With the world’s population set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the agriculture sector is turning to emerging technologies to meet the growing demand for food.
- Precision agriculture enables farmers to predict climate changes and boost crop yields
- How technology is transforming livestock farming
- Is urban farming the future of food production?
- Making agriculture more sustainable
- Will technology make human farmers obsolete?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the agricultural sector for our world. It puts food on our tables and provides us with the fuel we need to keep society running. However, as the world’s population continues to grow ─ the UN estimates it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 ─ it’s putting an enormous strain on our existing food production systems. To better respond to this growing demand, the agricultural industry is increasingly turning to emerging technologies, which are set to transform each and every step of the food journey ─ from the farm all the way to our table.
The future of farming will see the implementation of highly specialised and autonomous equipment like drones, self-driving harvesting systems, and tech like artificial intelligence. These will all help us achieve better efficiency, greater crop yields, and more sustainable agricultural practices. Breakthroughs in agriculture will also encompass data analytics and predictive tools – technologies that will enable us to make better-informed decisions and help optimise the use of seeds, water, fertiliser, and pesticides.
Precision agriculture enables farmers to predict climate changes and boost crop yields
Being able to predict natural conditions is absolutely essential for farming efficiency. And as it becomes increasingly obvious that we’re heading for a global food crisis, it’s now more important than ever to have the ability to react as quickly as possible. One way to do this is with precision agriculture, in which sensor tech, robotics, the IoT, satellite tech, and drones are used to gather precise data. This enables farmers to measure the performance of a site and its crops, predict climate changes and immediately react to them, and choose suitable crops that produce higher, life-saving yields.
Tech giant Microsoft recently released a preview of Azure FarmBeats, a cloud-based platform for digital agriculture that aims to eliminate guesswork from agriculture, provide farmers with data-driven insights, and make data-driven agriculture more affordable. The system uses drone or satellite imagery to create a digital map of a farm, while a grid of sensors spread across the farm monitors multiple parameters in the soil, such as temperature and moisture, as well as carbon and nitrogen levels. All of this data is then analysed by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) based models to provide farmers with actionable insights.
How technology is transforming livestock farming
Imagine a field with cattle. A drone buzzing overhead, collecting images. These images, combined with information from sensors installed all over the farm, enable the farmer to make informed decisions – for instance, that it’s time to move a few animals – identified by RFID chips – to the stables. One farm in Sweden has equipped all of its sows with sensors. Attached to their ears, the sensors measure the animals’ heartbeat and provide farmers with valuable information about their health. “Thanks to the heart rate measurement, especially if we know the regular heart rate of a given animal, we will know if the animal has a fever, if she is stressed or sick. We will know this before there are visible symptoms. The farmer will then be able to take the right decisions quickly,” says Christophe Verjus, an engineer with the Swiss Research and Development Organisation CSEM.
And did you know that there’s a dairy farm in the UK that allows its cows to choose when they want to be milked? Located in Shepton Mallet, England, the farm has equipped a third of its herd with 5G-enabled smart collars that allow cows to control the robotic milking system used at the farm. Once a cow is ready to be milked, she can approach the system on her own and the gates will open automatically to let her in. Robots monitor how much she eats, the number of times she visits the milking machines, and the quality of milk she produces.
Is urban farming the future of food production?
As it becomes obvious that traditional agriculture is unsustainable, farmers are increasingly turning to growing food in artificial environments. Urban or vertical farms grow crops in 3D: rows of plants in soil or nutrient-enriched water (hydroponics) with LEDs mimicking natural light and sensors optimising growing conditions. Closed-loop systems (aquaponics) make it possible to grow fish as well as greens. Excess water from the plants is filtered and drains into the fish tanks. The fish waste is used as plant fertiliser. Unlike hydroponics and aquaponics, aeroponics systems don’t require soil or aggregate medium.
