This blog was guest-written by Brandi DeCarli, Founding Partner of Farm from a Box.
Every aspect of our modern-day lives has been impacted by technology. From cloud and robotics to digital currency and drones, our lives are inextricably tied to the technology that surrounds us. While farming may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of technology, it has played a key role in changing the face of agriculture and our global food system.
In the past 50 years, the Green Revolution has pushed to increase crop yields through large-scale intensification of single crops. Advances in mechanized farming allowed for larger and larger acreage to be farmed. By focusing on the large-scale intensification of a single crop, the natural checks and balances that diverse ecosystems provide were no longer in place.
To maintain production, it required heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, which has directly impacted soil fertility and ecosystems around the globe. Now, with 40% of our agricultural soil degraded and 70% of our freshwater resources being gulped up by agriculture, it is clear that our current approach is not sustainable.
While advances in technology have enabled global agricultural production to increase with our growing population, those gains came at an unprecedented environmental cost. As we work to feed a growing global population, the environmental pressures will continue to increase.
By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow by more than two billion people. Half will be born in Sub-Saharan Africa, and another 30 percent in South and Southeast Asia. Those regions are also where the effects of climate change are expected to hit hardest.
So, how can make sure that the growing need for food worldwide is met in an ecologically sustainable way? And what role can technology play? The opportunity may be in shifting our focus from mass production to production by the masses.
An estimated 70% of the world’s food comes from small, rural farms that are no bigger, on average, than two acres. And despite the increase in large-scale industrialized farms, small, rural farms are still the backbone of our global food supply. But these rural areas are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The challenges of drought, degraded soil, and inefficient and labor-intensive methods contribute to and exacerbate low and unreliable crop production. Without access to the infrastructure or technologies that can support a productive farm, farmers will either struggle with low yields, depend on chemical inputs that further deplete the soil, or rely on outside aid.
This is where Farm from a Box comes in.
Farm from a Box works to bridge the “access” gap by providing a complete, off-grid toolkit for sustainable, tech-powered agriculture. Built from a modified shipping container, each unit contains a complete ecosystem of smart farm technologies to enhance agricultural productivity; from renewable power and micro-drip irrigation to Information and Communications Technology equipment.
Designed as the “Swiss-Army knife” of farming, this mobile infrastructure provides all the tools needed to support a two-acre farm. By empowering farmers to grow and sustain food production at the community level, we build greater resilience to climate shocks, boost livelihoods, and help bridge the access gap by making healthy food locally available.
With its own off-grid power, Farm from a Box can act as its own micro-grid in remote locations; drip irrigation helps save water and stabilize crops through drought conditions while also extending the growing season; internal cold-storage helps keep crops fresher longer, reducing post-harvest loss by 80%; Wi-Fi connectivity improves information access and exchange; and a cloud-based IoT system helps monitor production and efficiencies.
By introducing micro-irrigation, we can extend the growing season and better support a wide variety of crops throughout the year, while lowering the amount the water used by applying it directly to the plant. The off-grid power array and storage provide a reliable energy source to power the pump, move the water through the irrigation lines, cool the internal cold storage area, and support the charging of auxiliary needs.
We have also connected each unit with Wi-Fi capabilities and a complete IoT system to improve operational efficiency, optimize water and energy use, and provide guidance on farm management and market information. Because we have integrated sensors on all of the primary systems, we can monitor and control the performance of the system, and also set alerts for when a component dips below or exceeds certain levels.
Let me give you an example of how this applies in a real-world situation. We recently teamed up with the United Nations World Food Programme Tanzania and WFP’s Innovation Accelerator to support food and nutrition security for refugee and host communities. Our Farm from a Box system will be used to increase the availability of nutritious crops, provide low-cost agricultural commodities and, through increased production, boost the income levels for both refugees and the surrounding host communities.
Because the farm is operating in a remote location in eastern Tanzania, information becomes a vital component to ensuring the system is working as it should be, and the farmers have the data they need to know what is happening and why. Through our cloud-based IoT system, both the community and the WFP has open access to see how much energy the solar panels are producing, how much water is being used, and if the overall system is functioning properly.
Now, technology for the sake of technology isn’t a standalone solution; how it is utilized in overall value creation is where we find the real impact. By marrying technology with small-scale regenerative farming practices, we can improve soil quality, reduce dependence on outside inputs, conserve water, and build up nutrients.
Techniques like composting, crop rotation and diversification, cover cropping, and no-till practices nurture the soil’s fertility and help produce a healthier crop. By shifting our focus from industrialized agriculture to local organic agriculture, we can potentially convert carbon from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset.
Farm from a Box is just one of many innovations that are working to empower smallholder farmers with sustainable solutions; there are vertical farm systems, small farm robots that automate field work, drones that use near-infrared and thermal sensors to “see” how plants are doing. Technological innovations like these can help us achieve better health, well-being, and equity throughout our planetary system as a whole.
But we need creative solutions, and sometimes that requires thinking outside of the box. I don’t come from a technological background, nor does my business partner, but we saw a problem and thought, “There must be a better way.” We all have the power to change our world for the better. Food is something that connects us all and has a direct impact on our everyday lives and environment.
When we first set out to start Farm from a Box, our intention was to create a mobile infrastructure that could provide people with the tools they need to grow their own nutritious food. Over time, that idea has grown; we now see Farm from a Box as a tool that could transform local production and nutritional security globally.
Whether it is a local school, community group, or remote village in an underdeveloped country, smallholder farmers are the ecological gatekeepers to building a more sustainable and equitable food supply. Technology has the potential to help solve the intractable problems facing humanity and will continue to play an increasingly vital role in global food security and planetary health. But it will require innovative thinking from all of us to achieve it.
Take your first step in joining us by registering today for our session in the Women Rock-IT Cisco TV series, “Global Problem Solvers Who are Guardians of Our Planet.”