Unless you are a vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan, chances are you would not let a juicy ribeye steak pass you by. Would you? Even though countries may have different meat preferences, livestock products such as pork, chicken, beef, milk, or eggs are a daily feature on consumers' tables, from South America to East Asia. With meat consumption on the rise (according to the Health Organization, annual meat production is set to rise from 218 million tonnes - 1997-1999 rates - to 376 million tonnes by 2030), would it not be great to know exactly where your meat comes from and, more specifically, in which sort of environment our grass-fed beef got raised? Were the cattle treated fairly? Were they fed properly? The answers often remain unclear to consumers.

With the world’s population skyrocketing, food consumption, by default, rises at an unparalleled speed. Just as global systems try to figure out sustainable ways to feed the 9.7 billion people (Source: UN, 2020) expected to be sharing space on planet earth by 2050, the overarching issues on everyone's shopping baskets concern not just what the future has in store with regards to food production but also how the agriculture sector comes into the equation. How to ensure that food diversification can be achieved? How to deliver higher quality standards, whilst also ensuring that food is still affordable? How to produce food that uses less energy, land, water and emits less greenhouse gas while simultaneously bearing agricultural prosperity in an attempt to reduce rural depopulation? How to produce food that better respects animal welfare? These are just some challenges that surely give us plenty of food for thought.

Disruptive digital technologies to increase productivity in the agricultural sector

As consumers grow wary of the source and conditions of their food, so do the innovative businesses trying to tackle the issue. Ensuring that far more land - in sustainable conditions - is available for agricultural production as well as implementing sustainable farming methods are arguably few ways to go about it, it cannot be the sole answer to the problem. Applications centered around IoT and Open Source technologies could well be the missing puzzle piece as they present themselves as an important driver of production sectors across the board and its potential would be no different in the agriculture field. From urban farming and drones to robotic milkers, disruptive sustainable ideas speak volumes about the kind of innovation that can help fill the gap between production and citizens/consumers’ expectations and in turn, and potentially help preserve the world's biodiversity.

As we look into the digital future, technologies such as Big Data, AI, blockchain, to name but a few, step in as potential answers to sustainable farm productivity, whilst also promoting animal welfare. Blockchain, in particular, is already reshaping the industry’s long-established (in many cases archaic) methods by helping farmers control and analyse livestock, for instance. By keeping an eye on the herds' whereabouts in real-time, making sure they spend just about enough time grazing on green pastures, farmers thereby ensure beef and dairy products are accurately labeled as pasture-raised. These are just but a few ways in which disruptive technology has so far presented itself helpful.

The Cattechain project

A recent example of an initiative created to address the challenges particularly faced by the European livestock sector (but not limited to it), which includes an aging and rural depopulation, extensive reliance on public subsidies, growing demand from consumers and citizens regarding food quality, safety and traceability, far too high costs for implementing disruptive technologies (in the backdrop of uncertain guarantees of investment return). Coordinated and supported by Sensowave, FIWARE Foundation, Institut de l’Elevage (Idele) and Natrus, the aim of the Cattlechain project is to enhance farm productivity, guaranteeing cattle traceability and welfare with blockchain technologies, sensors and intuitive tools to support farmers in the decision-making process.

By using blockchain technology, the project seeks to ensure the traceability of livestock throughout the entire supply chain: a system in which it is possible to identify in real-time, through a cloud platform, the location and status (i.e. health, and reproductive condition) of herds in the field. With the labour force less inclined to work in farming, more than ever, farmers need innovative and competitive tools to increase productivity, efficiency and transparency along the supply chain.

Traditional paper tracking and manual inspection systems, which can leave supply chains vulnerable to inaccuracies, must make room for intuitive “decision support systems” that monitor devices tracking animals´ health and patterns and thereby, reduce operational costs. The aim of the project is to guarantee animal welfare indicators -automatically recorded-, by providing a single point of access to all the actors in the meat/dairy supply chain. Above all, given that farmers' daily lives tend to be fraught with hardship, the technological devices and systems implemented by the initiative are cost-efficient, user-friendly, easily replicable and based on Open Source technologies and international common standards.

Interoperability is of essence

Why is interoperability important? In order to successfully make it into the smart solutions market today, SmartAgri services and applications must be able to securely communicate with other services and devices, traversing a multitude of infrastructures and systems. As much as data collected from a single farm or regional location is of immense value, it’s simply not enough. Sharing data among themselves and within related industries is key for farmers. The more data is looked at and tracked, the more farmers will get their hands on effectively accurate insights.

The flexibility and affordability benefits must also be factored in. With Open Source, SmartAgri solution providers can easily build solutions on top of a free - and widely available - open platform. This means that available financial resources can then be used to boost other aspects of their businesses and farmers can be sure that the technological wave will not cost them more than they can afford. Moreover, there are technological gains to be considered. As a free Open Source software, FIWARE gives developers access to the source code, allowing them to enhance the application performance, add new features, and fix errors to benefit all.

Besides ensuring that the technological apparatus available to farmers has been built following an Open Source approach, Cattlechain closely follows FIWARE Foundation guidelines with regards to recognized standards that everybody can access, understand and easily implement when building solutions. Founded in 2016 by Atos, Engineering, Orange and Telefónica, FIWARE Foundation is a non-profit organization that drives the definition and encourages the adoption of open standards (implemented using Open Source technologies) that ease the development of smart solutions across the fields of Smart City, Smart Energy, Smart Agrifood and Smart Industry, based on FIWARE technology. Cattlechain is just one outstanding example of how the FIWARE Community is helping cities and rural areas to deliver their digital vision, focused on sustainability. Simplifying agricultural processes by making them automated is a reality that will be taken further by this initiative. Still in a fairly early stage, Cattlechain aims to deliver, among many other features, the following:

- Optimized meat and dairy supply chain: Producing high-quality food with animal well-being and a low ecological footprint in mind is one of the greatest challenges faced by livestock production farmers. To meet such requirements, farmers are constantly investing more into their properties, resulting in high-value farms and an increasing need to store, track and monitor all assets and this is where innovation comes in handy. With traditional supply chains, livestock retailers tend to feel at sea when it comes down to ensuring that the products they are buying were raised under the conditions specified by the supplier. With IoT-based technologies, farmers can seamlessly and proactively turn the agriculture sector into a smart and by far more sustainable one.

- Easier approach to storing and accessing data: All data can be collected with the help of IoT sensors, RFID microchips and wearable devices such as digital collars, for example. Data such as weather forecasts and the health conditions of cattle can be stored in one single platform, allowing livestock farmers to easily access and analyze data to make far better- informed decisions and plan modifications for the long run. A simple example can be drawn from the case of extreme weather conditions: extreme dry fields, for example, compromise the nutritional value of pastures, resulting in breeding herds and daily gains of stocker calves to be lower;

- Food safety and nutrition: More and more, consumers grow fond of the understanding that animals that are raised in healthier conditions bring a number of relevant benefits to the table, such as improved food safety, better nutrition, and enhanced flavor. This allows farmers to set prices more efficiently and effectively and hence manage their output to match the demand for their products. In short, mapping the meat journey from the farm to consumers’ table is essential to ensure customers remain loyal and confident.