EYNR46 Shepherd on quad bike herding sheep on hillside, Glenburn, Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand
Drone potential: sheep farming by quad bike is neither time nor fuel efficient © Alamy

In the blue skies above a livestock farm in New Zealand, a drone flies over flocks of sheep. In the office below, Neil Gardyne, the family farm’s owner, uses the images to identify ewes that are having trouble lambing or newborns that have become separated from their mothers, known as cast sheep.

Instead of a two-hour drive around the 678-hectare farm, the drone sweep takes 30 minutes. This means sorties can be made more frequently, increasing the chances of rescuing distressed sheep and, as a result, the number of deaths of lost newborns on Gardyne’s farm has halved. The drone also checks on water troughs, saving the farm more money by reducing machinery running costs.

Mr Gardyne’s hope is that drone technology will soon become advanced enough for him to monitor the rate at which his pasture grows. This would help increase lamb production, potentially boosting his income by US$200 a hectare.

Drones are just one way in which agricultural production can be taken to new heights. Others are needed if food production is to keep pace with anticipated demand in new and more sustainable ways.

The UN estimates a global increase of 2bn people to 9bn by 2050, when agricultural consumption is likely to be 60 per cent higher than it was in 2005. Feeding this growing population “while nurturing the planet will be a monumental challenge”, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The world has managed, so far, to produce enough food for its growing population — at least in theory. One in nine people still do not have enough to eat but this sad fact reflects more on social and political systems than on the global volume of food produced.

As the Rome-based FAO says: “There is more than enough food today produced to feed everyone in the world, yet close to 800m are chronically hungry. As the affordability of food largely relates to income, ensuring access to food remains one of the key pillars of food security and the wider anti-poverty agenda.”

The challenge now is to grow more food on existing farms because the area of new land suitable for agricultural cultivation is limited. The amount of land cultivated for arable crops expanded by 14 per cent between 1961 and 2007, but there will only be another 10 per cent of new land available in the next 40 years, according to figures from the FAO and Rabobank, a Dutch co-operative lender.

Food production

Over the past 40 years, yields from crops increased by 77 per cent, boosted by the widescale application of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate fertilisers. But the FAO estimates that yields will need to increase by a similar proportion in the next 40 years — a daunting task without another technological leap. “Intensification, higher yields and more intensive use of land, needs to contribute 90 per cent of the growth in global crop production to 2050,” an FAO report claimed.

The same goes for meat production. The FAO forecasts higher numbers of cattle, pigs and poultry in 2050, but also expects each animal to be bigger than today in order to meet demand for livestock and dairy production. This leap is being demanded at a time when, at least in the developed world, consumers are increasingly questioning intensive farming and demanding more local and natural food.

Environmental activists such as Greenpeace are opposed to genetic modification and are lobbying for more research into different types of biotechnology application. “Growing of diverse ‘smart’ crop varieties that are capable of producing more with less will be critical to achieve increases in crop yield within a framework of ecological agriculture,” Greenpeace says, highlighting the potential of so-called “marker-assisted selection” or “smart breeding”. Instead of genetic engineering, this process makes use of conventional genetic breeding to build new crop varieties.

As Pat Juskiw, a plant breeder with the Field Crop Development Centre in Alberta, Canada, explains: “The whole idea of genomics and marker-assisted selection is amazing. We will not be cutting and slicing genes to make GMOs, but the new technology will help us find gene combinations that naturally occur.”

Such research requires funding and the amount of investment into the agri-technology sector is on the rise with start-up investment increasing from $500m in 2010 to $4.2bn last year, according to AgFunder, the online investment site.

But the banking group, which specialises in financing in this area, says there is a need for much more investment, especially in areas such as big data, which it believes play an important role in improving agricultural efficiency. For farmers, the use of big data would involve feeding information into a single database. Algorithms would then be applied to create products and methods to improve productivity.

Justin Sherrard, global strategist for food and agribusiness research at Rabobank, says there are large gains to be made from the application of big data by retailers as well as farmers. “We need more investment to boost production from farm to fork — from farming to traders, processors and distributors,” he says.

Retailers, in particular, already have access to customer data via loyalty cards, which they can process to cut down on food waste. For years, Walmart in the US has been analysing the shopping patterns of its customers against weather data and has found useful correlations: people eat more steak when the weather is warm and windy, for example, but not when it rains. The most popular temperature for eating berries is when the weather is under 27 degrees centigrade with low winds. Analysing such seemingly mundane patterns means the retailer can tailor its orders from producers to meet customer demand, while also reducing waste.

But how can the world’s poorest farmers, the 2.5bn who depend on farming for a subsistence livelihood, gain access to this kind of investment and innovation? Bain, a consultancy, points out that micro-drip irrigation systems, drought-resistant hybrid seeds and asset-backed microloans can completely change the livelihood of farmers with less than two hectares of land who earn less than $4 a day.

In a report part-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bain highlighted the importance of entrepreneurial private sector companies that often invest when government and traditional aid agencies have fallen short, based on research in south Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The situation of subsistence farmers in the developing world is poles apart from technologically-advanced businesses such as the farm in New Zealand where Mr Gardyne now has a list of 400 applications for drone technology. But the inspiration for innovative ideas can come from unlikely sources. The idea for applying drones to farming, for instance, came to Mr Gardyne from a television programme about the war in Afghanistan.

“I was watching the documentary with my son Mark and we were looking at how unmanned aerial systems were being operated for military purposes. It got us thinking how we could use such technology on our farm,” Mr Gardyne says.

This article has been amended since publication to attribute the figure for start-up investment in the agri-technology sector to AgFunder, the online investment site.

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