Science and technology for the agro-food sector

The Food Industry Cluster Association of Castile and Leon (VITARTIS) has published a book titled “Food of the Future” in which they included one of my articles. In this article I allude to the need of implementing technology in our agriculture and livestock industries.

“The countryside floods the city; the rural mass is a terrible chain that citizens carry on their feet. All political and cultural progress is blunted in the countryside. We lose to rurality and this can only be cured by industrializing agriculture and introducing new machinery in the fields. “

One century ago, Miguel de Unamuno spoke about the reality of the rural world. As a greatly inquisitive and committed man, he was hurt by the backwardness of villages and the working conditions in the fields, which had hardly advanced since the Roman plough.

No doubt he would be pleasantly surprised if he visited an agricultural or livestock farm today in Castile and Leon. In half a century, the changes they have experienced, with the help of science and technology, have been spectacular. From artificial fertilizers and genetic improvement of the species, to the use of specialized machines.

The agricultural sector accounts for 2.5% of the Spanish GDP. A high percentage in comparison to Germany (0.7%) or France (1.7%), and even two tenths above that of our neighbour, Portugal (2.3%). It employs more than one million people, and is the driving force and the raison d’être of almost all rural areas.

Science is also engaged in agriculture and livestock, and this can be seen by visiting the University of Salamanca, where we have excellent research groups that devote part of their work to improvements in the fields. We also have a specialized centre, CIALE, based in the Villamayor Science Park, which has been carrying out R & D activities in agriculture and agronomy for the past 15 years.

With regard to information and communication technologies (ICT), the applications are many and varied. Those who attended the Salamaq 15 fair could see that for themselves.

In agricultural and livestock activities there is one factor that country people value especially, and that is efficiency. Work has been professionalized, and in order to obtain the best yields, not only a lot of effort is needed, but also the tools and processes that allow us to make the most of the farms with the least amount of time and money.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of participating in a professional workshop organized by the Food Industry Cluster Association of Castile and Leon on the application of industry 4.0 to the agro-food sector. We talked about how technologies and sectors such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things contribute to the field, and it was very nice to see how businessmen in the sector value and appreciate the role of science and technology in their work.

I think of relatively simple processes, such as the automatic irrigation or the feeding of livestock, where technology has been helping farmers and ranchers for years. But what if we add the power of new advances in computing to the systems which are already in use? Do you imagine being able to reuse the surplus energy from power plants in greenhouses? It can be done, and in fact we are already working on it in collaboration with a university in South Korea.

One of the main problems of rural farms is security. What can ICTs do to guarantee their owners the integrity of their facilities? Practically everything from monitoring the activity inside and outside the buildings to connecting the information obtained by cameras, microphones and sensors with the security forces.

The possibilities of scientific and technological developments are infinite and so is their use. New technological inventions, such as 3D printers, offer unimaginable potential for farmers and ranchers, who can model their own tools or parts directly, accurately and at a low cost.

Of course, not everything is so easy. A lot of research is required until visible changes could be made on farms by introducing these new developments. R & D projects, publications, doctoral theses, congresses … Research, after all, that serves as support for the applications that reach the market. We wouldn´t have a fertilizer sector without chemical research nor animals and plant improvements without genetics.

We live in a world whose changes rapidly and profoundly affect all activities, including agriculture and livestock. Today’s camp is not that of the Unamuno era. Nor the university. It is worth reflecting on this and assessing what for a sector with the importance it has for the region involves collaboration with researchers.

We live in a world where changes affect all our activities in a rapid and profound way and that includes agriculture and livestock. Today´s farms are not those of Unamuno´s era, nor is the University. It is worth reflecting on this and assessing the importance of this sector for our region and the importance of collaboration with researchers.

We should think about it the next time we sit at the table.

Juan Manuel Corchado

Full Professor in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, Department of Computer Science and Automation, University of Salamanca, Spain.


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