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Olive and algorithm: Is technology key to food security?

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

Olive oil and algorithm have nothing in common per se but the latter is saving the first one as farmers are going high-tech.

Soil maps, GPS guidance and drones are now basic tools for modern farmers that want to improve their lands’ productivity. People working in the fields don’t till the soil under the sun anymore, but are collecting data on the acidity of the soil and the humidity of the air through specific devices.

The so called Precision Agriculture promises to increase the quantity and quality of agricultural output while using less input (water, energy, fertilizers, pesticides…), as it is explained in a study by the Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) of the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS).

Precision Agriculture methods rely upon a combination of new sensor technologies, satellite navigation and positioning technology with the aim of creating a tailor made service for the field that saves costs, reduces environmental impact and produces more and better food.

These methods can help increase yields and efficiency, and save money too, but how does it work exactly? Can we quantify (and monetize) the benefits?

Italian company Elaisian, for example, provides access to a platform from which the farmer receives all the information on the status of its plants, sending via email or text messages advices on when and how to intervene, if action is needed.

Cultivation data

Data on the cultivation are transmitted through one device installed every two hectares that guarantees real time monitoring. “By using machine learning algorithms we are able to prevent diseases and to optimize cultivation processes like irrigation and fertilization”, said Damiano Angelici, olive oil producer and CEO of Elaisian, adding that this technology is easily applicable to small and big farms.

“Every year, on average, 60 percent of olive oil production is lost because they haven’t efficient tools. Today we want to digitalize all the processes and innovating and safeguarding olive cultivation”, Angelici explained to Al Arabiya English.

“We are now working in Italy, but we are getting ready to expand especially in the Mediterranean area, like in Spain, Tunisia and Morocco” said Angelici, suggesting the Gulf region could be next, as they have received requests also from African countries like Namibia.

This method that combines the power of science and food security can trigger massive benefits by increasing production by 10-20 percent, optimizing the use of water by 14 percent and improving the vitality of the plants. Money wise, costs can drop by 20-30 percent according to Angelici.

Greatest returns

According to National Geographic report, by using high tech, small farms (800 acres) saw an average annual benefit of $11,000, typical size farms (1,600 acres) of $26,000 and large farms of 2,400 acres saw the greatest return with $39,000, with the technology paying for itself in less than two years.

If this wasn’t convincing enough, Precision Agriculture has a geopolitical aspect too as it is giving a chance to those countries with limited territory or adverse weather conditions to emerge as food exporters. The Netherlands is an example.

Small and densely populated, the Netherlands lacks conventional sources for large-scale agriculture, but, mainly through innovative agricultural practice, has become the globe’s second largest exporter of food as measured by value. It has been beaten only by the United States, which has 270 times its landmass.

Photos by Luca Locatelli telling the story of the Netherlands’ high tech greenhouses were awarded at the World Press Photos 2018. These agricultural methods represent a promise of food security.