Tech to listen to plant needs, a looming crises spotted

Image crated using Ai. Image prompted by Marcus Moloko

By 2034, environmental challenges will pose significant threats, including extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and resource shortages, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) offers a promising solution by enabling us to heed early warnings from our planet.

Speaking on World Environment Day 2024, Angelo Fienga, Cisco’s director of sustainable solutions for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), highlighted the benefits of IoT technology.

“It’s not just about environmental sustainability,” he said. “This technology helps farmers preserve soil, save water, and grow their businesses responsibly.”

This technology is crucial in emerging markets like South Africa, where agriculture is a major job creator and essential for the nation’s food supply. However, climate change-induced droughts present significant challenges to the industry.

To illustrate IoT’s impact, Fienga shared an initiative Cisco is implementing in partnership with the ConSenso Project. This collaboration involves Tanzanian espresso farmers and Italian plant and technology researchers working together to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture. This project uses IoT technology to monitor soil conditions and optimize water usage, enhancing sustainability and productivity.

Harnessing IoT for environmental monitoring and resource management offers a proactive approach to addressing climate change impacts. By leveraging this technology, we can better prepare for and mitigate the adverse effects on economies and societies, ensuring a more sustainable future.

From Bean to Brew: A Sustainable Journey

“There’s nothing like a steaming hot morning brew to start the day,” he notes, “but before it reaches your mug, its journey begins on a coffee bean farm — often in the developing world and, increasingly, impacted by climate change.”

What’s emerging is a solution that could be economically beneficial for the growers, better for the planet and excellent news for coffee lovers everywhere. Getting the growing conditions right, even where water is becoming an ever-scarcer resource, is critical for the cultivation of coffee with the right balance of sweetness and acidity.

“Due to climate change, growers in Tanzania are facing a reduction in the rainy season,” explains Dr Camilla Pandolfi of PNAT, a think tank of plant scientists and technology designers based in Florence, Italy.

“So, they are rinsing to ensure that the plants flower at the right time and give the beans a chance to ripen. That means a lot of water is used.”

IoT: Listening to the language of plants

“Technology is helping farmers know when to irrigate and how much, among other things,” highlights Fienga. The Tunasikia Farm in Utengule, Tanzania, has been fitted with 65 solar-powered IoT sensors that capture a wealth of data on soil, sun, climate, carbon capture, insects, and the plant’s electrical energy fields, which can reveal the state of their well-being and needs. After preliminary on-site analysis, the data — six months’ worth so far — is sent to Florence for further study, with support from Cisco networking, security, and cloud technologies.

Tanzania is among the 20 largest coffee-producing countries in the world. So, helping the farmers navigate challenging conditions is essential to their success and that of the nation. Moreover, the technologies employed here could be scaled in other regions.

“Many developing nations grow coffee — Africa, South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and other places,” points out Massimo Battaglia, coffee research leader at Accademia del Caffè Espresso in Florence, another ConSenso partner. “And we aim to roll out this kind of solution worldwide.”

“It’s my dream, he says, “for this technology to help families have a better standard of living. The value chain for coffee is long and complicated, but the first part — the growers — is sometimes neglected.”

Beyond Coffee: A Global Solution

Cisco LoRaWAN, a radio-transmission technology known for its long-distance data transmission and low-power consumption, is among the solutions helping to connect the sensors while enabling local, preliminary data analysis. Cisco cloud and LTE technologies further support the secure transfer of data to Florence and back. And Cisco Webex enables real-time, secure collaboration between project members in Tanzania and Florence.

“The technology allows us to understand the language of the plants,” outlines Michele Festuccia, senior systems engineer manager for Cisco Italy. “This is a perfect solution to help the farmers have a more sustainable footprint and the best chance of success.”

At the same time, the ability of coffee plants to store carbon dioxide (CO2), thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere, is being studied. This could be a significant benefit in the fight against climate change. “We are thinking that, along with other reforestation efforts around the world, coffee plants can have a significant impact,” adds Festuccia.

Dr Pandolfi believes that coffee plants and carefully chosen shade trees could be particularly adept at capturing carbon, but more research is needed. “We are now developing our models and dashboard for monitoring carbon which will be another exciting outcome. We want to demonstrate how coffee farming can become a carbon sink, helping to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Looking Forward: Expanding the impact

Fienga is enthusiastic about the potential of additional technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). “Through our technologies and connectivity, we can transfer massive amounts of data. When properly trained, AI can extract insights from that data in ways that humans cannot. This approach has vast potential in any field with large datasets, including agriculture.”

Deploying these solutions beyond coffee is a key goal, especially as climate change continues to disrupt agriculture globally. As Battaglia succinctly concludes, “We just need to listen to what the plants are telling us.”

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