Forbes – The world needed to get smarter about sustainable agriculture about five minutes ago.
According to the United Nations, the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. To feed those people, experts from the World Resource Institute say food production must increase anywhere from 50 to 70 percent.
But agriculture can have devastating effects on the environment because of its thirst for water, carbon emissions from transportation, and excessive fertilizer use resulting in pollution. To meet these challenges, a farming organization in Argentina called the Asociacion de Cooperativas Argentinas (ACA), uses digital agriculture to grow food more efficiently, profitably and sustainably.
Argentina has a longstanding tradition as one of the world’s largest agricultural producers. The country has a vast network of industrial and small-holder farmers; it is one of the world’s top suppliers of soy and exports large amounts of wheat, corn, fruits and other crops. This makes Argentina the perfect testing ground for organizations like the ACA to transform its agricultural sector using innovative new technologies.
ACA, which was founded in 1922 and is based in Buenos Aires, supports over 140 cooperatives and more than 50,000 farmers across seven provinces. It helps large and small producers across the supply chain by offering supplies, advice and services including grain storage, transport and foreign trade assistance.
Now the organization is building a software solution that promises to make agriculture more sustainable both for the planet and farmers. Horacio Balussi, Chief Information Officer for ACA, says, “Last year we decided to create an open digital platform for farmers and others that helps them produce more with less cost and environmental impact.”
The new system uses innovative technology such as machine learning, geospatial data analysis and cloud computing to provide farmers with real-time advice and recommendations. As Balussi explains, the challenge was to create a system that could analyze data from multiple sources in real time, gain visibility into each stage of farming, and deliver recommendations automatically to farmers.
“This is precision agriculture – we can reduce inputs and improve production. In three to four years, we hope for a 10 percent increase in production by using technology,” said Balussi.
With geospatial data from satellites and drones, the organization can monitor ambient soil conditions, which indicate fields’ potential productivity. This data can be combined with other sources – like weather and business data – to understand real-time conditions for farmers and make smart, real-time recommendations. The system also provides ACA with an easier way to detect and prevent incidents like pest infestation or water shortages, and Balussi believes this will help the ACA to mitigate potentially costly damage to crops.
To create the solution, ACA turned to SAP, the global enterprise software provider. Since ACA was already an SAP customer (ACA implemented SAP S/4HANA as its ERP system in November 2018), the partnership made sense and will enable the organization to exploit the data already within SAP applications.
In preparation for the project, the ACA participated in an early-adopter program for SAP’s spatial services. Balussi says, “SAP HANA Spatial Services lets us obtain and combine different data sets and then run machine learning algorithms against them to deliver definitive analytic information – and create specific recommendations for farmers.” The solution uses SAP HANA, an in-memory database, and the SAP Analytic Cloud, allowing ACA to easily store, distribute and deliver information.
A team of agronomists at ACA has trained the machine learning algorithm using appropriate information for the region and the crops it supports. With such precise data, the group take preventive action when it spots anomalies.
Balussi describes some potential benefits. As the data platform matures, it will help ACA better understand the optimal conditions for cultivation on a crop-by-crop basis. Balussi says, “We can alert farmers that certain crops may require less fertilizer or water than used previously. With that insight, producers can minimize both the cost of fertilizer, the use of natural resources and the environmental impact of Argentina’s agricultural sector.”
Moving forward, Balussi says, “We want to create a social network and social mapping. So a farmer can put an alert out that there’s a certain pest or disease in the region and they can easily share that information.” Farmers will also be able to compare results and other statistical information anonymously.
The ACA works with the Argentinian government to promote its system as an agricultural best practice and has won awards for the its commitment to sustainability. But as Balussi says, “Right now our objective is to create a modern, digital agricultural system so farmers can produce more, with few resources while being sustainable. That is the challenge we set for ourselves.”