with increasing urbanization will require a disproportionate increase in agricultural output.

One consequence of urbanization is a rising middle class and an accompanying change in diet, specifically a higher demand for protein. Protein requires significantly greater agricultural resources to produce than diets based directly on staple crops such as maize or rice. In addition to land and water requirements, protein requires feedstock crops, thereby creating a multiplier effect. Agriculture already consumes a large fraction of the total amount of water used by people. By increasing the amount of protein in people’s diets, water use will increase dramatically as well.

Urbanization also leads to so-called secondary effects in overall agricultural demand. Populations concentrated in cities put a strain on the agricultural supply chain by increasing the geospatial separation between food production and food consumption. In addition, the increased need for transportation of agricultural products, either crops or animals, for processing and eventual consumption adds logistical burdens and increased costs for fuel, infrastructure, and time. Stretching a supply chain also increases its vulnerabilities to disruption and decreases its efficiency.

With this background in mind, the articles in this issue examine ways to meet increases in demand using the knowledge and natural resources currently at our disposal, including information technology (IT), which we feel has been underused in the agricultural context. IT is defined here as the use of information to enable or improve products or processes.

IT has transformed many other aspects of human endeavor and has helped create systems for responding to a wide range of societal needs. Indeed, transportation, communication, national security, and health systems are completely reliant on IT to perform even basic functions. However, information, and its automated technological embodiments, has not impacted agriculture to the same level.

Modern urban public transportation systems have become remarkably reliable and predictable with the incorporation of information and automation. Indeed, they would fail to operate without information flow. The same can not be said for modern farming.

Many National Research Council (NRC) studies have been published related to agriculture. A recent report on sustainable agriculture explored motivations for sustainability and even recommended agricultural procedures rooted in the concept of sustainability (NRC, 2010). Other studies on the role of technology for agriculture in developing nations (NRC, 2008) have explored the suitability of technologies for improving agricultural yields in global regions with high rates of poverty. To date, however, neither NRC nor NAE has conducted a study explicitly on the role of IT in the agricultural landscape.

A fundamental premise of this issue of The Bridge is that more could be done with information to tighten up the supply chain associated with agricultural production. The goal is to wring out inefficiencies and maximize the productivity potential of our current resources to meet predicted demand.

Conversations, technical and otherwise, about specific aspects of IT as it relates to particular areas of agriculture have been initiated. One subject of these conversations is the increased use of sensing modalities and the ubiquity of sensors across the agricultural spectrum, from overall crop performance and animal health to DNA reports on individual genomes. However, conversations relating IT to agriculture in a broader sense have not been as prevalent. The modest goal of this issue of The Bridge is to initiate broader conversations by illustrating the reality and potential of IT to impact the tremendous challenge of feeding a growing planet.

The first article, by Ting, Abdelzaher, Alleyne, and Rodriguez of the University of Illinois, provides a broad perspective on opportunities and challenges associated with integrating IT and agriculture. They begin by identifying individual challenges associated with meeting future agricultural goals. They then break the discussion down into a taxonomy and show how different elements of IT can be used to address these challenges. They also offer suggestions for accelerating the integration of IT and agriculture and point out potential challenges associated with the close coupling of IT and agriculture. Much like the unintended consequences of introducing a non-native species into a new habitat, the accessibility and malleability of information must be carefully considered during large-scale deployment of IT in agriculture.

The second article, by Bull, Davis, and Skroch of Monsanto, describes how IT is used in plant breeding. The use of biotechnology to isolate specific desired traits in crops is akin to techniques used in the pharmaceutical industry. A combinatorial approach is used to identify novel genes for traits, such as insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, and drought tolerance. This information is then coupled to large-scale trials for determining the most viable candidates. The process generates many terabytes of data each day that must be sifted through, correlated, and used in a decision-making process to cull less effective options. IT is a crucial enabler for turning these data into useful product-development decisions.

The third article, by John Reid of John Deere, describes the history and state of the art in agricultural mechanization. Reid begins with a historical perspective on the importance of mechanization to increasing agricultural productivity. He also discusses the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in current agricultural systems. These ICT-integrated systems started on machines (tractors, combines, etc.) but are rapidly spreading to the entire agricultural production chain. Machine-to-machine communication and machine-to-field communication have become current practice. The author ends with a look to the future farm-site, which will be automated and information rich with agricultural mechanization systems acting as both information gatherers and physical implements. This level of information would influence the production value chain before and after the farm-site itself and afford us an opportunity to meet future agricultural demands.

The fourth article, by Denesuk and Wilkinson of IBM, describes how information is used to track and trace food in a supply chain. The authors emphasize benefits that accrue when the “physical” world meets the “digital” world. The article also provides a list of key priorities for supporting a maximum impact on agricultural business productivity and efficiency throughout the value chain

The final article, by Chaubey, Cherkauer, Crawford, and Engel of Purdue University, is an overview of sensing methods and modalities for agriculture. The authors describe the specific physical quantities that must be converted into information, as well as the transduction mechanisms that perform the conversion. In addition, they discuss the need for integrating agricultural sensing systems that operate on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.

One clear message that permeates the collection of articles is the complexity associated with integrating agriculture and IT. Another message is the imperative that we move forward from where we are. In fact, we really have no other choice. 

We recognize that this issue of The Bridge will not be the final word on the topic, but we hope it will be a valuable part of the conversation between technologists and policy makers working to ensure a secure future for our nation and our planet.


About the Author:Andrew Alleyne is Ralph and Catherine Fisher Professor of Engineering and Associate Dean for Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.