The UK startup LettUs Grow has developed an aeroponic nutrient delivery system that uses 95 per cent less water compared to traditional agriculture. It uses a patent-pending method in which crop roots are irrigated by a very fine mist. “It’s all about the amount in the root zone that plants experience. Everyone knows that healthy soil has good pockets of oxygen and nutrients and is well aerated. So this is really what we’re maximising. By having no soil and an air gap you’ve got bountiful oxygen and carbon dioxide for plants to perform at their biological optimum,” explains Charlie Guy, managing director and co-founder of LettUs Grow.
The system also uses LEDs that can be finely tuned to different wavelengths for various crops to maximise yields. So far, the company has grown more than 60 different crops in their facility, including lettuce, leafy greens, carrots, radishes, strawberries, and even tobacco. What all these urban farming systems have in common is that they make clever use of space and leave ecosystems intact. They also have the added benefit of being located close to consumers, which means produce reaches tables with minimal transportation.
Making agriculture more sustainable
The agricultural sector is plagued by a wide variety of issues, such as the overuse of pesticides and petrochemical fertilisers, deforestation, and soil and water conservation. To address these issues, farmers are increasingly adopting sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable farming can be achieved by implementing biotechnology (think lab-grown meat and genetically enhanced crops), indoor farming, and a host of other practices. The automation of agricultural tasks like pollination, seeding, soil treatment, weeding, fertilising, and harvesting would largely eliminate humans from farming and result in minimal water, space, and pesticide usage, and lower waste production.
To demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, German pharmaceutical giant Bayer recently opened a new smart, automated greenhouse facility in Arizona. Spreading over nearly 28,000 square metres, the $100-million facility will serve as a global product design center for corn, taking advantage of the latest advances in proprietary seed chipping, advanced marker technology, automation, and data science. The greenhouses will recycle all of the water used for crops, while compost will be made entirely from harvested materials. Furthermore, the facility will be able to reduce its pesticide applications by using beneficial insects. Taking the breeding process indoors will enable farmers to eliminate crop exposure to adverse weather conditions and accelerate the development of new seeds. It will also enable them to customise growing conditions and simulate various climate conditions from around the world.
Also, by building the facility in Arizona, which offers more sunny days, researchers will be able to grow plants throughout the year and average three to four crop cycles per year. “With our new Marana greenhouses, Bayer is reimagining the way plant breeding is done and setting the standard for environmental sustainability,” says Bob Reiter, Head of Research and Development for Crop Science at Bayer. “Every investment in innovation is an investment in more sustainable agriculture for the next generation, and the effects travel far beyond one site. The corn hybrids developed here, under diverse growing environments and weather scenarios, will bring innovation to growers in every part of the world.”
Will technology make human farmers obsolete?
New technological developments in agriculture are fundamentally transforming the way our food is produced. As the sector becomes increasingly automated, it’s also having a profound impact on human workers. That doesn’t mean, however, that technology will displace humans entirely, just that their roles will change. While some jobs will certainly be lost to automation, many others will be created, some of which may not have existed before. In the future, farmers are going to require expertise from specialists, which will lead to the emergence of new careers. Hydrologists, for instance – professionals who protect the environment and ensure we have access to clean, safe water.
Drone technologists will also be in high demand. Their job will be to use robotics in the air and show farmers how to reduce crop damage and increase yields. Other new roles include precision agriculture technologists or food scientists – people who will create new food products and improve existing ones. The most likely scenario for the future of agriculture involves humans and machines working side by side to increase efficiency, boost yields, and reduce costs.
When we – apart from the rapid population growth – also consider the increasing urbanisation, the decreasing availability of arable land, the shortage of farm workers, and the growing demands to reduce the sector’s environmental impact, it’s becoming quite clear that we will not be able to rely on traditional food production for very much longer. To be able to meet the increased demand, we’ll have to facilitate a major transformation of our existing agricultural systems through a wider adoption of emerging technologies.
Thankfully, this transformation is already well underway, with technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, drones, sensors, and the IoT taking on an increasingly prominent role. These innovations enable farmers to increase productivity, reduce waste, monitor field conditions remotely, assess the health of their crops and cattle, and anticipate and respond to adverse events at the right time.