The Impact of Optics and Photonics on the Agrifood Industry

The Impact of Optics and Photonics on the Agrifood Industry

Precision farming is essential in a world with over 10 billion people by 2050 and a food demand that is expanding at an exponential pace. The 2019 World Resources Report from the World Economic Forum warns that at the current level of food production efficiency, feeding the world in 2050 would require “clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough greenhouse gas emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement – even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.”

Technology can help the agrifood industry improve efficiency and meet these demands by combining robotics, machine vision, and small sensors to precisely and automatically determine the care needed by plants and animals in our food supply chain. This approach helps control and optimize food production, resulting in more sustainable crops, higher yields, and safer food.

Sensors based on integrated photonics can enable many of these precision farming applications. Photonic chips are lighter and smaller than other solutions so they can be deployed more easily in these agricultural use cases. The following article will provide examples of how integrated photonics and optical technology can add value to the agriculture and food industries.

How The World’s Tiny Agricultural Titan Minimizes Food Waste

The Netherlands is such a small country that if it were a US state, it would be among the ten smallest states, with a land area between West Virginia and Maryland. Despite its size, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) ranked the Netherlands as the second largest exporter of food in the world by revenue in 2020, only behind the Americans and ahead of countries like Germany, China, or Brazil. These nations have tens or hundreds of times more arable land than the Dutch.  Technology is a significant reason for this achievement, and the Dutch are arguably the most developed nation in the world regarding precision farming.

The hub of Dutch agrifood research and development is called the Food Valley, centered in the municipality of Wageningen in Gelderland province. In this area, many public and private R&D initiatives are carried out jointly with Wageningen University, a world-renowned leader in agricultural research.

When interviewed last year, Harrij Schmeitz, Director of the Fruit Tech Campus in Geldermalsen, mentions the example of a local fruit supplier called Fruitmasters. They employ basic cameras to snap 140 photographs of each apple that travels through the sorting conveyor, all within a few milliseconds. These photographs are used to automatically create a 3D model and help the conveyor line filter out the rotten apples before they are packaged for customers. This process was done manually in the past, so this new 3D mapping technology significantly improves efficiency.

These techniques are not just constrained to Gelderland, of course. Jacob van den Borne is a potato farmer from Reusel in the province of North Brabant, roughly a half-hour drive from EFFECT Photonics’ Eindhoven headquarters. Van den Borne’s farm includes self-driving AVR harvesters (shown in the video below), and he has been using drones in his farms since 2011 to photograph his fields and study the soil quality and farming yield.

The drone pictures are used to create maps of the fields, which then inform farming decisions. Van den Borne can study the status of the soil before farming, but even after crops have sprouted, he can study which parts of the field are doing poorly and need more fertilization. These measures prevent food waste and the overuse of fertilizer and pesticides. For example, Van den Borne’s farms have eliminated pesticide chemicals in their greenhouses while boosting their yield. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is around nine tons, but his farms yield more than 20 tons per acre!

If you want to know more about Van den Borne and his use of technology and data, you can read this article.

Lighting to Reduce Power Consumption and Emissions

Artificial lighting is a frequent requirement of indoor plant production facilities to increase production and improve crop quality. Growers are turning to LED lighting because it is more efficient than traditional incandescent or fluorescent systems at converting electricity to light. LED lights are made through similar semiconductor manufacturing processes to photonics chips.

LED lighting also provides a greater variety of colors than the usual yellow/orange glow. This technology allows gardeners to pick colors that match each plant’s demands from seedlings through cultivation, unlike high-pressure sodium or other traditional lighting systems. Different colors of visible light create different chlorophyll types in plants, so LED lights can be set to specific colors to provide the best chlorophyll for each development stage.

For example, suppose you roam around the Westland municipality of the Netherlands. You might occasionally catch a purple glow in the night skies, which has nothing to do with UFOs or aliens wanting to abduct you. As explained by Professor Leo Marcelis of Wageningen University (see the above video), researchers have found that red light is very good for plant growth, and mixing it with five to ten percent blue light gives even better results. Red and blue are also the most energy-efficient colors for LEDs, which helps reduce energy consumption even more. As a result, the farmers can save on light and energy use while the environment profits too.

Improving Communication Networks in the Era of Sensors

Modern farmers like Jacob van den Borne collect a large quantity of sensor data, which allows them to plan and learn how to provide plants with the perfect amount of water, light, and nutrients at the proper moment. Farmers can use these resources more efficiently and without waste thanks to this sensor information.

For example, Van den Borne uses wireless, Internet-of-Things sensors from companies like Sensoterra (video below) to gauge the soil’s water level. As we speak, researchers in the OnePlanet Research Center, a collaboration including the Imec R&D organization and Wageningen University, are developing nitrogen sensors that run on optical chips and can help keep nitrogen emissions in check.

These sensors will be connected to local servers and the internet for faster data transfer, so many of the issues and photonics solutions discussed in previous articles about the cloud edge and access networks are also relevant for agrifood sensors. Thus, improving optical communication networks will also impact the agrifood industry positively.


In a future of efficient high-tech and precision farming, optics and photonics will play an increasingly important role.

Optical sensors on a chip can be fast, accurate, small, and efficient. They will provide food producers with plenty of data to optimize their production processes and monitor the environmental impact of food production. Novel lighting methods can reduce the energy consumption of greenhouses and other indoor plant facilities. Meanwhile, photonics will also be vital to improving the capacity of the communications networks that these sensors run in.

With photonics-enabled precision processes, the agrifood industry can improve yields and supply, optimize resource use, reduce waste throughout the value chain, and minimize environmental impact.

Corlia van Tonder

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