How the Internet of Crops is solving the issue of food waste

It’s not every day that you meet a tech startup with a team that includes an agronomist and entomologist

One of the great things about IoT is that it’s a sector that utilizes technology to solve problems that have plagued traditional industries for centuries. An example of that issue of food waste in agriculture.

According to UN FAO data, approximately $1 trillion in produced crops is annually lost post-harvest. This includes the various stages — from farm, to shelf, to fork. Even in technologically advanced regions such as the EU, post-harvest losses for grains and cereals are often more than 10%, with higher percentages seen in developing countries in Africa or in industrialized Asia. These losses are incurred during raw material storage, processing  — milling, for example — and distribution in the logistics chain.

One company that is responding to the challenge of food waste with IoT technology is Centaur Analytics, the first full stack IoT company that provides real-time stored agri-products monitoring and protection solutions. They develop and market end-to-end solutions for the Internet of Things, focused on the quality and safety of stored goods. Their mission is to dramatically increase post-harvest yields and eliminate waste from farm to shelf.

I recently spoke to Dr. Sotiris Bantas, co-founder and CEO of Centaur Analytics about their work. He explained a bit about the need for their role:

“We’re basically losing about 1/3 of our annual output on a global scale, people have crunched the numbers and its the 1 million loss more severe in the developing world e.g. Africa, wheat, corn are often with insect infestation leading to spoilage, 17% in the developed world are not used for food or processing, are either dumped or used for animal feed or maybe biofuel. But a lot is really wasted and goes down the drain basically. So we’ve been working with our own experts in the field e.g. we have our own agronomists, entomologists are stored product specialists that have actually helped us specify a solution along the lines of monitoring sensors and software analytics.”

What goes wrong in crop storage

Storing crops is a tricky process. Most farmed crops are stored in massive quantities in big metal containers like silos, an environment that is susceptible to a range of challenges like moisture, temperature and insect infestation.

Traditionally methods of managing these challenges have involved  farmers  physically visiting their silo or storage container in person by testing each one individually  — not an exact science — and provide treatments. Insect infestation is particularly problematic.

As well as eating crops, insects increase the moisture levels within the storage containers, which can further spoil the crops. Bantas explained that treatment typically involved a fumigants such as phosphine which is administered over a set number of days, typically up to a week.

“Fumigation is used for all kinds of crops: tobacco leaves, flowers, grain, rice , feeds, fruit fresh, died and so on, people have been fighting this product with fumigating gases but have been doing so without monitoring,”  Bantas said.

The problem is that while fumigation can eradicate the problem, if the temperature of the container is too low, the dosage is incorrect or the duration of treatment too short, it can “harden they insects and they mutate and grow into something stronger, making treatment ineffective.” Bantas noted that their work reveals that many farmers have traditionally been underdosing, using less fumigation or they have been doing it without keeping the actual treatment durations.

Centaur has developed proprietary wireless sensors which are designed to “sniff” crop storage conditions inside shipping containers, grain bins, and storage bunkers. This is notable as most sensors cannot transmit from within a metal storage container, like those typically used to store farmed crops.

Behind the scenes, entomological models are applied to the data stream and predictive analysis is passed to the end user. Importantly, the sensors mean that crops can be monitored in a range of scenarios including ship carriers and transportation which may take weeks or months. “Basically it helps users be proactive in terms of the fumigation and pest control practices that they should be following to ensure the product is safe and properly sanitized,” Bantas explained.

The sensor tech is also able to anticipate problems through temperature monitoring. “You can also monitor for a hot spot. A hot spot usually means there’s an infestation or spoilage starting so if you have advanced early warning you can take measures.” said Bantas.

The farmer has become connected

Farmers are becoming more technologically sophisticated. Bantas attributes this in part to the fact that farmers in general are way more educated than previous generations and with the advent of the smartphone and the tablet people become closer to technology. He notes,

“Technology has become so easy to use its a no brainer for a farmer to use a tablet to gain information about the weather pattern will be like in the next few days and thus when to harvest their crops. Conversely for our users, it’s becoming a no-brainer that they should not have to visit the silo to check if the wheat is damp or the what smells funny, they actually have an alarm notification about a possible problem in the storage facility. ”

Centaur recently announced a $1.3 million funding round. It’s a great achievement for any startup, particularly in Greece’s economically challenged startup environment. They company is in a great position as the first mover in this sector, having created a globally relevant solution to a problem affecting farmers from Australia to Algeria. The issue of food security is one that impacts not only current but future generations and technology like that developed by Centaur provides an important solution to some of the challenges.

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