Organic farming and the Internet of Things (IoT): synergy or conflict?

This article first appeared on 9 June 2020 on the IoF2020 website.

It is common thinking to consider organic farming and technology playing in opposing fields. A frequent reaction when presenting the Internet of Things (IoT) applications within organic farming is a sort of: “What? You are using high-tech as well? Isn’t organic a happy old times way of farming?” This is a good occasion to explain how using IoT in organic farming and food production is not a step back to ‘good old times’, but a couple of jumps forward, pushed by the experiences from old times (that often were not that “good”) and the knowledge and clean instruments that became recently available. Overall, IoT and other technologies can help organic farmers to better deal with diversity, maintaining and enhancing it.

There are at least four reasons why IoT can be, and in certain cases already is, of great help to organic:

1) Organic farming is knowledge intensive and the more information farmers have, the better they can apply prevention strategies, take sound decisions and act (or not act!) timely. This is true in plant production as well as in animal husbandry. Here is a crucial plant protection example: how to reduce copper use in viticulture using knowledge and information that are site specific, system specific and timely? There are at least three options: an app that allows to share observations among farmers and advisers working in the same area, a Decision Support Tool (one of many available) to identify precisely the need for spraying and the best moment, and an image reading tool able to quantify active copper on the leaves (still under development).  

Another example for bridging plant production and animal husbandry: crop rotation and crop diversification are key in healthy and successful organic arable farming. But the crop used as feed, especially for monogastrics, are quite few. Considering the protein sources soybean plays a major role, as in conventional systems, but it is grown in limited areas in Europe. A solution lays in using diverse sources (pea, lupin, faba bean, food industry side-products etc.) according to their availability during the year. Which knowledge is needed to implement such idea? a) the exact composition of the different feedstuffs; b) animals’ needs; c) a fast way to calculate a balanced ration.

Two IoT tools can be helpful at farm level: an on-farm equipment to measure nutrients in feedstuff and a ration planner able to balance the nutrition of the animals while changing the crops used as feedstuff. The first is already on the market: a portable near-infrared device that in few seconds and using few kernels can measure proteins, moisture, carbohydrates and oils. The second will be soon available as an outcome of the Horizon 2020 project OK-Net EcoFeed: a ration planner to allow farmers to adapt the diet of their animals according to seasonal availability.

2) Several activities imply heavy labor, for example weed management and harvesting in vegetables or saffron selection. These are unpleasant tasks, often underpaid, too time consuming and too often economically unsustainable. Optical tools or GPS guided tools can be of great help, as well as weeding robots. Those technologies should not be seen as competing with human labor, because they can reduce and make a kind of labor that nobody is really willing to do less heavy.

For such there are several ongoing experimental activities and solutions available on the market.

3) Enhance diversity having information at the finest detail. Organic farming is strongly characterized by efforts to make the best and most sustainable use of local diversity. The IoT technology is useful for plant production – where the farmers skills and experience allow to fit practices to specific fields conditions and potentials. It is also beneficial for animal husbandry where knowing the specific needs of each animal is key for animal welfare as well as productivity. In food processing it also makes a difference for the quality of the final product as a deep knowledge of materials, specific per variety, lot, origin etc. is required.

A wide range of sensors and actuators became available in the last years. A rational use of the information they provide can allow a thorough “precision farming” in the sense of farming in tune with site specific needs, potentials and environmental sensitivities, so escaping from the need to simplify farming operations that lead to homogeneous practices. The possibility to monitor conditions remotely can also allow to bring back areas in agricultural use that have been considered too remote or too marginal (see this IoF2020 case of cow grazing monitor).

4) The organic certification system badly needs to strengthen its reliability and get rid of the bureaucratic burden. A key element is to make full use of available data and interlink the sources of such data, that are managed by different public authorities or private bodies. A theoretically “simple” connection of data sources would already benefit the certification system and relieve farmers. Besides, sensors at farm, stable, plant etc. level can support the certification process and maintain the control in-between the audits. The Covid-19 emergency made the search for remote alternatives to “live” audits, or at least for mixed systems. An example in an IoF2020 case.

Any concerns?

As in the case of the majority of IT systems, data ownership is still an open question and farmers risk losing control over their own data to the actors who find it extremely valuable such as tech sellers, input providers, and value chain managers.

The interoperability of systems and databases is urgent, but far from being achieved. Famers need tools that can deal with all their data, preferably in one app, are intuitive, user-friendly and not requiring multiple subscriptions or providers to run.  Overall, commercial interests, data ownership and privacy constraints are posing serious questions on how to manage it, but a solution should be found.

To conclude, the road to a full and successful exploitation of IoT potential in the farming world should reverse the current approach: farmers needs should lead the development and not the tech business.

Authors: Yulia Barabanova (IFOAM Organics Europe) and Cristina Micheloni (Associazione Italiana per l’Agricoltura Biologica)

The Internet of Food & Farm 2020 project is a large-scale pilot under Horizon 2020 investigating and fostering large-scale implementation of the Internet of Things in European food and farming. IFOAM Organics Europe is a project partners and represents that European organic movement.

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IoF2020 has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 731884. This communication only reflects the author’s view. The Research Executive Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.

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