AgriTech: 3+ Ways We Plan to Feed the Future
When we hear technology we think of electronic gadgets and a hundred types of software. But the problems of the future are going to be more basic.
Food, water, and shelter are important to talk about. They’re essential to sustain human life and limited in availability. Moreover, the increasing population and concentration of population in major cities will possibly lead to scarcity unless we take due action.
Farming and technology
This is not the first time we are seeing a population surge. Farming methods have evolved over the years to meet these growing demands in the form of farming tools, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, etc.
The earliest known tools were sticks and stones which were later replaced by knives, scythes, and plows. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that modern machines were used in agriculture.
Wheeled harvesters and threshers paved the way for steam-powered tractors. But the introduction of gasoline and diesel engines was the last great invention in agriculture technology.
Similarly, manure was partially replaced by chemical fertilizers such as Ammonium Sulphates and Urea.
The increase in yield due to the adoption of these devices has helped sustain the population growth so far. But society has never been this conscious about health or the environment.
The fact is, if we keep relying on the same methods to increase the yield, it will lead to an environmental catastrophe. Moreover, trends like ‘organic’ food are also going to impact agricultural practices of the future.
These trends are partially based on research that chemicals used in food get deposited in our bodies over time. The chemicals that go unabsorbed by the plants get washed away and pollute the water bodies.
Apart from these crops, animal husbandry, and farming of cotton and other non-edible plants are also undergoing similar trends and challenges.
This demand is not only affected by the world population but also by the economy and quality of life. People living a prosperous life tend to consume more, both in terms of quantity and variety.
On the other hand, it is projected that the number of farmers is going to decrease further. Growers who are older than 65 already outnumber the younger ones less than 45 years of age.
This shows the extent of urbanization and the receding interest of the youth in farming. At the same time, farming land is also decreasing as the cities are growing and more industries are being set up to feed them.
The farming needs of the future
To address these issues, the field of farm management has emerged and brought forth approaches such as precision farming.
Precision farming is the use of future farm technologies to distribute water, fertilizers, and pesticide in regulated amounts. Each plant gets the precise measure of substances required.
This reduces the cost by reducing excess amounts and increasing yield. It also moderates the use of chemicals, leading to healthier crops and better overall environmental impact.
The emerging research on agriculture technology can be used to achieve this and more.
Top future farming tools
OpenAg is a project by MIT's Media Lab that uses botany, machine-learning algorithms, and chemistry to optimize farm produce. The remarkable thing is that without using any genetic modification, the team was able to improve the flavor and medicinal qualities of plants such as Basil by simply controlling the environment.
Computer algorithms determine the optimal growing conditions to maximize the volatile compounds, which are primarily responsible for the taste.
The next challenge for OpenAg is to help farmers adapt to climate change. They plan on achieving this by using controlled simulations of the plants in hydroponic containers called ‘food computers’.
The use of drones is not a new concept in farming. Drones have seen experimental use in spraying fertilizers and pesticides.
The problem is still at large. A UN estimate suggests that 20–40% of global crop yields are destroyed due to pests and diseases.
Some universities and research groups such as Carnegie Mellon are experimenting with a combination of technologies to identify the problem at its inception and eliminate it.
Cameras mounted on drones can be used to survey the field for pests in the morning and suggest or even directly apply the counter-measures. Using cameras also lets us image infrared pictures that can pinpoint a disease before it spreads.
Scientists from Carnegie Mellon are already doing field tests with sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), a staple in many parts of Africa and a potential biofuel.
Agribotix is another example of drones being used in agriculture. Agribotix uses the principles of precision farming by applying pesticides just where it is needed and in the required quantity, reducing pesticide use to 0.1%.
3. Robotic agriculture
The topsoil is the most important agricultural resource. While there are factors such as soil erosion and moisture loss at play, one avoidable factor is the use of heavy equipment.
Large harvesters damage and compact the soil. Overusing fertilizers has a disastrous long term impact.
Bonirob is set to reduce this by taking the farmer out of the cockpit. As no one is needed to drive the machine, the size is reduced. This leads to a reduction in engine power and consequently, the weight.
What you get then, is a robot that can be used to measure soil quality, weed, harvest, thresh or even interbreed plants to maximize yield without leaving a footprint of its own. Robots such as Bonirob, RIPPA, or Ecorobotix are taking the farms forward to the future.
Another application of farming tech is in animal husbandry. A Glasgow start-up, Silent Herdsman, is manufacturing smart collars based on the concept of smartwatches. The collar monitors fertility and disease by tracking various bodily parameters and activities.
Hurdles in adoption
The biggest hurdle to the adoption of such tech is surprisingly not farmers, but big-machinery manufacturers who resist the kind of change it would require in their business models to use this technology.
The other problem is that of intellectual property. Most of these technologies are of great impact and the labs developing them do not want to share their research and findings.
This is possibly slowing down the development of agritech. Fortunately, some universities, such as MIT, are taking the initiative to make their research publicly available under open source licenses.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Today, we can witness this saying in action as researchers around the world are coming together to solve the problem of world hunger.