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Feeding The World—With Math

Some of the greatest opportunities for technology and business lie in the fields of agriculture.

[Photo: Flickr user Charles Knowles]

Math enabled the ancients to build the pyramids and modern innovators to put a man on the moon, but it will prove even more critical in the decades ahead. Math is what we need to feed the world.

The problem is that few mathematicians, software developers, or engineers graduate from college with dreams of starting a career in agriculture. That has to change. One of tomorrow’s greatest needs—and thus one of the greatest business opportunities—will be harnessing advanced mathematical techniques and technologies to ensure global food security.

The importance of math is nothing new. All of history’s most important technological advances were made possible through mathematics. From harnessing electricity to mapping the human genome, math has been the fundamental driving force of innovation. But advanced mathematics have been slow to take root in the fields of agriculture.

That may not seem like a big deal to those who don’t make their living on a farm, but this affects everyone. Within the next three decades we will have to feed 2 billion more people, according to United Nations population estimates. To put that figure into perspective, it is equivalent of feeding every single person who was alive in 1930—in addition to the entire planet full of people we already have today.

This is a tremendous undertaking, but it can be accomplished with the help of revolutionary innovation inspired by advanced mathematics. As applied to the growing of crops, this new frontier goes by the name of precision agriculture, which is in the early stages of turning the growing of plants into a high-tech business.

This is nothing like the Depression-era farming depicted in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting. Old-fashioned farms, steeped in tradition, have for centuries planted and harvested crops using common sense and intuition. It worked, but it was not as efficient as it could be.

New analytical techniques boost efficiency by helping farmers make better decisions about what to plant, when to plant it and when to harvest it. This is possible by examining the available data—weather information, historical growing data, soil quality measurements, and determining which course of action is most likely to succeed.

The most advanced poultry farms, for instance, have automated systems to track how much feed and water each hen consumes. Devices monitor how much each hen weighs, egg production levels and relevant environmental conditions. The numbers tell a story. If any variable appears out of order: Say, the chickens in one corner of the coop suddenly stop eating, or the temperatures are off, the farmer can investigate. Perhaps something is making the chickens in one area sick, or a ventilation fan is stuck. Armed with data, farmers can see and solve such problems far more quickly and effectively than the classic method of, for example, guessing how much feed was consumed by looking at how much grain is left in the silo.

Collecting data is just the first step. Mathematics gives farmers the ability to take this information and model the odds of success for every possible course of action. With this, farmers can shift the odds in their favor so that their crops "win" more often than not, much like counting cards at a casino gives the gambler an advantage against the house.

Except data analytics is not cheating, and it is not unfair. Many other industries use math to improve logistics and streamline everything from scheduling airline flights to same-day delivery of online orders. It is increasingly popular in business because it works.

With the global population count rising and food security clock ticking, agriculture can no longer wait to take full advantage of this level of technology and advanced math to meet the increasing demands on our food supply. Fortunately, impressive work is already being done to make this possible. Data gathering systems are getting better by the day.

Drones and sensors have proved to be a powerful combination. A winemaker who wants to harvest the best possible grapes can monitor the remotest sections of a field with ease using an unmanned aerial vehicle. Near-infrared sensors assess health from above by measuring chlorophyll levels—basically, the greener the plant, the healthier it is. This analysis reveals crop stress, such as the presence of pests, the lack of water or the lack of nutrients. The winemaker can use this to know, for instance, exactly where to add water without saturating the entire field unnecessarily.

Endless streams of data are useless without analytical software tools that can sift through the information and prescribe the practical steps needed to achieve maximum crop growth. The application of nutrients in just the right amount—not too little, not too much—is often the most critical factor in plant growth. In the old days, farmers would err on the side of adding more fertilizer than needed, "just in case." That is bad for the environment, since leftover nitrogen not absorbed by the plants can make its way into watersheds, which, in excess, is harmful to fish.

Advanced farm equipment tackles such problems with GPS systems that allow for precise collection of soil samples throughout a field. After testing these for soil pH, nitrogen levels and mineral content, the results can be loaded into a geographic database to create a fertility map with the precise coordinates for where plants will need more fertilizer, as well as those that will need less. The exact amounts can be programmed into a variable-rate fertilizer delivery system to automate the process of getting nutrient levels just right. The net result is that more food can be grown with far less waste, which is as good for farmers as it is for the environment.

Even more advanced possibilities lie ahead include using advanced math in the custom breeding of seeds to ensure that the crops being grown have just the right characteristics they need to produce the maximum yield under highly optimized growing scenarios.

For example, imagine if you could pack twice the number of seeds in a plot of land and achieve a full harvest. The "yield per acre" would double. Along these lines, we know that planting corn seeds more tightly in narrow rows ought to increase the yield per acre. Among other benefits, the technique allows leaves on corn stalks to form a denser canopy that protects the soil from rain erosion.

While this sounds great in theory, it has proved extremely difficult to pull off in practice because the biology involved is extremely complex. There are people like Harry Stine of Stine Seed who are thinking in terms of a systematic approach that matches the genetics of a plant hybrid to the particular needs of narrow-row, high-population corn.

This is where the industry as a whole will eventually end up, with mathematics assisting in the breeding of corn and other crops with the exact traits needed to thrive in a particular environment, such as changing the height of the stalk or the shape of the leaves to achieve the best possible result. This is the future of precision agriculture.

Such innovation is critical to increasing productivity in dry locations like sub-Saharan Africa, where freshwater sources are at a premium. Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use, so water optimization must remain a top priority as the need for increased food production climbs.

These are the sorts of math-backed innovations that agriculture must embrace to ensure there will be enough food for a fast-growing global population. But convincing an entire industry steeped in centuries of tradition to adapt to entirely new ways is far from an easy task. Success will require unprecedented cooperation among industry leaders, farmers, academics, and regulators—and significant investment from the high-tech sector of the economy.

Most of all, it will require talented minds from mathematics, engineering and software development to take an active interest in helping agriculture transition into this new way of ensuring food security and a sustainable future.

Joseph Byrum, Ph.D., MBA, PMP, is Senior R&D and Strategic Marketing Executive in Life Sciences—Global Product Development, Innovation and Delivery at Syngenta.

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